The rise of plant-based diets has skyrocketed in recent years and shows no signs of slowing down. This is partly down to the growing number of elite athletes attributing their success to their plant-based diets.
Still, there remain a number of myths surrounding plant-based sports nutrition, compounded by locker-room ‘bro-science’ and dated theories, which often makes it hard to know what to believe.
As a plant-based sports nutritionist I often get looks of disbelief when I say it's perfectly possible to perform at your peak without eating animal products. Then, the interrogation starts! Here are some of the most common questions I get asked, along with the evidence-based responses I give, which prove a plant-based diet won’t hold you back in any way at all. And could, in fact, actually help you gain an advantage over the competition...
Is it possible to get enough protein on a plant-based diet?
By a long stretch, this is the question I get asked the most. But here's the thing: protein requirements are often overestimated. It’s true that increasing protein intake can help to promote muscle synthesis when combined with strength training, but only up to a point.
It’s not uncommon to hear trainers recommending up to 3g of protein per kg of bodyweight each day for building muscle (i.e. 240g of protein a day for an 80kg adult). But the biggest review to date, combining results from 49 controlled human studies, showed that during strength training programmes, protein intakes above 1.6g per kg of bodyweight per day made no further difference to gains in muscle mass or strength (1).
For an 80kg adult, this equates to a maximum beneficial intake of 128g protein per day, which is easily achievable on a vegan diet.
Where will my protein come from on a plant-based diet?
While protein requirements are often overestimated, at the same time the protein content of many plant-foods is usually greatly underestimated. High-protein foods such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, and tempeh often have well over 20g protein per typical serving.
There’s also a surprising amount of protein in whole grains (10g in a cup of oats or 8g in a cup of cooked pasta), vegetables (9g in a cup of green peas or 5g in a cup of cooked spinach), nuts and seeds (around 5g per handful).
If you’re eating a well-balanced plant-based diet consisting of a few of those higher protein foods alongside plenty of veggies, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, the protein quickly adds up and it’s easy to get all you need through diet alone.
Can vegans have protein shakes?
82% of elite athletes consume sports supplements – most commonly protein shakes, to help top up their protein intake (2). Although certainly not necessary to build muscle, they can be a convenient option, and plant-based athletes can benefit from protein shakes too – thankfully there are some excellent vegan protein powders available nowadays.
In fact, studies show that plant-based protein shakes enhance muscle protein synthesis just as effectively as whey protein (3). Many people also find them much easier to digest, not surprising considering around two thirds of people globally are dairy intolerant (4).
Is it difficult to get the full range of amino acids on a plant-based diet?
Proteins are made up of 20 amino acids, nine of which are ‘essential’ because our bodies can’t produce them on their own, so they need to be provided by the foods we eat. Animal foods contain all the essential amino acids, whereas plant foods are often low in at least one amino acid.
But a varied and balanced vegan diet consisting of a variety of whole plant foods will contain all the amino acids necessary for muscle growth, because different plant foods have different amino acid profiles. For example, beans are high in the amino acid lysine but are low in methionine, whereas many grains are high in methionine and low in lysine.
So in the context of an overall diet consisting of pulses, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruit and vegetables, you can rest assured knowing you’ll be getting plenty of each individual amino acid to optimise your results.
As well as this, your body can draw from its ‘free amino acid pool’ which is available because there is a constant turnover of protein in the body. So, if for any reason a certain meal you eat is low in a particular amino acid, your body can draw from this pool to balance things out. That’s why there’s no need to combine protein sources at each meal, as long as a variety of plant protein sources are eaten throughout the day.
Will a plant-based diet affect my recovery?
For most people, yes – a whole foods vegan diet actually improves recovery time, because of the high level of phytonutrients and antioxidants in plants which, on average, have 64x the antioxidative properties of animal foods (5).
This helps to reduce exercise-induced inflammation and resulting muscle soreness – so for competitive athletes, the quicker recovery from consuming a plant-based diet can get them back training harder, sooner.
This effect has been shown in numerous studies assessing real-life performance of athletes in both endurance and strength settings (6). Taken over the course of a whole season or an entire year, the cumulative results can be significant.
Want to learn more about how a plant-based diet could actually improve your training recovery? Check out this in-depth article I wrote on the subject.
Can a plant-based diet help improve my performance?
