Plant-Based Diet for Athletes | Full Guide

The outcomes of sports are oftentimes determined by milliseconds, inches or ounces. Gaining the slightest possible competitive advantage over the opponent is exactly the mindset that we at Sled Dog Development want to bring our athletes.

Nutrition is one of the Five Controllable Factors of Performance, and one that can be easily manipulated at that. With the ever-growing momentum behind athletes switching to plant-based diets I wanted to lay out the benefits and risks of becoming a plant-based athlete, and whether it is a necessary switch to get the most out of your performance. I went so far down this rabbit hole that I even tried a plant-based diet for myself.

What Are Plant-Based Diets?

In this article, I am going to refer to a plant-based diet as one that is completely vegan. No animal products are allowed, including meat and fish, but also anything that comes from animals like eggs, gelatin, honey and dairy products.

There are also certain diets like vegetarianism where the only restriction is not eating the animal itself, but for this article, the focus is how a plant-based diet can improve athletic function.

Who Are Some Top Plant-Based Athletes?

If you’re somebody like me who needs to know that it is, in fact, possible to succeed with a particular diet before risking the waste of countless hours of hard work, here are a couple of plant-based athletes who have found success in many different sports, each requiring different levels of power, strength, and endurance:

  • Venus Williams - Tennis
  • Derrick Morgan - American Football
  • Dustin Watten - Volleyball
  • Kyrie Irving - Basketball
  • Kendrick Farris - Weightlifting
  • Nate Diaz - Mixed Martial Arts
  • Lewis Hamilton - Formula 1
  • Colin Kaepernick - American Football
  • Scott Jurek - Ultramarathon
  • Jermain Defoe - Soccer
  • Patrik Bobumian - Strongman
  • Carl Lewis - Sprinter

English Soccer player Jermain Defoe said “I didn’t find anything hard to give up because I know the feeling that scoring goals gives me” when asked by The Guardian if the switch to a plant-based diet was hard.

Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet for Athletes

I am going to go over three benefits that a plant-based diet will have on athletes. This is certainly not the be all end all list of benefits, but rather, a simple look at a topic that is sometimes difficult to digest.

To make it clear, I am not advocating for a plant-based OR an omnivore diet. I am simply laying out what science has taught us in order for you to make your own decision. Personally, I have consumed meat and animal products my whole life but perhaps switching my diet will improve my athletic performance.

Improved Endothelial Function (More Oxygen To Working Muscles)

For those of you who don’t spend your time looking at diagrams of human tissue cells, the endothelium is the inner layer of cells lining arteries and heart tissue. The endothelial cells are responsible for secreting certain substances to either vasodilate (increase diameter) or vasoconstrict (decrease diameter) arteries. Studies have shown that a plant-based diet improves these functions of the endothelial cells. (1)

To put this quite simply, when exercising, the working muscle tissue needs oxygen to maintain any form of activity for long durations. To do this, the endothelial secrete substance to vasodilate, or widen, the arteries, allowing for more oxygenated blood to reach the working tissues.

If endothelial cells are functioning better than before, arterial dilation happens more efficiently, allowing for more oxygen to reach working muscles, ultimately allowing exercise to continue longer (This doesn’t sound too bad for the whole getting athletes better thing).

Leaner Body Mass

Carrying around extra load in most sports can be detrimental to performance. Studies have shown that plant-based diets reduce both skin-fold thickness and waist-to-height ratio, meaning that the subjects following a meatless diet are leaner than those who aren’t. (2)

This is mainly due to the high-fat content on most animal products compared to the relatively low-fat levels of non-animal products. Obviously it’s not ideal for all athletes to lean out (trust me, if I have to stop Aaron Donald from getting to my quarterback I wouldn’t mind a little extra mass), but it is a great option for the ones that rely on each ounce of body mass benefitting them in competition.

Faster Recovery (Reduced Inflammation)

Who can recover the fastest? The faster you can recover, the more you can train, and the better you will get. This might be the most beneficial aspect of a plant-based diet for athletes. Intense exercise will elicit an inflammatory response that leads to delayed onset muscle soreness (being sore after working out).

Luckily for our plant-based friends, studies have shown a decrease in inflammation when animal products aren’t consumed. (3) This is mainly due to higher antioxidant content in a plant-based diet which boosts the immune response leading to lower inflammation levels, but may also be due to these foods lacking products like processed meat that may lead to inflammation.

Photo of a Cyclists on a Plant Based Diet

A plant-based diet has been shown to improve endothelial function. This is especially important for endurance athletes that need large amounts of oxygen to perform at the highest level.

Myths/Misconceptions of a Plant-Based Diet

Vitamin B12 Deficiency

Vitamin B12 helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy. A B12 deficiency can lead to megaloblastic anemia, making the affected individual feel weak and fatigued. (4) Typically Vitamin B12 is found in animal products like fish meat and eggs, but it can also be seen in certain fortified cereals and nutritional yeasts.

While it makes sense that lots of individuals who follow a plant-based diet may be deficient in this nutrient, one study found that 39% of people in a general population (mix of all diets) were either B12 deficient or at risk for deficiency. (5)

So while being on a plant-based diet may make you more susceptible to Vitamin B12 deficiency, even those following an omnivore diet should probably supplement to reach their daily needs of the nutrient.

You Can’t Get Enough Protein To Gain Muscle

This is definitely the biggest factor holding me from enduring on a plant-based adventure. I have worked really hard to be able to build the muscular strength needed to compete at the highest level of my sport, and I’m sure as heck not going to let a diet change lose my precious gains. This, however, is where I was most surprised while on my spiritual plant-based journey.

