Plant-Based Diets for Athletes: Is it Healthy?

In recent years, plant-based meat has taken the world by storm. It seems everyone from long-time vegans to lifelong meat-eaters are dropping their processed food products and looking for new ways to incorporate more plant-based protein intake into their diets. While this might seem shocking at first, once you understand the environmental and health benefits of adopting a plant-based diet, then it begins to make more sense. However, many people still question if this is an appropriate lifestyle change for those who exercise regularly and are generally more athletic. In short, the answer is yes! There are significant benefits of incorporating plant-based proteins into your diet, and these changes are not only healthy for athletes but may boost performance. To fully understand how, let’s first look at the research indicating the general health implications for a plant-based diet and then dive into how this impacts the everyday athlete. 

Health Benefits of Plant-Based Protein Intake 

The efficacy and benefits of a plant-based diet have been a significant area of research for many years. As a result, we are well-informed of the benefits such a lifestyle change can offer. For example, there is a great deal of evidence that suggests that incorporating plant-based proteins into your diet may reduce the risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, lower blood pressure, help with regulating body weight and decrease inflammation throughout the body.

Here are some of the most significant research highlights that have contributed to the collective understanding of why a plant-based lifestyle is beneficial to our health: 

  • Reduced Risk of Heart Disease. Long-term research (1) has found that those following a vegetarian diet had a significantly reduced risk (about 22% lower) than non-vegetarians. This is a significant finding as the research was longitudinal over a much greater period than most other studies in the field, identifying the benefits of plant-based diets over time.
  • Digestive Benefits. Data analysis from another study (2) found that a plant-based diet also lowered the risk of bowel disease. 
  • Lower Mortality. Similarly, a cohort-based study (3) found that increased consumption of plant-based proteins, as opposed to animal proteins, was associated with lower mortality rates in participants. 
  • Decreased Diabetes. Another cohort study (4) found that those individuals adhering to a plant-based diet had a lower incidence of insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, and type 2 diabetes than their animal-consuming counterparts. 

While these studies’ results are by no means irrefutable evidence that a plant-based diet is the only contributing factor to the recorded effects, it does offer strong support for the argument that a plant-based lifestyle may provide significant health benefits. At the very least, it won’t hurt!

Plant-Based Diet for Athletes

Given the broader interest in plant-based diets, it is no surprise that there is a growing curiosity in whether or not a plant-based lifestyle is suitable for athletes. Although there is significant support and evidence for the health benefits of incorporating plant protein based meals, the vast majority of the existing body of research has centered around individuals leading an average lifestyle. And while there are some anecdotal reports from elite athletes who have made the switch to a plant-based diet, including Venus Williams, who found it helped her auto-immune condition, and David Haye, who made the switch to help him recover from an injury, this does not account for those who simply lead a more active lifestyle or the everyday athlete who may require additional nutrition for optimal performance and health. 

Whether you consider yourself an elite athlete or not, regular physical activity to maintain your body weight can lead to biochemical training adaptations, such as increased expression of antioxidant enzymes and growth in blood cells. These physical changes lead to greater nutritional and dietary requirements (5) , which must be addressed through an appropriate diet. Some research shows that a plant-based diet could lead to deficiencies of both macronutrients (ex. Protein and n-3 fatty acids) and micronutrients (ex. vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc, calcium, and iodine) (6) when poorly planned or executed.

However, additional studies have found that a plant-based diet may aid athletic performance as a result of increased polyphenols and antioxidants, which support certain micronutrients like vitamin C and E, greater tissue oxygenation, and reduced blood viscosity (7) . These benefits are likely the contributing factors behind anecdotal evidence from elite athletes who have made the switch to a plant-based lifestyle and report an improvement in their performance.

In reality, there has not been a great deal of research done to identify how a plant-based diet may impact athletes and their performance. Still, it is a constantly expanding field of study among academics and practitioners. Here are two critical considerations for athletes of all levels to understand when deciding whether to switch to a plant-based diet:

  1. Nutrition.  As discussed above, making significant changes to your animal food based diet may result in some nutritional deficiencies. In this particular study (8) , three groups of recreational athletes were monitored. The first followed a vegan diet, the second followed a vegetarian diet, and the third consumed a variation of plant-based and animal foods, following an omnivorous diet. Throughout the study, the researchers conducted a nutrient analysis on the participants and looked for specific biomarkers, including vitamin B12, folate, vitamin D, and iron. 

Interestingly enough, the study found that 20% of all participants, regardless of their diet, had low levels of vitamin B12, and about 30% of the participants in each group had low levels of iron. Another similar study (9) used the same methods but measured the participants’ macronutrients like amino acid levels, carbohydrates, and fiber intake. This research found that all groups consumed a sufficient amount of protein while the vegan diet group had greater volumes of carbohydrates and fiber. 

This is a critical finding, as it indicates that a meat-based diet is not necessarily more nutrient-dense than a vegan or vegetarian diet. Instead, there may be other contributing factors that impact the nutritional value of these lifestyles. 

