Skip to content

Get the latest service status updates

#ThyroidThursday - Save £11 on our Advanced Thyroid Function Blood Test

Plant-based diets and athletes

Understand how veganism can affect your sports performance and recovery and whether you can meet your protein requirements on a plant-based diet.

Ever wondered why leading athletes are turning to a plant-based diet?

Learn how veganism can affect your sports performance and recovery and whether you can meet your protein requirements on a plant-based diet.

What are the benefits to performance?

In recent years, more and more athletes have been switching to a plant-based diet, with claims it has helped them improve performance. Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton, tennis pro Venus Williams, boxer David Haye and footballer Jermain Defoe are just some of the athletes praising a plant-based diet for helping them optimise performance and recovery.

Why are athletes turning to a plant-based diet?

The rapid growth in veganism has increased the amount of research undertaken. Studies also show that plant-based diets are beneficial for people who do performance and endurance training [1].

Specifically, plant-based diets can improve:

  • Blood pressure
  • Weight
  • Blood glucose control
  • Reduction of inflammation

Due to the reduction in inflammation, plant-based diets can contribute to improved performance, recovery, and reduction in pain for some athletes.

Vegan or plant-based diets may also lead to an increase in antioxidant intake. Antioxidants help neutralise free radicals, which can sometimes lead to muscle fatigue [2].

However, there are still limited studies on plant-based diets for athletes and there could still be potential limitations to this diet when it comes to athletic performance. For example, it may be more difficult to fuel the body effectively with plant food alone. Though, many athletes have shown, is, it is certainly possible to perform at an elite level fuelled entirely by plants.

Is plant-based a game-changer?

The popular Netflix documentary ‘The Game Changers’ has further heightened the debate on veganism and sport. Packed with record-setting athletes displaying cut physiques and explosive power. The film has a clear message – vegan is best.

The documentary follows former UFC fighter, James Wilks. While recovering from an injury, James researches nutrition and travels the world to discuss his findings with elite athletes who follow vegan or plant-based diets. The Game Changers aims to make the case that a vegan diet isn’t only the most advantageous diet for long-term health but an athletic edge as well.

From Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris and cycling champion Dotsie Bausch to top distance runner Scott Jurek, and Arnold Schwarzenegger (a producer of the film), the documentary chronicles several professional athletes who attribute getting fast and strong and recovering from injury more quickly, to adopting a plant-based diet.

While the film has been met with some criticism for factual inaccuracies, there is no doubt that it has fuelled an ongoing debate and spurred more athletes into experimenting with a vegan diet.

More recently, Cameron Jeffers, a member of the Ribble-Weldtite cycling team, embarked on a plant-based diet, in a bid to improve his athletic performance. He took a Medichecks Endurance Fitness Blood Test before and after to see how it would affect his wellbeing and performance levels.

Cameron wanted his whole experiment to be completely transparent. So, he documented the whole experience on YouTube. When receiving his second set of results, the professional British cyclist discussed them with Medichecks’ Dr Hamed.

Can you get enough protein on a plant-based diet?

If you eat a varied diet with enough calories, it is easy to meet your daily protein requirements on a plant-based diet.

But why do we need protein? Well, protein is said to be important in sports performance.

In sports performance, protein can [3]:

  • Boost glycogen storage
  • Reduce muscle soreness
  • Promote muscle repair

It is a common misconception that you can only find protein in animal products. With 15g of protein per serving, black beans have more protein than a chicken drumstick.

Although some animal products do contain a high amount of protein, pulses are naturally very low in fat and high in fibre, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Therefore, sometimes these are the healthier choice of protein [4].

High protein pulses include:

  • Beans – black beans, kidney beans or navy beans
  • Peas – chickpeas, split peas, or garden peas
  • Lentils – green, red, or black lentils

Proteins are large molecules consisting of amino acids that our cells need to function properly. They not only help regulate cells, tissues, and organs but also make up a significant amount of muscle, skin, and bones.

The average protein requirement for adult men is roughly 56g per day, and for women, it is 45g per day. According to the British Nutrition Foundation, we are consuming significantly more protein than this on average in the UK [5].

Aside from pulses, other good plant sources of protein include:

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Tofu
  • Quinoa

To give an example of how easy it is to get enough protein, one cup of cooked porridge with soy milk and a tablespoon of peanut butter would add up to roughly 14 grams of protein at breakfast, which would be almost 30% of your daily requirement.

If you’re looking to build muscle and think that your protein intake is correct, check out our blog for four reasons you’re not building muscle, to find out about the reasons other than diet, that you may not be building muscle.

You can also read more about plant-based and vegan nutrition on our plant-based diets and nutrition page.

What should I eat to optimise my training?

If you want to improve and optimise your training, then give these top tips a go:

  1. Increase your protein intake, only if you need to – Start with your diet and see if you’re getting enough protein through foods like beans, nuts, and tofu. Veganfoodliving.com has lots of vegan recipes you can take ideas from. If that fails, consider protein supplements such as a protein shake or bar. These supplements can give you the perfect post-workout boost, helping aid recovery and reduce muscle soreness.
  2. Add more natural fats to your diet - You need natural fats to help absorb important vitamins such as vitamin A, D, and E [5]. Natural fats can be found in plant foods like avocados, vegetables, and olive oils, nuts.
  3. Add a B12 or multivitamin supplement to your daily diet - Vitamin B12 helps keep your body’s blood and nerve cells healthy and a lack of it can make you feel weak and tired. Making sure you are sufficient in B12 can help you have the energy to perform to the best of your ability.
  4. Increase your complex carbohydrates - Complex carbs are critical for fuelling your body through increasing energy levels and helping with muscle gain. Great choices are whole-wheat bread and pasta, cereals, brown rice, quinoa, and fruits and vegetables.

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6356661/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30634559/
  3. https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/an-active-lifestyle/eating-for-sport-and-exercise.html?start=2
  4. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/
  5. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/different-fats-nutrition/