The first thoughts many people have when it comes to a pro-fitness diet consist of lots of animal proteins like eggs, beef, and chicken. But there are more athletes than ever who are adopting a vegan diet, whether it's for ethical, environmental, or health reasons. For example, tennis champion and all-around legend Venus Williams says much of her success on the court has come from plant-based fuel.
I myself have witnessed many positive changes in my fitness levels since I went vegan. I recover much faster, I have way more energy, and I never deal with digestive issues that get in the way of my workouts. However, I wanted to get the experts' opinions on the subject; I was curious to find whether my experiences align with science. Here's what they have to say.
It Can Help You Recover Faster Between Workouts
"Improving fitness is all about recovery, meaning that you will optimize gains (i.e., endurance, strength, agility) from training with proper nourishment and rest," Julieanna Hever, aka the Plant-Based Dietitian, MS, RD, CPT, explained. "A plant-based diet supports recovery by providing a deluge of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories that are unique to whole plant foods, enabling the body to repair healthfully."
Julieanna went on to explain that plants are chock-full of phytonutrients, which are compounds that "quench the free radicals formed during exercise and help support the rebuilding process," which is exactly why many athletes see a shorter recovery window between big workouts or events.
Personal trainer and injury-prevention specialist Liz Letchford, MS, ATC, agreed, and she added, "One huge benefit of getting your protein from plant-based sources is that they are relatively nonacidic compared to animal-based sources. Consumption of animal protein without consumption of adequate dietary fat may contribute to an acidic blood pH, resulting in inflammation, ultimately resulting in poor performance and delayed muscular repair." Liz also follows a vegan diet.
"A plant-based diet supports recovery by providing a deluge of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories that are unique to whole plant foods, enabling the body to repair healthfully."
I also spoke with Jay Oliveira, a Brazilian ju-jitsu black belt athlete who has been eating a plant-based diet since 2011. He competes regularly and has been coaching people for the last five years on improving their fitness levels through a vegan diet. "As a die-hard ju-jitsu athlete, I noticed within two weeks a dramatic drop in inflammation," he explained. "My recovery is amazing! And it's much easier on the joints."
You'll Have More Energy
"All plant-based foods have protein."
While some people may frown upon the vegan diet for being high-carb, Julieanna explains that this is in fact the most useful characteristic of eating plants when it comes to fitness. You'll get "plenty of carbohydrates for fuel," like sweet potatoes, brown rice, and lentils. They're meant to provide your body with all the energy you need to get through a tough workout.
After he went vegan, his "cardio improved drastically," Jay said. He suddenly had boundless energy and had no trouble getting to the end of all his workouts.
Your Digestion Will Improve
"Plant foods tend to allow for easier digestion and absorption of nutrients, ultimately allowing you to process and store your nutrients easier and without stressing the digestive system like difficult-to-digest animal meat," Liz explained. You'll be much less likely to feel bloated and heavy from plant-based meals, two feelings that often stunt your physical fitness growth rather than promote it.
Jay added, "Digestion is improved so your body can focus on healing rather than digesting meat, dairy, and processed foods, which don't digest as quickly." Dairy has been known to cause bloating and indigestion for many people, and many studies show that it is much more difficult to digest meat than it is plants. By improving your overall digestion, you'll make it much easier to reach your fitness goals.
Yes, You'll Get Enough Protein
Now let's talk protein. There are a lot of myths out there that say you can't get enough protein on a plant-based diet. "All plant-based foods have protein," Liz said matter-of-factly. "The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day for endurance athletes and 1.6 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day for strength athletes," Julieanna added. "This can easily be attained from plant foods."
Here's a little perspective. I weigh 130 pounds, which is about 60 kilograms. Since I lift weights regularly, that means I need about 96 grams of protein each day — and I eat well above 100 grams daily on a plant-based diet. According to Julieanna, vegan food gives you "the right amount of protein to rebuild — but not to stress — the body."
But There's a Catch
You won't magically become Venus Williams if you start eating vegan. There is some effort and energy you need to put into your diet if you want to try out plant-based foods. "The biggest thing I've seen coaching people is they don't eat enough if they're working out a lot," Jay said. "Due to the fact that plants have much lower calories per pound, you must eat a larger volume of food to eat the same amount of calories."
If you're an active person who loves to work out, you can't live off of spinach and carrots alone! Jay says you must get your nutrients and energy from "starchy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruits, with a bit of fat daily from whole food fats like seeds." So just eating a measly salad for dinner isn't going to cut it. Try out some hearty meals that give you enough calories and sustenance, like this spicy sweet potato, chickpea, and quinoa veggie burger or this vegan bolognese recipe.
Finally, Liz chimed in to say, "It is important to note that this diet is not for everyone. Metabolic requirements, caloric absorption, and macronutrient needs are vastly diverse." Although there is no harm in trying it out, if you "begin feeling symptoms associated with vitamin deficiency," you may need to incorporate some other things into your diet, like eggs or grass-fed meat.
"My biggest recommendation to my carnivorous clients?" Liz said. "Cut out animal products to once or twice per week and fill up with nutritious plant-based foods."