13 Ways Plant-Based Eating Can Help Athletes

Updated: Apr 23

Have you been thinking about transitioning to plant-based eating or simply adding more plants to your diet? Research shows that it might be worth the consideration. Meat-free athletes like Matt Frazier, Venus Williams, Derrick Morgan, Rich Roll and Tom Brady are testimony that a plant-based or plant-forward diet is possible for elite athletes and may offer athletic advantages by boosting performance and recovery, not to mention improving everyday quality of life. Below are 13 ways that eating a plant-based or plant-forward diet can be advantageous for athletes.

1. Sustainable energy

Plant based diets are high in fiber through whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Getting adequate fiber through plants increases satiety and controls blood sugar, allowing for consistent energy throughout the day. Plant-based foods are also nutrient-dense, containing an abundance of essential vitamins and minerals that are necessary for metabolism, converting macronutrients into energy and promoting cellular health throughout the body and the brain.

2. Decrease inflammation

The effect of plant-based eating on inflammation has been extensively researched, showing that plant-based, high fiber diets have been associated with lower inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP). A 2015 study found that participants randomized to a two-month plant-based diet experienced reductions in inflammatory scores, when compared to those eating diets higher in animal fat and products. Other studies have found that diets high in fat and processed meat are associated with elevated inflammatory markers.

3. Improve Digestion

Plant-based diets promote healthy gut bacteria through fiber, especially prebiotic fiber that is found in foods like bananas, artichokes, oatmeal and asparagus. Studies show that high-fiber plant-based diets can alter the composition of gut bacteria and increase bacterial diversity, improving digestion and overall gut health. A healthy gut has been linked to reduced short and long-term inflammation. Of note, avoid experimenting with high fiber foods during training, which may cause gastrointestinal distress and increase water intake as fiber intake increases.

4. Lose or maintain weight

Plant-based diets that are low in saturated fat and high in fiber may help to reduce body fat. Reduced body fat has been associated with increased aerobic capacity. Studies also suggest that people who eat primarily plant-based diets tend to have a lower body mass index and lower rates of obesity than those who eat meat.

5. Better recovery

Compared with meat-eaters, individuals eating a plant-based diet receive more phytonutrients, or plant nutrients, that act as antioxidants and help to fight off inflammatory free radicals. Free radicals may lead to muscle fatigue, reduced athletic performance, and impaired recovery. Choosing a variety of colorful plant-based foods can quench free radicals and reduce inflammation.

6. Improved immunity

A strong immune response requires nutrients for protein synthesis and cell proliferation. Vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients found in plants are needed for these specific immunological functions. Also, building gut diversity through fiber can fight off intestinal pathogens.

7. Improved performance

A plant-based diet, low in saturated fat and free of cholesterol, helps improve blood viscosity, which helps more oxygen reach the muscles and enhance athletic performance. Plant-based diets also improve arterial flexibility and diameter, leading to better blood flow. Studies suggest that a meal high in saturated fat from animal products may impair arterial function for several hours following the meal.

8. Decrease risk of heart disease

Similar to the general population, athletes are at risk for heart disease. In one study, 44 percent of endurance cyclists and runners had coronary plaques. A plant-based diet may prevent heart disease by reversing plaque, decreasing blood pressure and cholesterol, and reducing weight.

9. Improve Sleep

According to one study, one in three Americans are chronically sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity, high blood pressure, cognitive decline and poor performance. Certainly, cutting back caffeine and alcohol may improve sleep. However, one study looked a little deeper at dietary patterns and sleep and found that diets high in fiber and low in saturated fat and sugar can offer more restorative and uninterrupted sleep. Results show that greater fiber intake predicted more time spent in the stage of deep, slow wave sleep.

10. Overall Well-Being

One study looked at the well-being of 68 individuals who switched to a vegan diet after instruction versus 45 subjects who didn’t receive vegan diet intervention. Those who followed a vegan diet for 22 weeks reported improvements in general health, physical functioning, mental health, vitality and overall diet satisfaction.

11. Better Focus/Improved Cognition

A new study reveals that following a plant-based diet during midlife reduces the risk of cognitive decline later in life. The data available through the Singapore Chinese Health Study looked at nearly 17,000 people (45-74 years old) who were interviewed about their diet and lifestyle and completed cognition assessments. The researchers found that those who adhered to plant-based dietary patterns during midlife were 18-33 percent less likely to develop cognitive impairment later in life than those who didn’t follow a plant-strong or plant-based diet.

12. Less anxiety and depression

Nearly eight percent of Americans over the age of 12 experience depression (staggering number!). One study analyzed the dietary patterns and risk of depression in 3,486 subjects over a five-year period. Individuals eating whole foods reported fewer symptoms of depression compared to those who ate mostly processed foods. Additionally, when comparing a vegetarian versus omnivorous diet, vegetarians reported more positive moods than meat eaters. Plant foods are high in antioxidants and phytochemicals, which generally help to repair damage and decrease inflammation in brain cells. In addition, plant foods can help restore balance to neurotransmitters. Arachidonic acid, a type of fat found only in animals, may create inflammation in the brain and feelings of anxiety, stress and depression.

13. Better for the environment

Not only can plant-based diets be viable options for athletes, but they also fair better for the planet. Most plants require fewer natural resources for production compared to meat. Seventy percent of the worlds natural water resources are used for animal agriculture. Livestock emissions (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane) are responsible for about 18 to 20 percent of greenhouse gases (a source second to fossil fuels), not to mention the amount of rainforest land that is destroyed to make room for more animal agriculture.

Overall, a whole food plant-based or plant-forward diet can maximize intake of nutrient-dense plant foods while minimizing processed foods, oils, and animal foods. It encourages whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, peas, lentils, soybeans, seeds, and nuts. For more information, continue to follow the purely planted blog or purely planted on Instagram and Facebook.

Download this handout for more information on plant-based eating for athletes.

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Atlanta folks, listen up! Join us for a fun and information-filled evening around plant-powered sports nutrition this Saturday, February 22 from 6pm-7:30pm at Podium Sports. Details here. It's free!

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