There are more and more vegan athletes competing at the highest level of sport. From ultra-distance triathletes, to powerlifters and bodybuilders, countless world-class athletes are adopting plant-based diets to give them a competitive advantage.
There are several mechanisms behind these performance advantages. The higher antioxidant content of plant foods, as well as helping improve recovery efficiency, will also help delay the onset of fatigue during exercise (7). Dietary flavanols, rich in many different fruits and vegetables, can improve VO2 max, enhance fat oxidation, and improve exercise efficiency (8). Plant-based diets also tend to improve the fluidity of the blood and enhance vascular function, helping to deliver oxygen and nutrients to your muscles more efficiently during exercise (9,10).
All put together, these mechanisms can lead to significant improvements in both endurance and power-related exercise performance. Check out this article I wrote for an in-depth dive into how plant-based diets can actually boost, rather than hamper, athletic performance.
Will a plant-based diet make me healthier?
Probably! On average, vegans and vegetarians tend to live longer, and grow old with fewer health conditions (11,12). For example, those eating a plant-based diet tend to have lower risk of heart disease and cancer (our two biggest killers in the west) as well as lower risk of diabetes, healthier gut profiles, and lower blood pressure.
This is due to a plethora of reasons. Partly because plant foods are incredible nutritional packages, filled with phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibre. But also because cutting out meat and animal products means a lower intake of saturated fat, as well as the hormones, antibiotics, and other carcinogenic properties found in meat and animal products.
Will I fall short on any nutrients on a plant-based diet?
Adults eating a plant-based diet tend to have better dietary quality scores – meaning a higher intake of most key nutrients (13).
For instance, studies show that those eating a plant-based diet tend to have higher intakes of fibre, folate, vitamins A, C, K, essential minerals like potassium and magnesium, and a range of non-essential but highly beneficial antioxidants and other phytochemicals (14).
Studies also show that a significant proportion of athletes consume sub-optimal carbohydrate levels, which can negatively impact performance (15). Plant-based diets on the other hand provide plenty of healthy carbs to keep glycogen stores topped up which helps power intense training sessions.
With this in mind, as with any population, athletes consuming a plant-based diet have a few key nutrients that are important to consider – some of the most important being vitamin B12, vitamin D, iodine, selenium, and zinc. Make sure you’re getting sufficient amounts of these through your food or with supplements to ensure you’re getting the most out of your plant-based diet.
Are fake 'meats' a healthy choice for vegans?
Many of the health and performance benefits of plant-based diets are thanks to the generally higher intake of whole plant foods, and the abundance of important nutrients they contain. So, having heavily processed fake ‘meats’ too often reduces the opportunity to take in these incredibly healthy foods. They’re also often made with added salt, oils, and flavourings which most people should try to limit.
However, because they’re made from plants, they don’t contain some of the potentially harmful substances found in processed meats, which is a bonus. As such, a 2020 Stanford University study showed that eating processed plant-based products improves several cardiovascular disease risk factors compared to eating animal-based meats like burgers (16).
It’s all about moderation – fake 'meat' products can certainly be enjoyed as part of a healthy balanced diet from time to time, but it’s still probably wise not to rely on them too heavily. And as mentioned previously, there are plenty of great, natural protein sources that aren't doing their best impression of a burger!
Will fruit and carbs make me get fat?
No, in fact quite the opposite is true! Although some people worry about the sugar content in fruit, these are natural sugars and they’re packaged with countless other incredibly healthy nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre. The largest review to date assessing 41 individual studies showed that higher intake of fruit does not lead to increased chance of obesity, but can in fact help to prevent it (17).
The same goes for carbohydrates, when they come from whole grain sources rather than highly processed foods. Studies show that higher intake of wholegrains is in fact associated with lower body mass index (18). Again, these foods are excellent nutritional packages and help increase intake of countless important micronutrients.
The latest science and research might just make you think twice about traditional teachings in the world of plant-based sports nutrition. It’s important to know that a vegan diet can give your body all the macro- and micronutrients it needs to be healthy, strong and powerful, when – as with any diet – it’s planned well.
TJ Waterfall is a registered plant-based sports nutritionist. He works with elite vegan athletes ranging from Premier League footballers to Team GB Olympians, and is the author of the acclaimed vegan sports nutrition book The Plant-Based Power Plan. Find out more at meatfreefitness.co.uk and follow TJ on Instagram
Morton, R., Murphy, K., Mckellar, S., Schoenfeld, B., Henselmans, M., Helms, E., Phillips, S. (2018). A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 52(6), 376-384.
