Does a Plant-Based Diet for Athletes Help or Hurt Performance?
The attention given to environmental and ethical concerns has increased over the last decade. As a result, the vegan diet has exploded in popularity.
While some people choose to adopt a vegan diet for moral and health reasons, some are turning to the plant-based athlete meal plan in the hopes of improved performance and overall training results.
Can a vegan diet truly provide enough nutrients and energy to support high-intensity exercise? In this blog post, we will explore the advantages and disadvantages of a vegan diet. We’ll also answer the question, can athletes perform well on a vegan diet?
What’s Included in a Vegan Athlete Diet?
More and more athletes are turning to a vegan diet in an attempt to improve their health and, most importantly, their athletic performance. Theoretically, a well-planned plant-based diet can provide all the necessary nutrients, protein, and energy for athletes to perform at their best. The key word here is “well-planned.”
A vegan athlete diet should be well-portioned, consisting of healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and essential proteins. Here are the main focuses of a vegan diet:
Whole grains are an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, which are essential for providing energy to the body during exercise. Brown rice, quinoa, oats, and whole wheat bread are all great options for a plant-based diet for athletes.
Legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas, and black beans, provide plenty of protein, iron, and fiber.
Tofu and tempeh are versatile plant-based protein sources that can be used in a variety of dishes, such as stir-fries, salads, and sandwiches. They are also rich in calcium, iron, and magnesium. In particular, magnesium for athletes is especially helpful for recovery, making these foods a great addition to any vegan athlete diet.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds contain healthy fats, protein, and fiber. They are also rich in essential vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc. Almonds, cashews, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are all great options.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are essential for providing vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that aid in athletic recovery. Dark leafy greens, such as kale and spinach, are especially important for their high iron content. Other great options include sweet potatoes, berries, and citrus fruits.
Fortified foods, such as plant milk, breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast, can provide additional nutrients that may be lacking in a vegan athlete diet.
It is important to choose fortified foods free from added sugars and artificial ingredients.
While a vegan athlete diet should include nutrient-dense foods, supplements may be necessary to fill in any nutritional gaps.
You may also want to consider investing in a plant-based protein supplement because it can be difficult to consume enough “complete protein” sources through plant-based foods alone.
To learn more and get specific food recommendations, check out our article about what to eat on a vegan diet for sports and performance.
Advantages of a Vegan Diet
Now that we’ve learned more about what a vegan diet for athletes looks like, let’s look at some of the advantages it can provide.
Increased Nutrient Intake
When it’s done right, a vegan diet can be nutrient-dense, as it focuses on foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
If you’re a runner, you’ll notice that nearly all of the best foods for runners are plant-based.
While this can improve overall health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, these nutrients can also contribute to several other benefits, including the following:
Most plant-based foods contain plenty of water, which can help keep you hydrated during exercise and competition. This is especially true for fruits and vegetables.
In addition to providing hydration, water-rich foods also tend to be low in fat and calories, making them ideal for athletes who are trying to maintain a healthy weight with a low level of fat mass.
A vegan diet is high in fiber, which can improve digestion. Given the variety of plant foods on a vegan athlete diet, the gut microbiome can also significantly improve. This can lead to better nutrient absorption and overall health.(1)
Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases
A vegan diet has been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. This is due to the diet’s high nutrient density, low saturated fat content, and high fiber content.(2)
Disadvantages of a Vegan Diet
Now, let’s take a closer look at the potential downsides to following a vegan athlete meal plan.
Potential Nutrient Deficiencies
Studies show that a vegan diet tends to be low in certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. Vegan athletes must make a conscious effort to include these nutrients in their diet or consider taking supplements to avoid deficiencies.
If you happen to become deficient in one of these nutrients, it can seriously impact your athletic recovery and performance.
For example, a vitamin D deficiency can lead to fatigue, poor muscle recovery, and a compromised immune response. In a case like this, the benefits of vitamin D are numerous and well-proven, so it’s recommended that a vegan athlete take supplements in order to avoid a deficiency.(3)
Continuing with the point above, another point that vegan athletes need to be aware of is the need for complete or essential proteins.
A complete protein is one that contains all nine of the essential amino acids necessary. Animal sources are considered complete proteins; however, plant-based sources are not. Depending on the plant-based food, you might have a tough time getting in lysine and methionine, in particular.
Vegan athletes should consume a variety of plant-based proteins to ensure they’re getting all the essential amino acids. This is especially true if you’re focusing on protein for muscle gains.
For example, you can eat a three-ounce chicken breast and rest assured you’re consuming a complete protein source. However, with plant-based foods, you will simply need to mix up your plant sources, such as eating nuts and seeds, with your typical meal of rice, beans, and dark leafy greens.
