Is a Plant-Based Diet Good for Athletes?

May 22, 2021
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How Sports Stars Find Protein and Performance

What do Lewis Hamilton, Venus Williams, and Lionel Messi all have in common?  Yes, they’re superstar athletes, but they all share something else, too. They are athletes who eat plant-based diets.  Newly minted MVP and seven-time Super Bowl champ, Tom Brady, is himself flexitarian, sticking to a diet that is at least 80% plant-based.  Given his unprecedented achievement, one has to wonder if Brady and other stars are on to something.

Why Athletes Prefer Plant-Based

Going plant-based was a choice Hamilton made to stabilize his energy levels that began dipping in his 30s, the F1 star reported. For Messi, the junk food diet of his youth could no longer fuel his performance. He credits swapping out high-sugar foods in favor of plant-based choices for his shorter recovery times and overall career longevity.

Even for athletes, going plant-based may be necessitated by underlying health issues. A decade ago, Williams was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that resulted in fatigue, muscle aches, and joint pain.  While she allows occasional ‘cheats,’ Williams follows a mostly vegan diet, which she says eases the chronic symptoms of the disease and enabled her to come back to the tennis circuit where she still remains in her forties. 

Health Benefits of Eating Plant-Based Foods

Many wonder if a plant-based diet is good for athletes, so we turned to the data. Research touting the health benefits of plant-based diets is in abundance these days and dates back to The China Study in 2005.  That research found a correlation between following a mostly whole-food, vegan diet and avoiding—or reducing the development of—certain life-threatening diseases.  While the results were groundbreaking, many still found vegan food choices lacking, believing that animal-based proteins were best to fuel their fitness.  

Many who are transitioning to a more plant-based diet wonder how to get enough protein as a vegan athlete. The athlete’s who have moved towards plant-based diets have figured it out. Most foods have protein, some are higher than others like legumes and lentils. As you become more educated about plant-based protein, there’s a lot to choose from.

Plant-Based Foods and Performance: What the Research Tells Us

Currently, there is limited research comparing athletic performance amongst those consuming plant-based diets to those consuming omnivore diets. However, available research indicates those following a mostly plant-based diet could have the edge—including better cardiovascular health, reduced blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower body fat and a leaner body composition. Plant-based followers also benefit from the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of their diets, which can result in shorter recovery times, reduced muscle soreness, less joint pain, and faster recovery time from injuries.

The Plant-Based Movement

New research continues to show the health benefits of eating a diet rich in plant-based foods versus meat. A recent large-scale study examined subjects in the US and UK, finding that plant-based diets help feed gut microbes linked to lower risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Findings like this make it no surprise to see many reporting they’re eating less meat and going flexitarian. In fact, 39% of Singaporeans are flexitarian, while another 7% are vegetarian or vegan—all citing health as the key reason for their choice. Undoubtedly, professional athletes have helped propel plant-based diets into the mainstream. Still, it’s the proven health benefits of eating plant-based that give this lifestyle choice real staying power.

Arlene: Plant-Based Foods Without Sacrifice

Whether an elite athlete or an exercise enthusiast, consuming plant-based options has clear advantages. The good news is that with Arlene, the days of the dry, flavorless, nutrient-lacking veggie meat are long gone.  Think delicious foods like kebab, chili sin carne, spaghetti bolognese, and much more.  Arlene offers a variety of great tasting, protein-rich foods to fuel workouts and satisfy taste buds—even for the most die-hard of meat eaters.