The best plant-based nutrition for athletes and sportspeople

It’s official: plant-based nutrition is not just good for the planet but it’s also great for our health. The team at Real Foods, Scotland’s largest independent retailer, shares why so many athletes and sportspeople are turning to plant-based nutrition and adopting vegan and vegetarian diets.

We already know this: a healthy lifestyle begins with what you put in your mouth. Whether you are training for competitive sports or simply wish to enjoy an active lifestyle, it all begins with your diet. The more intense your training schedule is, the more important it is to eat smartly and feed yourself with nutrients that can nourish and replenish you.

Plant-based nutrition for athletes

From NFL players, wingsuit flyers and skiers to arm wrestlers, surfers and ultimate fighting champions, vegan is now vogue in the world of competitive sports. You only need to watch new Netflix documentary The Game Changers, produced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, and James Cameron, to see how bright the light is being shone on plant-based diets.

plant based athletes Venus Williams

Which athletes are choosing a plant-based diet?

Trivia time: what do tennis players Venus Williams and Serena Williams, Formula 1 racing driver Lewis Hamilton, footballer Jermain Defoe, snowboarder Hannah Teter, boxer David Haye, cyclist Dotsie Bausch, and long-distance runner and ultramarathoner Scott Jurek have in common? They all follow plant-based diets and advocate that it improves their performance and helps them to recover quickly.

plant based athletes Lewis Hamilton

The stereotype that vegans are scrawny is an old one; you only need to look at the ribbed muscles on vegan bodybuilders Barny du Plessis or Patrik Baboumian to challenge you there. Nor are they weak: vegan weightlifter Kendrick Yahcob Farris broke the US record by lifting 831 pounds in 2016.

Why are athletes eating a plant-based diet?

The reason more athletes are eating a plant-based diet is simple: new studies are proving time and again that veganism – when done properly – is great for peak performance.  

If you have concerns that a vegan diet just won’t provide you with enough nutrition then heed the words of the American Dietetic Association, who state that “A vegetarian diet can be nutritionally adequate containing high intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fibre, phytochemicals and antioxidants.”

Here’s just a few reasons to eat a plant-based diet if you want to up your game.

1. Increases recovery times

The more training you do as an athlete, the better you’re going to become. A plant-based diet allows you to recover faster, which means you can return quicker to training. Meat consumption and high cholesterol increases inflammation in the body, whereas plant-based ingredients are believed to have an anti-inflammatory effect

2. Improves heart health

You can keep your heart stronger with a vegan diet, according to an academic study by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The reduction of saturated fat, cholesterol and an increase in dietary fibre means that individuals choosing a vegan diet tend to have a healthier weight, a lower blood pressure, and a lower serum cholesterol. This in turns promotes a healthy heart and lowers the risk of heart disease.

Heart health: Plant-based nutrition for athletes

3. Provides healthy carbs

We rely on carbohydrates to receive the energy we need to maintain intense exercise. If eaten before we begin our aerobic regime, carbohydrates can improve our endurance. A healthy vegan diet focuses on healthy carbohydrates, such as grains, legumes and root vegetables.

4. Improves blood viscosity and flow

Research shows that your blood viscosity – or thickness – is likely to be better when you eat less saturated fats and less cholesterol. This blood will also flow better due to more arterial flexibility and means that more oxygen will reach your body’s muscles.

5. Lowers body fat and boost metabolism

We’ve already mentioned that you’re more likely to have a lower weight if you are vegan. This is because you’re likely to have a lower body fat and a leaner body composition. Eating plant-based foods increases your post-meal burn, making ti significantly higher than if you were eating a regular diet with lots of high fat and unhealthy carbohydrates. Studies prove that your plant-based diet will increase your aerobic capacity, meaning you will have more oxygen to fuel your training. What’s not to love about this?

Metabolism: Plant-based nutrition for athletes

6. Reduces oxidative stress

Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene. These same antioxidants neutralise the unstable atoms in our body known as free radicals. Free radicals are what lead us to get muscle fatigue and to slow us down. So, if you want to be an athlete pro, eat your veggies! Alliums, like onion, leeks, garlic and spring onions, are particularly good for you here.

7. You’ll feel more satiated

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen proved that plant-based proteins can keep you fuller for longer than meat and other animal-based proteins. Also, most plant-based foods are lower in calorie density, which means you can often eat more of them than the equivalent of animal-based foods!

Plant-based diets for sports enthusiasts

Plant-based eating has become a minefield recently just because there is so much information out there. There’s also many more ready-to-eat processed plant-based foods that are sneakily disguising themselves as healthy. So, where do you start?

We’ll let you in on a secret: you just need to eat a balanced diet.

Athletes, sportspeople and even your next-door neighbour all need the same simple nutrients to maintain a healthy, wholesome diet. It’s not rocket science.

Every meal is made up of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. How much you have of each group really depends on how active you are and how rigorous your training schedule is.

If you’re training for a marathon, you need more carbs: If you have a really strenuous and repetitive exercise routine then you need to increase your carbohydrates as these are the main fuel for your performance and endurance.

If you’re a body builder then you need to focus on protein: You need protein to help you build and maintain your body muscle. Plant-based proteins have the added boon that they are a great source of fibre and complex carbohydrates.

Plant-based nutrition for athletes: Vegan Barny du Plessis

No one needs a high-fat diet: Even athletes should opt for a low-fat diet. Saturated fat isn’t good for us – it’s the main cause of diabetes, heart disease and unhealthy weight gain.

The myth of the protein-deficient plant-based eaters

There has always been a strange obsession from the carnivorous population that vegans can’t get enough protein from their diets.

