Thriving Vegan Athletes: Power of Plant-Based Nutrition

A healthier and more ethical lifestyle choice, vegetarian and vegan diets have gained significant traction in recent years. These diets consist of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, abstaining from any form of animal flesh as per vegetarian regulations, while vegans extend these prohibitions to include animal-derived products, such as eggs, dairy, and honey. 

The numerous advantages they offer to health and the environment have led to an increase in the adoption of these diets across various walks of life.

Key Takeaways

  • Vegan diets can significantly enhance athletes’ performance and recovery time. They also offer numerous health benefits, such as reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and improved mental health.
  • Vegan athletes need to ensure they consume adequate protein, carbohydrates, and essential fatty acids. They need to pay attention to the intake of certain vitamins and minerals which might be less bioavailable in plant foods.
  • Consuming a variety of plant proteins ensures athletes get the essential amino acids they need. Added supplements may be beneficial for optimal health and performance.
  • Myths exist around the difficulty of getting adequate protein from vegan diets. However, diverse plant foods provide the necessary protein.
  • Athletes should opt for natural sugar sources like fruits and use 100% fruit juice as a quick source of carbohydrates during long workouts.
woman running competition

Veganism and Sports

There’s a surging wave of veganism sweeping across the sports world, challenging the traditional stereotype of heavy meat consumption in athletes’ diets. From basketball to the boxing ring, professional sports stars are attributing their strength, agility, and endurance to plant-based eating plans. The benefits these athletes are experiencing from adopting such diets extend beyond physical performance, contributing to faster recovery times and improved overall health.

Several elite athletes have adopted vegan diets and sing its praises. These include:

  • Venus Williams, a renowned tennis player, who turned to a raw vegan diet after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. She credits this dietary change for her ability to return to the top of her game. 
  • Lewis Hamilton, a British racing driver, who’s not only noticed a difference in his energy levels since adopting a plant-based diet but also holds animal rights and environmental concerns as significant motivations for his choice.
  • Scott Jurek, one of the greatest ultramarathon runners, has been a dedicated vegan for nearly two decades and attributes much of his success to his vegan lifestyle.
  • Tia Blanco, a professional surfer, chose veganism for its ethical aspects and continues to thrive in her career.

It’s clear that a vegan diet isn’t a limitation but a boost to these sports superstars’ careers. The nutritional advantages offered by a well-planned plant-based diet can fuel the high demand for energy and resilience needed for athletic performance.

As more athletes continue to adopt plant-based diets, it debunks the myths about veganism and inspires many to consider this lifestyle choice.

General Health Benefits of Plant-Based Diets

General Health Benefits

The health perks of adhering to a vegetarian or vegan diet extend far beyond weight management. Consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can lead to improvements in various health indices and a reduction in the risk of several chronic diseases.

Firstly, a plant-based form of eating can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease. The high fiber content found in plant-based foods can lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure, while the antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties of these foods protect the heart.

Additionally, a plant-based diet may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. A study showed that those following vegetarian and vegan diets had half the risk of developing diabetes compared to non-vegetarians.

Adopting a plant-based diet can also have positive effects on your body mass index (BMI). Vegetarian and vegan diets are often lower in calories and can make it easier to manage weight. This can subsequently lead to a lower risk of developing obesity-related diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancer.

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Benefits for Athletes, Including Exercise Capacity and Function

For athletes who are considering a switch to plant-based diets, one of the primary concerns involves energy levels and performance capabilities.

Plant-based diets are rich in carbohydrates – the primary fuel for athletes. A properly implemented vegan diet can supply all the energy an athlete needs to perform and recover efficiently from training. Furthermore, they aid in quicker recovery times post-exercise, increasing the antioxidants which help decrease muscle damage and inflammation after intense workouts.

Some research also suggests that plant-based diets may improve athletes’ aerobic capacity, which is crucial for endurance sports. A study showed that vegetarian athletes had a higher maximum oxygen uptake compared to their meat-eating counterparts.