Jovanov, P., Đorđić, V., Obradović, B., Barak, O., Pezo, L., Marić, A., & Sakač, M. (2019). Prevalence, knowledge and attitudes towards using sports supplements among young athletes. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 16(1), 27.
Moon, J.M., Ratliff, K.M., Blumkaitis, J.C. et al. Effects of daily 24-gram doses of rice or whey protein on resistance training adaptations in trained males. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 17, 60 (2020).
Storhaug, C., Fosse, S., & Fadnes, L. (2017). Country, regional, and global estimates for lactose malabsorption in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet. Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 2(10), 738-746.
Carlsen, M., Halvorsen, B., Holte, K., Bøhn, S., Dragland, S., Senoo, H., Jacobs, D. (2010). The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutrition Journal, 9(1), 3.
Harty, P. S., Cottet, M. L., Malloy, J. K., & Kerksick, C. M. (2019). Nutritional and Supplementation Strategies to Prevent and Attenuate Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage: a Brief Review. Sports medicine - open, 5(1), 1.
Yavari, A., Javadi, M., Mirmiran, P., & Bahadoran, Z. (2015). Exercise-induced oxidative stress and dietary antioxidants. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine, 6(1), E24898.
Al-Dashti, Yousef & Holt, Roberta & Stebbins, Charles & Keen, Carl & Hackman, Robert. (2018). Dietary Flavanols: A Review of Select Effects on Vascular Function, Blood Pressure, and Exercise Performance. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 37. 1-15.
Naghedi-Baghdar, H., Nazari, S., Taghipour, A., Nematy, M., Shokri, S., Mehri, M., . . . Javan, R. (2018). Effect of diet on blood viscosity in healthy humans: A systematic review. Electronic Physician, 10(3), 6563-6570.
Raúl Domínguez, Eduardo Cuenca, José Luis Maté-Muñoz, Pablo García-Fernández, Noemí Serra-Paya, María Carmen Lozano Estevan, . . . Manuel Vicente Garnacho-Castaño. (2017). Effects of Beetroot Juice Supplementation on Cardiorespiratory Endurance in Athletes. A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 9(1), 43.
Song, M., Fung, T., Hu, F., Willett, W., Longo, V., Chan, A., & Giovannucci, E. (2016). Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine, 176(10), 1453-1463.
Dinu, M., Abbate, R., Gensini, G., Casini, A., & Sofi, F. (2017). Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 57(17), 3640-3649.
Parker, H., & Vadiveloo, M. (2019). Diet quality of vegetarian diets compared with nonvegetarian diets: A systematic review. Nutrition Reviews, 77(3), 144-160.
Rizzo, Nico S.; Jaceldo-Siegl, Karen; Sabate, Joan; Fraser, Gary E. (2013). Nutrient Profiles of Vegetarian and Nonvegetarian Dietary Patterns. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 113(12), 1610–1619.
Jenner SL, Buckley GL, Belski R, Devlin BL, Forsyth AK. Dietary Intakes of Professional and Semi-Professional Team Sport Athletes Do Not Meet Sport Nutrition Recommendations-A Systematic Literature Review. Nutrients. 2019;11(5):1160.
A. Crimarco, S. Springfield, C. Petlura, T. Streaty, K. Cunanan, J. Lee, P. Fielding-Singh, M. M Carter, M. A Topf, H. C Wastyk, E. D Sonnenburg, J. L Sonnenburg, C. D Gardner, A randomized crossover trial on the effect of plant-based compared with animal-based meat on trimethylamine-N-oxide and cardiovascular disease risk factors in generally healthy adults: Study With Appetizing Plantfood—Meat Eating Alternative Trial (SWAP-MEAT), The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 112, Issue 5, November 2020, Pages 1188–1199,
Guyenet, S. (2019). Impact of Whole, Fresh Fruit Consumption on Energy Intake and Adiposity: A Systematic Review. Frontiers in Nutrition (Lausanne), 6, 66.
Maki, K. C., Palacios, O. M., Koecher, K., Sawicki, C. M., Livingston, K. A., Bell, M., Nelson Cortes, H., & McKeown, N. M. (2019). The Relationship between Whole Grain Intake and Body Weight: Results of Meta-Analyses of Observational Studies and Randomized Controlled Trials. Nutrients, 11(6), 1245.