How Do Plant-Based Diets Affect Athletic Performance?
Updated: Jul 1
Studies have determined that the performance in, and recovery from, sporting activities are enhanced by well-chosen nutritional strategies. Despite a variety of diets existing, such as keto or pescatarian, a plant-based diet has been gaining notable popularity in athletes. Some well-known athletes practicing a plant-based diet include DeAndre Jordan, Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams, and the list goes on. The questions as to why have these athletes chosen this lifestyle and how has it affected their athletic performance arises.
Plant-based diets increase energy
Athletes need energy and strength provided to the human body as protein. One of the biggest misconceptions in sports nutrition is animal-derived protein is superior to plant-derived protein. Having a high meat diet is not the only method of becoming big and strong to perform at an elite level. Studies have shown that contrary to popular belief, plants are the best source of protein. A 2013 study revealed individuals with plant-based diets obtained 70% more protein than required by the body and individuals with animal-based diets obtained about 50% of their protein from plants. Chris Paul, an NBA All-Star, described his motivation to continue his plant-based lifestyle by saying, “Once you realize how different it makes your body feel, then it makes you want to continue.” Now at 34 years of age, Chris maintained energy to help lead the Phoenix Suns as they faced off with the LA Lakers in the 2021 NBA playoffs.
Plant-based diets reduce body fat
As bodybuilders build muscle mass, shedding excess body fat before a competition is crucial. By utilizing the low fat and high fiber intake of plant-based diets, bodybuilders are able to minimize the number of calories consumed and shed body fat. This method of fat reduction reveals a more defined musculature without compromising body weight or strength. Weightlifter and former bodybuilder Patrik Baboumian can attest to plants being a great source of energy, protein, and strength. After being vegan for nearly a decade, this 40-year-old athlete has won several competitions, broke world records, was named Germany’s strongest man in 2011, and was nicknamed the world’s strongest vegan.
Plant-based diets lower blood pressure and cholesterol
Blood flow plays an important role when it comes to athletic performance. Since blood delivers oxygen to muscles and other tissues within the body, maximal athletic performance is achieved by optimizing its circulation through the maintenance of vasculature flexibility to control blood pressure. However, blood flow is influenced by diet, and an animal-based diet often results in elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels. An increase in these values decreases blood flow by stiffening arteries and veins as they battle increased pressure and potential for narrowing through plaque buildup. Vascular hardening not only results in poor athletic performance through diminished oxygen delivery but also increases the risk for cardiovascular diseases. Because plant-based diets are typically low in cholesterol, it helps improve blood flow and athletic performance. Dotsie Bausch, a vegan Olympic silver medal cyclist, believes her change to a plant-based diet was one of the biggest components to her success as an Olympic athlete and longevity of her athletic career.
Plant-based diets increase oxygen levels
VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen used during intense exercise, and studies have shown athletes with a higher VO2 max to body weight ratio have better performance when compared to those with a lower VO2 max to body weight ratio. Cardiovascular improvements achieved through a plant-based diet allows efficient oxygen delivery to muscles to increase an individual’s VO2 max, especially during exercise. These gains result in better endurance and is an essential component to the fighting style of UFC mixed martial artist Nate Diaz. He claims “meat’s gonna slow you down,” after his stunning win against Conor McGregor. After the match, McGregor said, “It was simply a battle of energy in there and he got the better of that.” Diaz started his plant-based diet at the age of 18 and it has been a mainstay in his training regimen.
Plant-based diets reduce inflammation
Athletes and sports competitors have a higher chance of sustaining injuries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professional athletes are among the top five occupations with more than 1,000 injuries per 10,000 workers, making recovery a part of their profession. Australian sprinter, Morgan Mitchell, stated, “Being vegan has helped me immensely. I don’t feel sluggish like I did when I was eating meat, and my recovery from training really took off. It felt like an overall cleanse for my body, and I started seeing greater results on the track” after switching to a plant-based diet. A plant-based diet has been a helpful strategy to reduce inflammation because of certain foods' antioxidant activity and ability to improve cardiovascular health. In return, there is a decrease in post-exercise inflammation and faster recovery.
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Co-authored by: Jeanalyn Dela Cruz and Jasmine Uchi