Vegetarian and Vegan Athletes Can Thrive on a Plant-Based Diet

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Vegetarian and vegan diets are rising in popularity, and evidence supports these plant-based diets for providing numerous health benefits. However, if you're an athlete, you may wonder whether this way of eating will impact your performance.

A plant-based diet can mean nutrient deficiencies. But with careful planning, you can get adequate nutrition and reap the benefits of eating whole foods while following this type of eating plan.

Making the best decision for you begins with understanding the health benefits of eating vegetarian or vegan. Then, learn how to follow a plant-based diet that keeps you nourished and fuels your workouts.

Definitions to Know

  • Vegetarian: Eats no animal flesh but may consume eggs and dairy
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: Eats vegetables, fruits, eggs, and dairy but not meat
  • Vegan: Does not consume any food of animal origin
  • Flexitarian: Regularly follows a vegan diet but occasionally consumes dairy, meat, poultry, or fish
  • Omnivore: Eats both plant and animal foods

Health Benefits of Plant-Based Diets

The health benefits of eating primarily plants can be split into two basic categories: those that are general, or good for most everyone, and benefits that are specific to athletes.

General Health Benefits

Vegetarian and vegan diets "may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases," according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Research supports this, adding that plant-based diets can reduce:

Benefits for Athletes

Several high-profile vegan athletes—including Olympian Carl Lewis, Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier, and tennis champion Venus Williams—have demonstrated superior athletic performance without consuming animal products. And scientific research supports this anecdotal evidence.

Exercise Capacity and Function

A 2019 study looked at 76 recreational runners who followed either a vegan, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, or omnivorous diet. None of the three diets was associated with better athletic performance. So, eating vegan supported exercise capacity as well as other eating plans.

Another study measured cardiorespiratory fitness in vegetarian and omnivorous endurance athletes. It found that vegetarian female athletes had higher oxygen uptake values (VO2 max) and equivalent strength compared to their omnivore counterparts. No significant differences were seen in males.

While the cardiorespiratory function of the vegetarian groups was higher, there was no difference in peak performance between the groups. Researchers concluded that a vegetarian diet can support the strength and cardiorespiratory requirements of athletes.

Athletic Performance

A 2017 case study followed the dietary intake of a female vegan cyclist during an 8-day mountain bike race. The athlete had faster times compared to non-vegan cyclists participating in the race.

This suggests that a well-planned vegan diet is compatible with ultra-endurance mountain biking. It should be noted that the cyclist consumed more than the recommended amounts of both carbohydrates and protein to maintain performance.

Another study examined the effects of a vegan diet on an ultra-triathlete (Triple-Ironman). The vegan diet provided similar athletic performance as a conventional mixed diet, indicating that a vegan diet can be adopted by those participating in this type of sport.

Although an optimal diet for the vegan athlete has yet to be defined, vegetarian and vegan athletes can perform well if they choose nutrient-rich, whole plant foods.

What Athletes Should Know About Plant-Based Diets

Even if research supports the benefits of plant-based diets, some athletes may still be concerned that they won't get enough nutrition to fuel their physical performance with this type of eating plan. While it may require some additional planning, athletes can address these concerns and find an eating pattern that works for them.

You Don't Have to Eat Meat to Get Enough Protein

Many people worry that athletes won't get enough protein on a plant-based diet, but there are many sources of plant-powered protein to fuel sports performance. Choosing high-protein plant foods can supply enough protein to support an active lifestyle.

Athletes require additional protein to support physical demands and repair muscle protein breakdown caused by intense workouts. This is essential as insufficient consumption can lead to a negative nitrogen balance and poor muscle recovery.

Plant-based diets can supply enough protein for athletes. It may take a bit more of a strategic approach, but active individuals can achieve their recommended intake while following a vegan diet plan. A balanced diet full of phytonutrients and antioxidants (not just protein) is necessary for reaching full athletic potential.

Vegetarian Proteins Do Not Need to Be Combined

Consuming a variety of plant proteins every day provides different amino acids. It also ensures that all amino acids are included in the diet as a whole. The once-popular recommendation to combine plant proteins to achieve a complete essential amino acid profile has changed.