The truth is simple: if you’re eating an unhealthy, primarily processed plant-based diet then there is a chance you might not get enough protein.

Conversely, if you are eating whole, natural ingredients then it is actually very hard to become protein deficient.

All humans only need about five to ten per cent protein within our total daily intake of calories, which is very easy to achieve through legumes and pulses.

Plant-based nutrition: how to get started

It’s easy to start eating a plant-based diet if you follow our top tips.


If you haven’t embraced a plant-based diet before, then the best way to introduce it into your lifestyle is to think about substitution – that way you won’t feel like you are eliminating anything – and it will be much easier to maintain your new diet.

All your usual athlete-friendly food choices have a vegan alternative. Meat can be substituted for tofu, seitan, beans and lentils. Your usual dairy choices can be swapped with plant-based milks, cheeses and yoghurts. Easy.

Eat the rainbow and play with texture

Eat the rainbow: Plant-based nutrition for athletes

Make sure you have plenty of fruits and vegetables within each meal by ensuring each mealtime has a range of colours on the plate. Every food colour tends to represent a different nutrition type. You will also get more from your food if you have a variety of textures on your plate – be it chewy, crispy, crumbly, smooth, sticky, hard or tough.

Cook from scratch

To ensure you’re getting the most from your nutrition, you should cut out processed foods and opt for fresh, natural ingredients. The surefire way to do this is to buy fresh veggies and cook your own meals from scratch. There are plenty of fabulous vegan recipes online, or you can download one of the many plant-based recipe apps onto your smartphone, such as Food Monster App.

Fruits are your fitness friend

Fruit is a fantastic source of fuel to enjoy just before exercise, as they are a quick on-the-go appetite-quencher, and digest really quickly, leaving your stomac h light enough to withstand even the most intense cardiovascular regime.

Eat small and often

While starting out, you might prefer to eat five or six smaller meals per day so that you don’t over or undereat as you get used to your new vegan lifestyle.

Choose organic

Your body is your temple and clean eating starts with clean food. Choose organic fruits, vegetables and ingredients to reduce the risks associated with chemicals founds in common pesticides.

Plant-based ingredients for athletes to adopt

If you eat from the following food groups, you’ll be on your way to ensuring a fantastic plant-based meal plan for all your athletic and sporting needs.

Seeds and nuts

Seeds and nuts: athletes eating a plant-based diet

The powerhouse of nutrition, nuts and seeds are crammed with protein, fibre and vitamins and healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids.  Hemp seeds, pumpkins seeds, almonds, peanuts, flax seeds and chia seeds are great for getting a protein boost.

Legumes (pulses)

Legumes are essential for a healthy plant-based diet as they pack a protein punch and are high in fibre, which is important for digestion. These include all the beans and lentils out there, from chickpeas, split peas and pinto beans to kidney beans, aduki beans and black beans.

Whole grains (cereals)

If you want to keep your body fuelled for your training, then include whole grains in your daily meals. Whole grains are really nutritious and a good source of complex carbohydrates. They are also very versatile and tasty!

Try quinoa, amaranth, wild rice, couscous, spelt and brown rice. The whole grain superstar for athletic performance is the humble oat, which is brimming with protein, folate, potassium, magnesium, iron and phosphorous. Great for releasing energy slowly and keeping you satiated for long periods, oats are also known for their anti-inflammatory benefits, which is important during recovery.

The best on-the-go plant-based meals

Buddha bowls

Why not make yourself the perfect athlete’s Buddha bowl for a complete plant-based nutritional treat?

You can eat one of these before or after your workout. Simply determine the size of your bowl based on how many calories you need.

All you need to do is layer up the following ingredients of choice:

  • Grains layer: bulgur wheat, brown rice or quinoa
  • Legumes layer: lentils, or chickpeas, kidney beans or aduki beans
  • Greens: kale, spinach, romaine or watercress
  • Nuts and seeds: flax, pumpkin, walnut or chia seeds
  • Fruit: berries, avocados, banana
  • Protein fixer: tofu or tempeh
  • Dressing: make a healthy salad dressing from oil and vinegar, with a touch of herbs and spice for extra flavour

Quick snack dips

Make a quick bean dip. Simply choose a vegetable and a type of bean, then add a healthy oil and whizz up. For example, you might like beetroot and kidney bean, or roasted aubergine and aduki bean, or carrot and cannellini bean. Serve with some delicious crudités.

Protein shakes – the vegan choice

Protein shakes: athletes eating a plant-based diet

You don’t need to rely on whey protein for your protein shake fix. There are plenty of plant-based protein blends available that you can use in your usual post-workout shake. There are protein powders made from peas, pumpkin, brown rice and hemp, to name but a few. You can also get flavoured plant-based protein powders to ensure variety. Just keep a careful eye on the ingredients list, watching out and avoiding high levels of sugar and artificial ingredients.

Add nut butters like almond butter, peanut butter or avocado for an additional calorific boost.

You might also like to add some superfood greens too, such as blue-green algae, wheatgrass, barley grass, spirulina, chlorella or alfalfa, which are packed with natural vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

What about raw diets?

raw food: athletes eating a plant-based diet

Some athletes have taken their plant-based diets one step further and gone raw. This means eating wholefoods at temperatures served less than 47°C. Studies from the University of Giessen show that there are plenty of health benefits in eating raw foods, such as higher levels of beta-carotene, which can prevent many disease, as well as lower blood pressure and decrease your risk of stroke and some cancers. Having said that, it’s not crucial to a healthy plant-based diet.

Real Foods are here to support you with a wide range of healthy, natural and vegetarian food for all your athletic and sports needs. Buy online or in one of our Edinburgh shops!

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