Limited Food Choices
One of the most reported complaints about vegan diets is the difficulty with food choices and variety. What’s more, eating enough of those foods to ensure you’re getting in the nutrients mentioned above.
A plant-based diet might limit food choices, especially when eating out or traveling. It can also require more time and effort to plan and prepare meals.
With that said, if you have a vegan diet program that includes a daily breakdown of meals and takes the guesswork out of what to eat, this will dramatically reduce complications and frustrations.
Increased Risk of Overeating Carbs
Vegan diets can be high in carbohydrates, which can lead to overeating and weight gain if not balanced with adequate protein and healthy fats. While this might not be a problem for high-carb athletes like marathon runners, this can become an issue for athletes who need to maintain a low level of body weight and/or body fat.
Perceived Social Stigma
Many athletes fear that they will be judged or labeled as inferior if they follow a vegan diet. This can lead to individuals feeling uncomfortable or anxious about their nutrition choices.
The good news is that veganism is becoming increasingly popular and more widely accepted. There are plenty of vegan athletes who have achieved great success, including tennis star Venus Williams, bodybuilder Nimai Delgado, and ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll.
Does the Vegan Diet Improve Athletic Performance?
We’ve looked at both sides of the coin, but what about athletic performance? If you switch over to a vegan diet as an athlete, will you see any benefits in your training and on-the-field performance?
Here’s what the science says about the proven ways a vegan diet can help athletes:
If you’re an athlete who needs to minimize fat mass while maximizing lean muscle tissue, a vegan diet can help.
Studies show that plant-based diets support fat loss, and in some instances, researchers found that those eating a plant-based diet lost more weight when compared to those following an omnivore diet.(4)
Provides Fuel for Training
Calories are king of an athlete’s training program. While some sports require a lower body weight and might promote caloric restrictions, in general, most athletes need to eat a large number of calories in order to maintain optimal performance.
Nowhere is this truer than the nutrition for cardio endurance athletes. Marathon runners, for example, require a substantial amount of calories; in particular, they need carbohydrates. Studies across the board point to a high-carbohydrate diet being the cornerstone for athletes who are training and performing for hours each day.
A plant-based diet for athletes provides plenty of carbohydrates, primarily from healthy, complex carbohydrate sources. This is important because complex carbs provide a fuel source that burns longer and more efficiently than its simple carbohydrate counterpart.
The essential nutrients provided by a well-planned vegan diet for athletes can support sports recovery in several ways:
Foods that are rich in antioxidants, like fruits and vegetables, can help reduce inflammation in the body. This is important as chronic inflammation can impact recovery as well as performance.(5)
There’s a reason that athletes are encouraged to eat protein, and it has everything to do with amino acids, the building blocks of muscle tissue. A vegan diet that provides plenty of complete proteins can support muscle repair and recovery.(6)
Want to learn more about protein? Check out our complete guide to protein.
Carbohydrates are also required for post-workout recovery as they help to replenish muscle glycogen, which is crucial for endurance athletes. Some studies suggest that sports recovery was found to be faster in those following a vegan diet when compared with their omnivore athletes.(7)
Should Athletes Follow a Vegan Diet?
Overall, studies point to the general conclusion that a vegan athlete diet is able to provide enough nutrients and energy to support athletic performance, but only if it is properly programmed and followed consistently.
With that said, there are some things that athletes on a vegan diet must do to reap the benefits of the diet without worrying about the potential downsides:
Watch Your Nutrients
Pay extra attention to your nutrient intake and make sure you are getting enough of the following micronutrients, preferably through whole food sources:
Iron is essential for oxygen transport in the blood, and athletes may need more iron than sedentary individuals. Vegan athletes can obtain iron from plant sources such as leafy greens, legumes, and fortified cereals.
Calcium is needed for bone health and muscle function. Athletes can obtain calcium from plant sources such as leafy greens, tofu, fortified plant milk, and fortified cereals.
This micronutrient is essential for nerve function and red blood cell production. Vegans can obtain vitamin B12 from fortified foods and supplements.
Mix it Up for Complete Proteins
Protein is essential for muscle repair and growth, and vegans can obtain protein from plant sources such as legumes, tofu, tempeh, and seitan. They may also need to combine different plant sources to ensure they are getting all the essential amino acids.
Know Why You’re Doing It
While a well-planned vegan diet can provide numerous health benefits and support athletic recovery and performance, it’s important to understand why you want to make the switch and the added responsibilities that come with it.
We wouldn’t recommend going vegan for athletic performance if you’re simply following the crowd. What’s more, we highly recommend doing a deep dive of exactly what would be required to support your personal caloric requirements and fitness goals.
As with any diet, it is important to consult with a healthcare professional before making any significant dietary changes. Make sure the vegan diet is aligned with you and your performance goals before making the switch.