5 Reasons Why Top Athletes Are Switching to Plant-Based Diets

 What do Fiona Oakes (4 world records for marathon running), Lewis Hamilton (5-time F1 world champion), Lionel Messi (5 Ballon d’Or and 5 European Golden Shoes) and Patrik Baboumian (Germany’s strongest man, numerous heavy lifting records) all have in common? They’re top athletes committed to plant-based diets who have acknowledged that what they eat has meaningfully changed their bodies and performance for the better. And they’re not the only ones. As an expert in sports nutrition and coaching, I cannot but think of the specifics behind such claims – the transformations that happen at a physiological, anatomical level that might enable this to be the case.

 For athletes thinking of switching to a completely plant-based diet, it is important to consider the shortfall in dietary creatine. Plant-based foods simply don’t contain creatine, which is of course extremely important for athletic performance. However, don’t let this deter you as this is easily remedied. It turns out that by simply using a creatine supplement you can quickly restore your levels of creatine. In fact, you can find out exactly how by reading this definitive guide on creatine loading that is based on the latest research written by sports coach Paul Jenkins.


It’s funny because whenever I talk about plant-based diets to meat eaters, they tend to quickly switch off or retort some irrelevant response about vegan diets being no good. However, for those who do not know, plant-based, does not mean meat free, it simply means that the main stray of foods are plant-based! Some may still turn their heads in disbelief at such clams about plant-based foods improving your health, I say let food be thy medicine!

Thankfully, the science behind plant-based nutrition is abundant and thorough. Despite a few naysayers and disbelievers, there are some incontestable facts are out there. We just need to go beyond the marketing spiel, biased opinions, and incomplete research studies used to back up sweeping statements. We might even have to try some things out for ourselves. Even if I don’t trust my sight 100% of the time, for some, seeing is believing. In this article, I’d like to take you through the scientific and biological reasons why plant-based eating is better for those looking to achieve and maintain maximum performance out of their bodies.

1. Less Inflammation

I’ve written about this topic before and the gist of it is that, especially with veteran bodybuilders and professional athletes, inflammation is often the obstacle preventing them from breaking their performance plateau. The reason why this is the case is because chronic, low-grade inflammation not only hampers muscle regeneration and overall recovery, but is also known to cause a host of serious diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes included (1). We know that animal products exacerbate inflammation, while whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diets significantly reduce it (2). More than 40 case-controls and clinical trials validate this fact. 

In athletes who are competing at the highest levels, being able to reduce pain resulting from intense workouts or injuries is instrumental for their overall wellbeing and ability to perform when needed. Furthermore, plant-based diets were shown to accelerate recovery after intense workouts or performance bouts where athletes give it their all and end up pushing themselves beyond their boundaries. The faster the recovery, the quicker they are able to get back to training and improve.  The plant-based diet was shown to significantly reduce inflammation – by 32% on average – even after the researchers adjusted their results for age, diabetes, waistline circumference, and other markers (3). 

The latter study compared plant-based eating to the American Heart Association recommendations for diet in patients who are at risk of or have suffered from coronary heart disease. Imagine what the results would show when matched up against normal eating habits.

Additionally, I feel it’s necessary to mention the importance of vitamin D supplementation for reducing inflammation, especially if you are following a vegan diet (which in most cases pretty much contains zero vitamin D). Without going into too much detail, vitamin D has a specific action on immune function, particularly on neutrophils and T-cells, which help fight inflammation. Fortunately vitamin D deficiency is easily resolved and if you are concerned that you may be deficient, you need read this article from dna lean.

2. Lower Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is more than something just athletes need to look out for. Hypertension is actually the number one risk factor for death in the world and it doesn’t affect the elderly alone. Coronary plaques, which are the main culprit for abnormally high blood pressure, are present in at least one fifth of those aged 24 to 32, as well as in endurance athletes. One study found that 44% of male athletes (and we’re talking masters athletes part of running and cycling clubs) had atherosclerotic plaques, even more than sedentary individuals (4). 

At a glance, this is grossly unintuitive. Active people should be the last ones to have heart issues. However, if we account for surplus calcium coming from animal-based foods, things start to make sense. The idea of hearts of stone, which can occur due to excess calcium plaque accretion, is not an uncommon one among professional cyclists. Fortunately, plant-based diets are directly and significantly linked to lower blood pressure (5), as they were shown to reduce overall cardiovascular cholesterol and calcium accumulations. Even just quitting meat was shown to lower peoples’ risk of developing hypertension by 34%.

High blood pressure is directly associated with lower exercise capacity (6), which makes sense given the crucial role that blood plays in physical activity. The problem is that the effect of this is even worse than just lower athletic performance. Premature aging and even brain injury are categorical risks if steps are not taken to reduce and prevent hypertension. 

3. Better Blood Flow

Eating less saturated fat and cholesterol (which is only found in animal foods) was shown to improve blood thickness or viscosity, if we want to be technical.  In addition, arterial flexibility and diameter are better when athletes adhere to such a diet. Sure, plant-based nutrients can also be abundant in fat, but there is a crucial difference between the type of fat you get from a WFPB diet, which is beneficial given proper adherence, and the kind you get from certain processed food items, particularly if they contain eggs, butter, and margarines. 