Prominent vegan athletes have also demonstrated that it’s possible to compete at a high level without animal products in their diets. Athletes like Carl Lewis, Venus Williams, and Scott Jurek have shown that a balanced and well-planned vegan diet can support both endurance and strength-oriented sports.

Ultimately, while the transition to a vegan diet requires care and planning, the potential benefits to overall health and athletic performance can be significant.

man in triathlon bike

Key Nutritional Considerations for Vegan Athletes 

Ensuring Adequate Protein Consumption

While vegan diets can provide the most essential nutrients, athletes may need to be mindful of achieving their protein goals, as protein supports muscle repair and growth. However, with a well-planned diet, vegetarian and vegan athletes can easily meet their protein needs.

Excellent vegan protein sources include lentils, chickpeas, tofu, edamame, and quinoa. For those engaged in high-intensity training or sports, protein-rich post-workout meals are particularly important for enhancing muscle synthesis and recovery.

Plant-Based Carbohydrate Options for Energy

Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for athletes. Fuelling the body for optimal performance and supporting recovery, vegetarians and vegans should focus on wholefood sources of carbohydrates. These include sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa, oats, beans, legumes, and a wide range of fruits.

Not only do these foods provide sustainable energy, but they’re also packed with fiber, antioxidants, and other important nutrients.

Essential Fatty Acids for Optimal Performance

Essential fatty acids – particularly omega-3 fatty acids – form a crucial part of the athlete’s diet due to their roles in inflammation reduction and cardiovascular health. While these are commonly found in fish oil, vegans can obtain them from flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts, as well as fortified foods and supplements.

Micronutrient Needs and Supplementation

Certain vitamins and minerals may require special attention in vegan diets, as they may be less bioavailable in plant foods or absent altogether. Primarily, Vitamin B12, Iron, Zinc, Calcium, and Iodine are of concern. Supplements or fortified foods can help athletes meet their nutritional needs.

Vegan athletes should aim to consume a wide variety of plant foods and consider fortified foods or supplements to ensure they meet their nutritional requirements, allowing them to perform at their best.

Balanced Diet and Variety

Importance of Eating a Variety of Plant Proteins

Variety is the key to a balanced and satisfying vegan diet. Consuming a diverse range of plant foods ensures you get a mix of different nutrients.

It is recommended that vegan athletes consume a variety of plant proteins every day—such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, and tofu. This ensures that they get all of the essential amino acids needed for muscle repair and recovery.

Following a Balanced Diet With Adequate Vitamins and Nutrients

A balanced vegan diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Each food group provides a different set of nutrients, so it’s important to include them all in your diet.

Specific nutrients that vegan athletes need to focus on include calcium, iron, iodine, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. In some cases, fortified foods or supplements can provide these nutrients.

sliced carrots and green bell pepper on brown wooden chopping board

Sample Meal Plan for High-Performance Vegan Athletes

Breakfast Options 

Start the day with a high-protein breakfast such as a tofu scramble, overnight oats topped with hemp seeds and berries, or a protein-packed smoothie made with plant-based protein powder, spinach, banana, and almond milk.

Pre-workout Snacks

Before a workout, fuel up with easy-to-digest carbohydrates such as an apple or banana, a slice of toast with almond butter, or a small bowl of oatmeal.

Post-workout Meals 

After a workout, it’s crucial to refuel with protein and carbohydrates to hasten muscle recovery. A post-workout smoothie made with plant-based protein powder and a mixture of fruits can help with a speedy recovery.

Other options include a quinoa salad with beans and vegetables or a whole grain wrap with hummus and veggies.

Lunch and Dinner Ideas

For lunch and dinner, opt for macro bowls filled with whole grains (like brown rice or quinoa), legumes (like chickpeas or lentils), plenty of colorful vegetables, and healthy fats from avocados or nuts. Vegan stir-fry, burritos, lentil soups, or stuffed bell peppers are also hearty and satisfying options.

Hydration and Recovery Drinks 

Staying hydrated is crucial for athletic performance. While water should be your go-to, coconut water is an excellent option for hydration as it contains natural electrolytes that have been lost during sweating. Drinks with BCAA’s (branched-chain amino acids) can also help with muscle recovery.

