World class athletes across all disciplines are adopting a vegan diet. For many, this is a way to help them train faster, longer and better, but for some it is a marriage of ethics and health. Whatever the reason, there are more and more athletes ditching animal products in favor of a fully plant-based diet.
Is a plant-based diet good for athletes?
Increasingly, top-level athletes who adopt a plant-based diet report incredible changes in their stamina, strength, endurance and recovery. Since every nutrient we need can be obtained without eating animal products, and without the high levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and inflammatory substances that animal products contain, it is little wonder that runners, boxers, skiers, footballers, tennis players, rugby players, strength athletes and more, are making the change and shouting about it, too!
Advantages of plant-based diets
A plant-based diet is great for all of us. It can reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and some cancers. Lots of people report becoming vegan improved their hair, skin, sleep, energy and digestion. Others report that they get fewer colds and infections, and some have truly life-changing improvements to serious chronic health conditions. All these things are wonderful, but for athletes, there are other advantages, too.
Many report a loss in fat, while maintaining muscle and strength. Many talk about significant improvements in their endurance, which means they can train harder and faster for longer. And post-training soreness (DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness) is often reduced, while recovery is quicker, which means athletes can get back to training sooner.
What do athletes eat on a plant-based diet?
Athletes, like everyone else, each have their own dietary plans and preferences but their foods will be based around the three macronutrients – that is, protein, carbohydrates and fats – while also adding in plenty of fresh salads, vegetables, and fruits to ensure they get all the micronutrients they need to function at the top of their game.
Protein is needed by the body for building, maintaining, and repairing cells, for energy and to support mood and cognitive function. Dietary protein is broken down into the 20 amino acids that the body uses. All 20 amino acids are found in plant foods and it is a simple enough matter to get sufficient protein on a vegan diet. Athletes will load up on beans, peas, lentils, nuts and seeds, tofu and soy products, as well as high-protein, low-fat products like seitan (wheat protein). Protein is found in so many foods, including breads, potatoes, quinoa, oats, and peanut butter, that it is not difficult to get sufficient on a varied vegan diet. Many athletes – vegan and non-vegan alike – also include protein supplements in their diets.
Carbohydrates provide energy for working muscles, and there are three kinds: sugars, starch and fiber. Sugars are simple carbohydrates. They are of limited use to the body and can cause negative health consequences. But starch and fiber are complex carbohydrates and these are our friends. Starch is found in foods like pasta, potatoes, bread and rice, and provides good slow-release energy. Fiber is in the cell walls of plant foods, so eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains helps us get what we need. Diets that are high in fiber are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.
We need fat for energy and cell growth, but too much fat or the wrong kind of fat can cause all kinds of trouble – including obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. We should avoid saturated and trans fats which raise cholesterol levels in our bloodstreams, while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated tend to do the opposite. The easy way to tell them apart is that the bad fats tend to be solid at room temperature whereas the good fats are liquid. Plus, fats in plant foods tend to be the good kind (unlike the fats in animal products) so eating avocados, nuts and seeds, including in foods like guacamole, peanut butter and tahini, all add to our healthy fat intake.
How do you transition to a plant-based diet for athletes?
For many people, a slow and steady transition is the way to go. The No Meat Athlete, Matt Frazier, says he removed four-legged animals, then two-legged, then fish, then dairy and eggs. This kind of approach allows for adjustments to be made along the way, and can lead to long-lasting and beneficial change. However, those who have come to veganism for ethical reasons may wish to make changes more quickly. Either way, we’d recommended you register with us to try vegan for 31 days which means you will receive daily emails with recipes, as well as our Vegan Starter Kit, Health & Nutrition Guide and access to our closed Facebook Group, a super-supportive environment where new vegans can swap tips and ideas, and share their journey.
How much should you eat?
That depends on your metabolism, your sport and what your body requires to do that sport. For strength athletes, keeping calorie intake high is important whereas if you are a dancer, boxer or gymnast, keeping weight down may be more appropriate. Either way, vegan athletes tend to eat larger portions than non-vegans to achieve their calorie goals. This is good news, because there are many different micronutrients that we need for optimal health and we may struggle to get them all if we fill up on large portions of meat at mealtimes.