Why do we care about this? The thicker your blood, the more difficult it becomes for it to carry essential nutrients and oxygen all over your body, not to mention the increased risk of forming blood clots. This is, perhaps, the reason why whole blood viscosity and plasma levels are associated with increased risk of stroke, heart disease, and overall mortality. Because of the crucial role that blood has in carrying oxygen to your muscles, abnormal levels of viscosity will immediately show in reduced aerobic and athletic performance. Furthermore, the more flexible your arteries, the better they can dilate and carry additional blood when it is needed during peak physical performance.

Studies on the impact of vegetarian and vegan diets on blood viscosity were published as early as 1995, but a more recent, systematic review of 10 studies on the impact of diet on blood viscosity showed that eating mostly plant-based foods will improve blood thickness and, therefore, aerobic capacity and physical performance (7). On the side of arterial function, a single sausage and egg McMuffin were shown to impair arterial function for several hours after consumption (8). 

4. Fewer Free Radicals

Another beneficial effect of plant-based diets comes from the antioxidants you can get from whole fruits and vegetables. After decreased blood flow, free radicals are the worst enemy of athletic performance because they induce untimely muscle fatigue, which manifests itself in considerably worse results – you can’t lift your usual weight at bench press, run your standard amount – you get it. This happens because having too many free radicals will increase your overall oxidative stress, which is known to induce changes in protein, lipids, and even your DNA. Naturally, we want to reduce these unstable atoms and limit their potential to attack our healthy cells.

Unfortunately, this negative effect of free radicals on physical performance does not stop here – these nasty short-lived atoms are also responsible for impaired recovery. Together, the two drawbacks trigger a cascade effect so, instead of getting better with training, professional athletes actually get worse due to excess of free radicals (9). And we’re not even discussing the emotional impact that lower than average performance can have on an individual.

Although some supplementation with antioxidants was shown to elicit a positive response, a diet rich in antioxidants is the best thing towards combatting the overall amount of free radicals in one’s body. The fewer radicals, the higher your chances of performing your best and recovering as fast as possible. 

5. Less Body Fat, More Oxygen

The last, but surely not the least important reason why many successful competitors have changed their diet is lower overall body fat. The severe decrease in saturated fats, as well as noticeable increase in fibre were shown to reduce body fat. You might be tempted to listen to people who boil everything down to carbs, protein, and fat. The problem with this logic in challenging whole food plant based eating (WFPB)  is that the carbs and fat that come from fruits and vegetables are not the same kind you’d get from processed foods or those that contain animal products. Long story short, the former are not detrimental to your health, while the latter are. You won’t get fat or ill from eating too many fruits or veggies. Just try it for yourself. 

Even not red meat for a long enough period of time will help you lose body fat – not weight, in general, but fat (10). The beauty of it is that no calorie restriction is necessary in order to achieve weight loss. For our purposes, the less fat you have, the better it is for your athletic performance, as it will result in increased aerobic capacity (endurance), on your part. No wonder that vegan diets are associated with an increase in VO2 max, namely the amount of oxygen that your muscles can use during exercise. 

With this being said, the host of athletes trying out plant-based diets are doing it less for the publicity and more for their personal gains. Sure, some of them might have other principles in mind, such as climate change or ethics. The fact of the matter is that, as I’ve shown, there are several physiological processes that are crucially impacted by this diet transformation, developments which will undoubtedly increase your ability to physically perform given proper adherence to such an eating plan. Going vegan and still consuming industrial amounts of sugar or processed goods does not count. 

This seems to be true regardless of what is demanded from a professional – endurance, strength, flexibility, or any combination of the latter. Personally, as a coach and nutritional specialist, I would not advise anyone to undergo such a drastic change in their diet without proper consultation with a nutrition expert and a medical doctor, especially if they happen to be a professional athlete. At the end of the day, trying it out properly for a couple of months won’t hurt, but will give you enough time for the benefits to kick in.

Bibliography: 

2 Dietary Pattern and Macronutrients Profile on the Variation of Inflammatory Biomarkers: Scientific Update  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5872610/ 
3 Anti?Inflammatory Effects of a Vegan Diet Versus the American Heart Association–Recommended Diet in Coronary Artery Disease Trial  https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/JAHA.118.011367 
4 Prevalence of Subclinical Coronary Artery Disease in Masters Endurance Athletes With a Low Atherosclerotic Risk Profile https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/circulationaha.116.026964 
5 A plant-based diet and hypertension  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466938/ 
6 The impact of elevated blood pressure on exercise capacity in elite athletes  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25460373 
7 Effect of diet on blood viscosity in healthy humans: a systematic review  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5942579/ 
8 Fast?food meal reduces peripheral artery endothelial function but not cerebral vascular hypercapnic reactivity in healthy young men  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6139709/ 
9 Free radicals and muscle fatigue: Of ROS, canaries, and the IOC  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18191753 
10 Vegetarian Diets and Weight Reduction: a Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials  https://www.infona.pl/resource/bwmeta1.element.springer-doi-10_1007-S11606-015-3390-7 
 
 
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