Supplements for Vegan Athletes

While a balanced, varied vegan diet can provide most of the required nutrients, vegan athletes should, however, supplement certain nutrients to ensure optimal health and performance.

  • Vitamin B12: This nutrient is crucial for nerve function and the creation of red blood cells. It’s predominantly found in animal products, making it essential for vegan athletes to consider fortified foods or a B12 supplement.
  • Iron: A crucial component of hemoglobin in red blood cells, Iron is pivotal for transporting oxygen throughout the body. Vegan athletes may need supplemental iron, as the plant-based form of iron, non-heme iron, may be less absorbed by the body. Consuming vitamin C-rich foods can enhance iron absorption.
  • Calcium: Crucial for bone health, Calcium can be sourced from several plant-based foods like tofu, almonds, and leafy green vegetables. However, some athletes may still find it hard to meet their calcium needs and would benefit from a supplement or fortified foods.
  • Vitamin D: Known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’, Vitamin D plays a critical role in calcium absorption, immune function, and reducing inflammation. Given our modern lifestyles and geographic locations, both vegan and non-vegan athletes may fall short and need supplementation. 
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: These essential fats are crucial for brain health, heart health, and reducing inflammation. While vegan sources like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts provide an ALA form of omega-3 fats, the body has to convert it to EPA and DHA, and this conversion doesn’t always occur efficiently. A supplement sourced from microalgae can be a direct source of EPA and DHA for vegans.
  • Protein: Some vegan athletes may find it challenging to achieve protein needs from diet in certain circumstances like heavy training phases, which is where a plant-based protein powder can be a helpful addition.

Always discuss with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian before starting any supplements to understand the right dosage and prevent potential side effects from over-consumption. Supplements are intended to supplement a healthy diet; thus, whole foods should always be the primary source of nourishment.

table showing nutrients in vegan diet

Taken from:

Common Misconceptions about Vegan Diets for Athletes 

Protein Requirement and Source

A common misconception is that it’s difficult to get enough protein on a vegan diet and that you have to eat meat. In reality, many plant-based foods are rich in protein. Eating a range of these high-protein plant foods can ensure athletes get all of the essential amino acids they need.

Combining Vegetarian Proteins

The myth of protein combining (eating certain plant foods together to create a ‘complete’ protein) has been largely debunked. Consuming a variety of plant proteins throughout the day can provide all the necessary amino acids.

Consumption of Sugar and Its Function for Athletes

While excessive sugar should be avoided, athletes do need some sugar to replenish glycogen stores and fuel their performance during long-lasting and intense workouts.

Consumption of Fruit Juice

While fruit juices can contain a lot of sugar, they can be beneficial for athletes who spend prolonged periods exercising, as they can provide a quick source of carbohydrates and hydration.

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Avoiding Mistakes in Plant-Based Diets

Choosing the Right Sugars

Many vegan foods, while seemingly healthy, can contain added sugars. Opt for foods with natural sugars like fruits, and limit those with added sugars. Always examine nutrition labels to check on sugar content.

Strategic Use of Juice 

While not all juices are created equal, fruit juices can be a good source of quick carbohydrates during long bouts of exercise. Choose 100% fruit juices with no added sugars. Remember, the benefits of juice are specific to athletes and those participating in prolonged physical activity.

Final Thoughts

Making the switch to a vegan diet as an athlete can seem daunting, but with a well-thought-out plan and balanced approach, it can significantly enhance your performance and overall health. As we’ve seen from the example of thriving vegan athletes, plant-based diets can fully support the demanding physical needs of sports.

A well-planned vegan diet can supply all the necessary nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, and essential fatty acids needed for optimal performance. Moreover, it offers significant health benefits such as reduced risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, weight management, and improved mental health.

That being said, vegan athletes need to ensure they consume a diverse range of plant proteins, pay attention to their intake of certain vitamins and minerals, and consider fortified foods or supplements when required.

The key is to embrace variety in your meals, aim for balance, and remember that each food group offers a unique set of nutrients. With careful planning and consideration, you can enjoy the power of plant-based nutrition while achieving your athletic goals! Good luck!

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