The benefits of a plant-based diet for athletes

Yvonne O'Halloran

There are many advantages a plant-based diet can provide to athletes and since the global release of the documentary ‘The Game Changers’ on Netflix, many more people becoming more aware of these health benefits.  It’s interesting to note that athletes are not exempt from health problems. In fact, they have a higher than average risk for atherosclerosis and myocardial damage. A 2017 study discovered that coronary plaques were found in 44% of middle aged and older endurance athletes engaging in cycling or running compared to 22% of sedentary controls. So why is this so? Perhaps how they fuel their body has a large part to play.

Saturated Fats: Dairy and meat are the leading sources of saturated fats and the exclusion of these products improves plasma lipid profiles. A plant-based diet keeps athletes’ hearts strong by reversing plaque, bringing down blood pressure and cholesterol and reducing weight.

Anti-Inflammatory: A plant-based diet may have an anti-inflammatory effect. A 2017 meta-analysis of 18 previous studies found that a vegetarian diet consumed over a 2 year period reduced c-reactive protein which is a marker for inflammation. It’s believed that the anti-inflammatory effect may be due to the antioxidant content of plants, the absence of animal products and pro-inflammatory fats. Foods such as cherries, blueberries, watermelon and blackcurrants may decrease post exercise inflammation and assist with recovery.

Blood Viscosity: Blood viscosity (or thickness) is also important for athletic performance. A diet low in fat and free of cholesterol helps improve blood viscosity and therefore assists oxygen in reaching the muscles- improving performance.

Improved Blood Flow: Plants seem to assist the arterial blood flow by improving arterial flexibility and diameter. It has been found that a single high-fat meal (such as a sausage and egg McMuffin) can impair arterial blood flow for several hours!  This improved blood flow can assist athletic performance.

Free Radicals: Free radicals are the by-product of chemical reactions in the body and can lead to inflammation when they damage healthy cells. They can lead to muscle fatigue, reduced athletic performance and impaired recovery but they can be neutralized by antioxidant rich foods. Compared to meat eaters, people eating plant-based get more antioxidants.

Higher Fiber/Lower Fat: Plant-based diets are typically lower in fat and higher in fiber than western diets. This results in reduced body fat which is associated with increased aerobic capacity (or the ability to use oxygen to fuel exercise) which leads to improved endurance in athletes.


Barnard ND, Goldman DM, Loomis JF, et al. Plant-based diets for cardiovascular safety and performance in endurance sports. Nutrients. Published online January 10, 2019.



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