Supplements for plant-based athletes
Many athletes – vegan and non – use dietary supplements as part of their regular training and competing routine. The most commonly used one is probably protein powder, and vegans can choose from many types that are made from pea, hemp or soy protein, and come in a variety of flavors. Vegan creatine is also available for power athletes (though it is used less by endurance athletes). Athletes may also choose to supplement with branch chained amino acids (BRAAs), which have been shown to help build muscles, decrease fatigue and alleviate soreness.
Plant-based athletes and what they eat
Here, ten plant-based athletes share the foods they eat that power them to glory!
Olympian weightlifter Kendrick Farris chooses black beans, trail mix, pistachios and almonds for his protein sources, and enjoys fresh fruits as snacks. Avocado quesadillas, guacamole and spinach lasagna all help fulfil his dietary requirements, and he also uses protein powders. Farris says he eats when he’s hungry and so, surprisingly perhaps, does not rely on a strict dietary regime.
Powerlifter Alison Crowdus says she eats simply, choosing tofu as her main protein source, adding in brown rice, sweet potatoes or quinoa for carbohydrates, then loading up on fresh vegetables. She chooses olive oil, avocados and nut butters for her fats, and uses plenty of spices, sauces and other condiments to flavor these fresh, healthy, unprocessed foods.
Tennis ace Venus Williams found that a raw vegan diet helped relieve the symptoms of a debilitating autoimmune disorder she suffered with. Recently, she has started to add in some cooked foods to her diet – including lentils and sweet potatoes. She starts the day with fruit or a protein shake, drinks green juices during the day, and will eat a big Caesar salad in the evening.
Pro wrestler Austin Aries eats around 3,000 calories a day, starting with fruit, sprouted grain bread and tofu for breakfast. His snacks include fruit smoothies with added protein powder, while his main meals may be lentil macaroni and cashew cheese or a whole grain pizza, loaded with kale, sun-dried tomatoes and vegan sausage.
Not only is Heather Mills a gold medal-winning downhill skier but a qualified nutritionist and so she certainly knows her onions. Plus, she is the owner of V-Bites – a vegan food company – and so she has a raft of tasty meat replacement products at her fingertips. She started as a raw food vegan, eating to heal a serious infection, and still advocates simple foods, including a dinner of vegetables and rice or a soup.
Strongman Patrik Baboumian eats 5,000 calories a day in the form of protein shakes, fruit smoothies, vegan sausages or falafel, tofu, potatoes, nuts and vegetables. Within this is an incredible 410 grams of protein, more than seven times the amount required by most men. But then, Patrik Baboumian is not most men.
When he trains for fights, mixed martial artist Nate Diaz says he sticks to a raw vegan diet. He started on his vegan journey when he ditched meat before fights only to find that his body didn’t like it when he added it back in later. So for him, meat and dairy are out. Instead, he loads up on plenty of vegetables, nuts and grains.
Bodybuilding Jehina Malik has been vegan since birth, and she says her diet is less strict when not competing. She may have potatoes and tofu, or couscous with vegan chicken and broccoli but says her favorite food is cashews.
Base jumper and free-climber Steph Davis prefers a simple diet of whole foods and whole grains and eats nothing processed or pre-made. She chooses salads, fresh vegetables, lentils, and grains, grilled tofu, and stir-frys, and includes fermented foods like kombucha tea and kimchi.
World champion surfer has been vegan since 2013, and says she eats a very clean vegan diet.
She starts the day with fruit and banana ice cream, and a spoonful of molasses for the iron and calcium content. Lunch could be kale and pineapple stir fry with quinoa while dinner could be a sushi bowl of sushi rice, seaweed, cucumber, avocado, green onion, tofu and shredded carrots.
It’s clear that a vegan diet is more than suitable for athletes and can actually enhance athletic performance. Just watch The Game Changers documentary and see for yourself!
Want to try eating plant-based to improve your own training? Check out our free Vegan Starter Kit and Health & Nutrition Guide HERE.Try Vegan