Plant-Powered Athletes and What They Eat

A nutritionist takes a look at how and why more elite athletes are going vegan.

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Tennis superstar Venus Williams, who follows a vegan diet.

Photo by: Tim Clayton - Corbis

Tim Clayton - Corbis

Tennis superstar Venus Williams, who follows a vegan diet.

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In our protein-obsessed culture, it can be hard to wrap our heads around the idea that a growing number of elite athletes are giving up animal products in favor of a plant-based diet. Recent research proves that a vegan diet can still provide proper fuel for even the world’s top athletes, and that you don’t have to choose between meat and muscles.

Advantages of Plant-Based Diets

Putting the tofu vs. steak argument to rest, a new study in Nutrients tracked the diets of both vegetarian and omnivore endurance athletes, then put them through a series of fitness tests. Their findings: whether the athletes were fueled by chicken or beans, they had similar levels of body composition and physical performance, with a slight edge to the plant eaters. Additionally, the omnivores had significantly more visceral fat, which can increase your risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Protein Sources

In the same study, both groups ate similar amounts of proteins and calories, with the vegetarian group showing significantly higher VO2 max endurance scores and similar strength scores. Showing that even if you pass on chicken, you will be just as strong as those who don’t.

All protein foods contain amino acids, the building blocks of protein, though most plant-based sources don’t contain all the essential amino acids at once. However, a vegan diet can easily obtain all essential amino acids in sufficient quantities if the diet is varied and energy appropriate.

Pulses, such as chickpeas, lentils, dry beans, peas and grains, like rice, oats, wheat are all protein rich, with complementary amino acid profiles. Eating these foods throughout the day ensures all of the amino acid needs are comfortably met. Plant-based proteins may even provide a competitive edge. Pulses are both rich in protein and low-glycemic carbohydrates; a combination that increases fat metabolism while preserving lean-muscle mass.

Plant-Strong Athletes

While the reasons vary from person to person, many of these athletes turn to a vegan diet for health reasons. Now dubbed one of the fittest men on the planet, ultra marathoner Rich Roll turned plant-based in a response to being overweight and tired after climbing the stairs. Tennis star Venus Williams chose a vegan diet after being diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome, which causes joint pain and fatigue. They both credit a whole-food, plant-based diet as the secret to their success.

Griff Whalen, wide receiver for the Oakland Raiders, traded whey protein shakes for whole foods. He prefers making his post-workout recovery smoothies instead with fruit and omega-3 rich chia and hemp seeds. For protein, he reaches for black beans, chickpeas or lentils along with plenty of grains and greens.

In addition to these vegan athletes, a growing number of professional athletes are increasing the amount of plants they eat. Tom Brady’s famous diet is roughly 80% plant-based, and 11 members of the Tennessee Titan’s have claimed to eat a mostly vegan diet. According to ESPN, this diet shift has helped them lose weight, recover faster and play better.

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