From recreational to professional athletes, many are focusing more on a plant-focused diet and are seeing benefits in overall health and athletic performance.

The term plant-focused can be a little confusing as everyone defines it differently. Kim Hoban, Registered Dietitian and NASM Certified Personal Trainer explains, “While dietary preferences such as vegan and vegetarian have more specific definitions and even sub-groups (like lacto-ovo vegetarian), plant-based or plant-focused diets are a little less clear cut. Whether described as plant-based or plant-forward, in general, these meal patterns emphasize including more plant foods (fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts).”

It’s more about making plants the star of each meal, and aiming for at least half your plate of plant-foods, notes Edwina Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, and owner of edwinaclark.com.

Sports dietitians are recommending this pattern of eating to athletes. Lindsey McCoy, RD, CSSD, promotes this style of eating for all her clients, but emphasizes it even more for athletes in particular as they push their bodies to the limits putting extra strain on muscles, tissues, organs, and more.

Why Athletes are Incorporating a More Plant-Focused Diet

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What’s so special about plants? “Plants, including, fruits, vegetables, plant-proteins, and whole grains are full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that not only help to provide energy, but they support the immune system as well,” says Hoban.

Recovery is key for athletes as they train consistently. It is often a misconception that athletes need to focus solely on protein post-workout. What Amanda Hibshman, RDN, a private practice and culinary dietitian, loves most about plant-focused diets for athletes in particular, “is that most of the calories contain an abundance of carbohydrates, which is the main energy source to fuel athletic performance. Often, athletes think they need a ton of protein to fuel their muscles, but it is actually the carbohydrates in food that they need to enhance performance.” Clark additionally notes, that the antioxidants found in plant foods help clean up free radical damage after exercise, and promote recovery. Moreover, Kelly Jones, RDN, former Division 1 Athlete and Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, adds that it has been thoroughly researched that an intake of mostly plants and fatty fish reduced inflammation in the body, which further aids in recovery and is additionally beneficial for joint health.

Tom Brady, the quarterback of the New England Patriots, has been pretty vocal about his plant-focused lifestyle and attributing it to his performance on the field.

Other known professional athletes are following suit, including:

  • Novak Djokovic, who just won the US open
  • Olympic Weightlifter Kendrick Ferris, who competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio as a vegan after competing as a non-vegan in 08 and ‘12.
  • Scott Jurek is probably the most well-known vegan ultra runner.

Working with a credentialed sports dietitian is key as they can help transition athletes to following a sustainable plant-focused diet. As a sports dietitian, Jones educates athletes on how to add fruits and veggies more easily to breakfast and snacks as a first step. She found many were already include a vegetable at dinner, but may not think about them at other meals. Clark provides strategies like swapping meat/poultry at dinner for a plant-based protein like tofu, edamame, or beans, once or twice a week.

They are also well versed in knowing the specific nutritional needs for athletes. Specific key nutrients that athletes need to make sure they are getting enough of can be found in plants!

Clark explains, “Iron plays a critical role in oxygen transportation and immune system maintenance– both of which are important for athletes. Low iron can make athletes more susceptible to illness, sluggishness, and perpetual fatigue.” Plant-based sources of iron like legumes, spinach, and fortified grains, are encouraged to be consumed with a source of Vitamin C in order to enhance absorption, notes Jones. 

McCoy adds, “Potassium is a common nutrient of concern for athletes. Potassium is involved in numerous important physiological processes—maintaining blood pressure, fluid balance, nerve functioning—and as a major electrolyte, its concentration can fluctuate significantly for athletes. Potassium (or you can think of it as potassiYUM!) is found abundantly in fruits and vegetables. Beyond bananas, potassium is found in potatoes, squash, leafy greens, beets, beans, and everybody’s favorite—avocado. The general recommendation is 4700 mg per day so working to get that is a great start!”

Why Athletes are Incorporating a More Plant-Focused Diet

Vitamin B12 is found exclusively in animal foods and B12 deficiency is a significant concern for long-term vegetarians and vegans. B12 deficiency can cause permanent damage to the nervous system, as well as fatigue, shortness of breath, and digestive issues, all of which impact athletic performance. If following a 100% plant-based diet, consult with your dietitian if supplementation is needed.

“Pay attention to calcium intake,” says Clark as ”calcium is important for bone health, and reduced intake, particularly in women with amenorrhea, can make athletes more susceptible to fractures.” Hibshman adds, “Some great plant based sources of calcium include broccoli, leafy greens, tofu, and almonds. Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption and can be found in mushrooms, soy milk, and fortified cereals”.

Protein is critical for muscle synthesis and recovery after exercise. “Protein needs vary from athlete-to-athlete based on individual goals, sport, training cycle, and more. However, daily protein recommendations for athletes generally range between 1-2g protein per kg of body weight,” states Clark and specifically notes, “essential amino acids cannot be synthesized endogenously, and appear to be particularly helpful for building new muscle after exercise. Many vegetarian sources of protein are missing one or two essential amino acids and need to be paired with other foods for maximum muscle-building benefits after exercise. Plant-based proteins that contain all amino acids include tofu, edamame, tempeh, quinoa, buckwheat, and seitan.”

If a dietitian doesn’t think that the athlete is meeting all their nutritional needs, they may recommend supplementation. Be sure to talk to a credentialed dietitian to help you make the best choice on supplementation for your personal goals.

The bottom line, McCoy, explains, “choosing to follow a plant-focused diet can provide the nutrients your body needs to operate at its highest level—helping you to live a healthier life and achieve your personal athletic goals”.

You don’t have to be a professional athlete to want to achieve optimal athletic performance. Start by making one of these plant-based recipes or try Luvo’s Vegetarian Bundle which contain 8 meals for anyone looking for a tasty meat-free dish.

Peanut Butter Snack Bites via Kelly Jones

Double Chocolate Cauliflower Mini Muffins via Edwina Clark

Honey Almond Butter (to spread on apple slices) via Amanda Hibshman, RDN

Crispy Garlic Chickpeas via Chef Julie Harrington, RD

Share your thoughts in the comments below!