Spoiler Alert: Yes, it can, explains Sports Nutritionist Anita Bean.
Athletes from runners to football players are increasingly adopting plant-based diets for improved performance, quicker recovery and overall health. While there is plenty of science to support the health benefits of plant based diets, does this also mean that they will make you a better athlete?
What are the potential advantages of plant-based diets for athletes?
Studies show that whole-food plant-based diets are associated with a number of health benefits. For example, a plant-based diet reduces the risk of coronary heart disease by 25%, cancer by 15%, type 2 diabetes by at least 50% and helps you maintain a healthy weight throughout your life.
A plant-based diet has the following potential advantages for athletic performance:
- High in carbohydrate. Carbohydrate is the primary fuel used during high-intensity exercise. Plant-based diets are high in carbohydrate so will promote recovery of glycogen (carbohydrate) stores after exercise.
- High in antioxidants. Exercise increases the formation of free radicals (unstable molecules), which can cause oxidative stress in the muscles. Over time, oxidative stress can damage cells and DNA. A plant-based diet is typically rich in antioxidant nutrients (e.g. vitamins C and E), which may help combat free radicals and reduce oxidative stress.
- Anti-inflammatory. High-intensity exercise increases inflammation in the body, which can increase the risk of injury and illness. Plant-based diets have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects on the body.
- High in fibre. Plant-based diets are high in fibre and phytochemicals (plant nutrients) that nourish the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut and increase microbial diversity. Good gut health is important for healthy immunity, energy production, maintaining a healthy gut lining and reducing the risk of leaky gut (common in endurance athletes).
- High nitrate content. Vegetables are rich in nitrate, which increases nitric oxide levels in the body. Nitric oxide helps to dilate blood vessels, reduce the oxygen cost of submaximal exercise and delay fatigue.
There is a popular belief that plant-based diets cannot supply all the nutrients needed for endurance training. However, studies show that plant-based diets do not hinder endurance performance and may even improve it, in some cases.
For example, a review of 8 studies by Australian researchers found no differences in endurance performance between athletes consuming plant-based or omnivorous diets.
Researchers at Arizona State University also showed no difference in cardiorespiratory fitness between plant-based endurance athletes and omnivores. In fact, female athletes who consumed a plant-based diet had greater cardiorespiratory fitness (i.e. higher maximal oxygen uptake, VO2 max) than those who ate meat.
In one of the largest randomised crossover trials, the 2022 SWAP MEAT Athlete study compared the effects of two plant-based diets – a whole-food plant-based diet, a plant-based diet with meat-alternatives – to an omnivorous diet on endurance and strength. After four weeks on each diet, all participants achieved similar gains, suggesting that plant-based diets can support performance as well as diets with meat.
Since plants typically contain a lower concentration of protein and essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) than animal foods, many athletes worry that they will not be able to build strength or muscle on a plant-based diet. However, such fears are unfounded. Studies show that providing you consume sufficient amounts and diversity of plant proteins, they are just as effective as animal proteins for building strength and muscle mass.
For example, in a 2023 study, researchers at the University of Exeter showed that vegan and omnivorous diets containing the same amount of protein (2g/ kg BW/ day) produced equal gains in lean mass and strength.
Similarly, a 2021 study at the University of Sao Paulo showed that athletes consuming a plant-based diet for 12 weeks gained the same amount of strength and muscle mass as those consuming an omnivorous diet. Both diets contained the same amount of protein (1.6g protein kg BW/ day).
- Whole-food plant-based diets are associated with a number of health benefits.
- A whole food plant-based diet can provide all the nutrients your body needs for training and competition.
- Plant-based diets have several potential advantages for athletic performance, including their high content of carbohydrate, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, fibre and nitrate.
- Plant-based diets can support endurance performance as well as omnivorous diets and may, in some cases, improve it.
- Contrary to popular belief, plant proteins are just as effective as animal proteins for building strength and muscle mass, provided you consume enough of them from a variety of sources.
Author: Anita Bean