  1. Performance. In January 2021, an important case study (10) was published that makes a significant contribution to the general understanding of how a balanced diet, particularly a plant-based diet, can influence the performance of athletes. In this study, a Gaelic footballer was monitored as he transitioned from a meat-eating diet to a plant-based one, including a detailed analysis of his nutrition and performance before and after his diet changes were implemented. 

As expected, the research found that the footballer’s levels of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and long-chain fatty acids were lower on the plant-based diet than when he was consuming meat. However, it also found that his iron intake was higher on the plant-based diet, which demonstrates that many foods available as part of a plant-based diet supply adequate amounts of this nutrient. 

Equally as important, the researcher analyzed his athletic performance and found there was no decline from the previous year when he was regularly consuming meat versus when he switched to a plant-based diet. In fact, they identified that he had an increase in lean muscle mass and a slight decrease in body fat. While this is only a case study of a single athlete, it does add to the anecdotal evidence of other elite athletes. 

Preparation & Planning  

Though all of the research above highlights some crucial differences in the outcomes of a plant-based versus a meat-based diet for athletes, it also indicates one key component that is often overlooked: preparation and planning. For example, the Gaelic footballer discussed in the case study had access to a lot of support, including a nutritionist, meal planning and preparation, pre-made recovery shakes, and more. Similarly, though not explicitly identified in the studies surrounding nutritional deficiencies, it could be assumed that those participants making significant changes to their diet would have to do more planning for their meals to adhere to the differences required. 

Together, all this research demonstrates that successfully implementing any significant change to your diet requires planning and preparation. Rarely will you be able to consume all the nutrients your body needs without organizing a program that will result in a complete and balanced diet. In other words, a properly planned plant-based diet can provide all the nutrients and fuel you need to achieve optimal athletic performance.

Ready to make the switch? Check out our top tips on how to start a plant based diet as well as some of our favorite plant-based recipes for athletes to help you get started.

Sources:

  1. Tong, T.Y.N., Appleby, P.N., Bradbury, K.E., Perez-Cornago, A., Travis, R.C., Clarke, R., Key, T.J., 2019. Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMJ 366. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l4897
  2. Crowe, F.L., Appleby, P.N., Allen, N.E., Key, T.J., 2011. Diet and risk of diverticular disease in Oxford cohort of European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC): prospective study of British vegetarians and non-vegetarians. BMJ 343, d4131. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d4131
  3. Huang, J., Liao, L.M., Weinstein, S.J., Sinha, R., Graubard, B.I., Albanes, D., 2020. Association Between Plant and Animal Protein Intake and Overall and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern. Med. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.2790
  4. Chen, Z., Zuurmond, M.G., van der Schaft, N., Nano, J., Wijnhoven, H.A.H., Ikram, M.A., Franco, O.H., Voortman, T., 2018. Plant versus animal based diets and insulin resistance, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes: the Rotterdam Study. Eur. J. Epidemiol. 33, 883–893. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10654-018-0414-8
  5. Nebl, J., Schuchardt, J.P., Ströhle, A., Wasserfurth, P., Haufe, S., Eigendorf, J., Tegtbur, U., Hahn, A., 2019a. Micronutrient Status of Recreational Runners with Vegetarian or Non-Vegetarian Dietary Patterns. Nutrients 11, 1146. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11051146
  6. Rogerson, D., 2017. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. J. Int. Soc. Sports Nutr. 14, 36. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9
  7.  Barnard, N.D., Goldman, D.M., Loomis, J.F., Kahleova, H., Levin, S.M., Neabore, S., Batts, T.C., 2019. Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports. Nutrients 11. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11010130
  8. Nebl, J., Schuchardt, J.P., Ströhle, A., Wasserfurth, P., Haufe, S., Eigendorf, J., Tegtbur, U., Hahn, A., 2019a. Micronutrient Status of Recreational Runners with Vegetarian or Non-Vegetarian Dietary Patterns. Nutrients 11, 1146. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11051146
  9. Nebl, J., Schuchardt, J.P., Wasserfurth, P., Haufe, S., Eigendorf, J., Tegtbur, U., Hahn, A., 2019b. Characterization, dietary habits and nutritional intake of omnivorous, lacto-ovo vegetarian and vegan runners – a pilot study. BMC Nutr. 5, 51. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40795-019-0313-8
  10. Davey, D., Malone, S., Egan, B., 2021. Case Study: Transition to a Vegan Diet in an Elite Male Gaelic Football Player. Sports Basel Switz. 9. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports9010006

About the Author

Angela Walker is a BANT and CNHC registered nutritional therapist with over 12 years of clinical experience, including 8 years with the award-winning, Optimum Health Clinic. Angela is a Nutrition Consultant for Meatless Farm, where she develops nutrition research and communicates the personal health benefits of eating plant-based foods. Angela is also a nutritionist and performance coach of Food for Thought, a program designed to change the way people think about food, diet and nutrition, based on the principles and practices of personalized nutrition and functional medicine. Angela is a published author of many well-known articles including ‘Case Studies in Personalized Nutrition’, a core text at many of the training providers for nutritional therapy and personalized nutrition in the UK and US.