Current research suggests that vegetarian or vegan athletes can get enough protein when eating a variety of plant foods over the course of the day, rather than needing to consume complementary amino acids in a single meal. This new information creates greater flexibility in the eating plan.

Not All Sugars Are "Bad"

Sugar is the primary energy source used during exercise. It is the gas in the car, so to speak, and required to refuel working muscles. Because of this, athletes require more carbohydrates (including sugar) than the average person.

Post-recovery drinks like chocolate milk contain sugar, but they also include a variety of vitamins and minerals essential for optimal body function and athletic performance. Not all sugars need to be avoided if you're an athlete.

Endurance athletes, especially, benefit from consuming more sugar in order to support increased glucose uptake into the muscle cells. Without adequate sugar (energy) to fuel your muscles, you won't perform as well when exercising.

Not All Fruit Juice Is Off Limits

Some athletes may assume that fruit juice is nothing but sugar and shouldn’t be included in a healthy diet. However, juice concentrates contain a fruit's natural juice mixed with lots of water, making them different than sugar-added juice cocktails.

Many times, it’s the type of juice that can be problematic. Pure juice from concentrate (especially if fortified with calcium) is routinely recommended by sports nutritionists and registered dietitians to help high-endurance athletes meet daily caloric requirements.

Avoid Plant-Based Diet Mistakes

Following a few basic guidelines for a healthy, plant-based diet can help athletes avoid some of the most common plant-based eating mistakes and ensure they get enough nutrition.

Consume Adequate Protein

Consuming the correct amount of protein and optimal amino acid profile can determine how well your body recovers from high levels of physical exercise. Vegan athletes can meet protein requirements using proper dietary planning.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes, depending on training.

Vegetarian sources of protein include:

If you are concerned about the anabolic effect of plant proteins—their lower digestibility vs. animal proteins (about 60% to 70% compared to greater than 90%), lower essential amino acid content (especially leucine), and deficiencies in other essential amino acids like lysine—planning for variety can help.

Eat a Variety of Plant Proteins

Consuming a variety of grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds is recommended for the vegan diet. This helps ensure that essential amino acids (EAAs) and branch chained amino acids (BCAAs) are available for optimal body function and muscle recovery.

These whole foods contain plant-based protein, making them healthy additions to an athlete's diet:

Follow a Balanced Diet

A vegan diet is typically lower in calories and protein, while also being lower in vitamins B6 and B12, vitamin D, folic acid, and calcium when compared to omnivorous diets. People who follow a vegan diet may also have trouble consuming enough iron and zinc. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables can help.

The following green vegetables provide protein, micronutrients, and antioxidants: 

Many fruits that are high in antioxidants, making them beneficial additions to your diet:

Choose the Right Sugars

Some vegetarian and vegan athletes avoid sugar because of the refining process. Refined sugar is bleached using bone char filters. The sugar doesn’t actually contain bone particles, but the sugar has come in contact with the sterilized animal bone.

Not all sugar is processed this way so it can’t be considered the same. Additionally, while refined sugar may be perceived as less healthy than beet sugar or agave nectar, the body reads sugar as sugar.

Keeping sugar intake to a minimum is recommended for general health. Ideally, added sugars should account for no more than 10% of your total calorie intake. The following sugars are options to consider if you follow a plant-based food plan:

Use Juice Strategically

Some athletes struggle to maintain a healthy weight. Adding a glass or two of 100% fruit juice can help these individuals gain and maintain an appropriate weight. It can also help them refuel their muscles adequately. This boost can make it easier to meet their physical demands.

Those who may benefit from adding juice to their nutrition programs include high school athletes. Juice can also be beneficial for individuals involved in endurance sports, such as long-distance runners, triathletes, and cyclists.

A Word From Verywell

Vegan diets provide numerous health benefits. Although research on plant-based diets and athletic performance is still limited, there are well-known vegan athletes who are achieving athletic success. More research should focus on the positive health benefits of eating mostly plant foods, which could help dispel concerns surrounding vegetarian and vegan diets for athletes.

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