13 Ways Plant-Based Eating Can Help Athletes

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

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.