Eat Plants, Get Stronger?!
What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the words plant-based, vegan, and athlete? You might say: weak, scrawny, and deficient. Meat is associated with strength, power, and muscle right? Well what if I told you that eating nothing but plants, AKA, a plant-based diet, can actually make you a stronger, more powerful, more muscular athlete?
In case you didn’t know, what you eat is quite important to feeling good, and as an athlete it becomes even more essential to fuel properly. But traditionally, the thought that vegetarian or vegan diets cannot sustain athletes optimally, and that they may cause nutrient deficiencies or at least poor performance. But what does the science say? Are there actual athletes out there thriving?
We’ll start with current plant-based athletes. There’s Scott Jurek, champion ultramarathon runner who broke the speed record of the Appalachian Trail (about 2,200 miles) in 46 days last year. Griff Whalen, wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers, eats nothing but plants. And the sole member of Team USA’s powerlifting squad at this year’s Rio Olympics, Kendrick Farris, is a vegan. From endurance athletes to powerlifters, it seems that it’s definitely possible but how does it actually work?
Unfortunately, the data on plant-based diets and athletic performance are somewhat lacking. In fact, the data on basically any kind of diet and athletic performance are pretty lacking. So let’s look at the available science. A 2006 review of vegetarian diets and athletic performance found that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets can provide sufficient energy and an appropriate range of carbohydrate, fat and protein intakes to support performance and health”1. The American College of Sports Medicine, perhaps the best source for all things sports science, determined that “well-planned vegetarian diets seem to effectively support parameters that influence athletic performance, although studies on this population are limited”2. At the macro level, there seems to be some evidence that this may work. But what about the micro level?
Athletes require a few basic things to thrive and perform at their best. Training, fuel, and recovery. Recovery seems to be the golden ticket to optimal performance, because it’s where the true “gains” are made, exercise is inherently damaging to the body. Oxidative stress, muscle damage, and impairing the immune system are all negative effects of exercise, especially at high intensities or at high levels. For nutrition, athletes must gain energy from macronutrients (AKA carbohydrates, fat, and protein) to stay fueled and build muscle. Micronutrients (such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) are essential for keeping the body in working order, such as reducing inflammation and soreness, and keeping the immune system on point.
Energy-wise, sufficient calories are incredibly important for the athlete, and carbohydrates are more efficient at delivering energy to the cells. Carbs get stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver, which is then used during all exercise intensities. Carbohydrates are basically never found in animal sources, the most plentiful sources being starches and fruits (AKA plant foods). Protein is thought to be the main reason why athletes can’t thrive only eating plants. Data shows that the protein intake required for proper recovery and muscle synthesis for athletes is between 1.2-2.0 g/kg/day2, which is easily achieved from plant based sources. And no, you don’t need to combine proteins to get all the amino acids3. Plant sources of protein include beans (41g/cup), tofu (20g/cup), and nuts (27g/cup). If caloric needs are met from whole food plant sources, protein needs are met.
Micronutrients, those often neglected little nutrients such as phytonutrients in plants, vitamins, minerals, etc. may be a key for helping athletes recover. Athletes may also need more of them to offset the oxidative damage done through exercise. Luckily, plant foods are high in micronutrients, especially antioxidants. Eating a diet rich in phytonutrients can also reduce the frequency of getting sick and boost the immune system4. There are even special compounds called nitrates, which are found in foods like beets and arugula, that open up the blood vessels and deliver more oxygen to the muscles, and thus increase performance5. Other key nutrients are iron, calcium, and vitamin B12. Iron and calcium are found in leafy greens and legumes, B12 should be supplemented to avoid deficiency.
A few nutrients may be of concern for plant-based athletes, and may warrant supplementation. I already mentioned B12, but also zinc, EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D are important for athletes of all dietary choices. They can be tough to get enough of in any diet, so it might be a good idea to supplement in order to ensure you’re covering all the bases.
The body is a machine, and as an athlete, you want to make sure that machine is running like a well-oiled Ferrari. That means fueling it with the best possible ingredients. Superior athletic performance requires superior fuel. From the macronutrients like carbohydrates as high-octane gasoline to the micronutrients like the oil, plant foods can most definitely provide the body with the materials to do amazing things. The current paradigm of the culture of sport is heavily focused on protein, specifically from animals. Many athletes are already thriving on plants, and so can you.
- Venderley AM, Campbell WW. Vegetarian diets. Sports Medicine. 2006;36(4):293–305. doi:10.2165/00007256-200636040-00002.
- Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Position of the academy of nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American college of sports medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016;116(3):501–528. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2015.12.006
- Novick, J. The Myth of Complementary Protein. Forks Over Knives. 2013. http://www.forksoverknives.com/the-myth-of-complementary-protein/
- Gleeson M, Bishop NC. Modification of immune responses to exercise by carbohydrate, glutamine and anti-oxidant supplements. Immunology and Cell Biology. 2000;78(5):554–561. doi:10.1046/j.1440-1711.2000.00953.x.
- Bailey, S, Winyard, P et al. Dietary nitrate supplementation reduces the O2 cost of low-intensity exercise and enhances tolerance to high-intensity exercise in humans. Journal of Applied Physiology Oct 2009, 107 (4) 1144-1155; DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00722.2009