Through my own experience, I found out that it is certainly possible to get enough protein to maintain and even build muscle while following a plant-based diet. There’s something about being hyperconscious about losing all of my previous hard work that pushed me to consume more protein than ever before. Beans, lentils, chickpeas and nuts are all relatively high in protein and not hard to make delicious meals with.

A simple Google search of high protein plant-based meals will result in more than enough recipes to fulfill the pickiest of eater’s appetites (trust me, I’m the pickiest eater and I had no problem. I actually got to experience new foods that soon became favourites that I would have never before tried if it wasn’t for a plant-based diet).

Olympic Weightlifter and American 94kg record holder Kendrick Farris switched to a plant-based diet in 2014. If I had to guess I would say that he probably gets enough protein.

I Don’t Have Enough Money To Go Plant-Based

I am a high-level athlete that needs to perform my best every single day to keep my place on my team and hopefully in the starting lineup. I am also a college student that has minimal time to make money in the off-season and virtually no time for a job while in my busy season filled with daily practices and games. So when I buy food, I want every single nutrient that I need at the cheapest possible price.

I always thought that having to buy a bunch of extra vegetables, nuts and beans would rack up the price of my grocery bill, but boy was I wrong! I ended up spending significantly less per month on groceries while on my plant-based diet than ever before. A can of lentils that costs less than $1 at most stores will provide north of 22 grams of protein! Be smart and find good recipes for these cheap, nutrient-dense items. With careful planning, a plant-based diet doesn’t have to bust your bank account, and actually might lend a helping hand!

My Experience With a Plant-Based Diet and Tips For Success

I decided to give it a go and try out the whole plant-based thing for the month of March. It was surprisingly easy once I got the hang of things. I’ll lay out a couple of the rather large lessons I learned along the way so you can learn from them and not encounter the same struggles.

Surprising Amount of Energy

Ever eat a meal and feel immediately tired and slow? I thought food was supposed to give us energy! Right after I swapped my diet for one that is plant-based I no longer got that slow, groggy feeling from eating. I consumed, left some time to digest and was ready to go.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Probably the biggest lesson I learned throughout the whole process was the importance of meal planning. After spending a grand total of $26 on my first grocery trip (in case you were wondering, this is a tiny fraction of what I usually spend on a weekly trip) I realized that I needed to figure out what I was going to cook. Like I said before, you should see some money being saved on a plant-based diet, but you still need to reach your caloric goals with all of your macronutrients being fulfilled.

Expect Your Body To Hate You The First Week

Without getting too detailed, just know that this is a substantial change to your body’s digestive system, so it’s safe to expect some instability with your stomach. Don’t worry, it’ll get better the longer you have to adapt. I’ll leave that one there.

Fat Loss

While this might sound appealing to some, it was not something that I was really expecting or wanting at all. To be able to play a full match with high levels of energy, I need some extra meat on my bones. Luckily, I quickly rediscovered PB+J sandwiches which swiftly took care of that problem.

Good Food… If You Try

I’m a picky eater on the best of days and taking away 90% of the food that I regularly consume wasn’t appealing to me at all. After some effort, however, I actually began to enjoy the plant-based food, almost as much as my regular omnivore diet. I tried tons of new foods and became quite a good cook in the process (if I don’t say so myself). I would strongly recommend trying a plant-based diet to anyone wanting/willing to get outside of their comfort zone and try something new.

Photo of a Plant-Based Diet Recipe Great for Athletes

Plant-based tacos are easy and delicious. Replace the beef with beans or a vegan beef replacement (unlike a vegan cheese replacement, the fake ground beef actually tastes good).

Should You Try a Plant-Based Diet?

Arnold Schwarzenegger said it best in the film Game Changers, when he was quoted saying “If you go to people and tell them to stop eating meat, they will say ‘F*** you. Who the f*** are you to tell me how to eat?’ But if you explain it, and suggest trying it out once a week, they might actually listen.”

That’s exactly the approach I am taking. I am not a plant-based diet advocate and I won’t gain anything from you switching your diet. But what I have done in this article is laid out the facts and some suggestions based on both scientific literature and my own experiences and given you the choice.

Even just eating more plant-based foods or not eating animal products for one or two days a week can have a tremendous impact on your health. What’s the worst that can happen?

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References:

  1. Effect of plant-based diet on vascular endothelial function in patients with peripheral arterial disease. (n.d.). Retrieved February 28, 2021, from https://scvs.org/symposium/abstracts/2018/P30.cgi
  2. Phillips, F., Hackett, A., Stratton, G., & Billington, D. (2004, May 07). Effect of changing to a Self‐selected vegetarian diet on anthropometric measurements in UK adults. Retrieved April 05, 2021, from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-277X.2004.00525.x
  3. Haghighatdoost, F., Bellissimo, N., Zepetnek, J., & Rouhani, M. (2017, August 24). Association of vegetarian diet with Inflammatory BIOMARKERS: A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies: Public HEALTH NUTRITION. Retrieved April 05, 2021, from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/association-of-vegetarian-diet-with-inflammatory-biomarkers-a-systematic-review-and-metaanalysis-of-observational-studies/ED9F562A1AEC0E65B90A092A0427C093
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Office of Dietary Supplements - Vitamin B12. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-Consumer/.
  5. Tucker, K. L., Rich, S., Rosenberg, I., Jacques, P., Dallal, G., Wilson, P. W. F., & Selhub, J. (2000, February 1). Plasma vitamin B-12 concentrations relate to intake source in the Framingham Offspring Study. OUP Academic. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/71/2/514/4729184.
  6. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/11/1/130/htm#B24-nutrients-11-00130 (used alot for benefits)