Plant Based Athletes

A growing number of athletes and sports nutritionists regard a whole foods plant based diet as optimal for sports performance. This is at odds with the current Australian sports nutrition paradigm which seems to have become increasingly focused on protein, largely from animal sources.

The number one nutrition issue for whole foods plant based athletes is getting enough calories. Failure to thrive on a plant based diet can simply be the result of not enough calories. Complex carbohydrate foods such as rice, pasta, potatoes and beans have only half the calorie density of meat, so twice the volume will be required to replace the meat serve on a standard plate. Put simply, you will need to fill your stomach with large serves of grains, starchy vegetables and legumes several times a day along with other vegetables and fruits.

MalcYarraTriThere are many variations of whole foods plant based (WFPB) diets. Although raw foods diets are popular with athletes, most research showing the health benefits of a plant based diet have looked at people who included cooked foods such as grains, legumes and starchy vegetables. Most WFPB experts advocate a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet for sports performance. In practical terms this means the major source of calories are the starch based foods: grains, legumes and starchy vegetables rather than nuts, seeds and oils*.

*NB Vegetable oils, even olive oil and coconut oil, lead to impaired blood flow (see e.g. Vogel et al) as well as being nutrient-poor food choices. See our No Oil! page.

Protein needs are easily met on a whole foods plant based diet. All whole plant foods contain protein and simply eating an adequate number of calories of a variety of plant foods will provide the recommended protein intake which is approximately 10% of total caloric intake. Note that this is the recommended quantity and is already well above the minimum. You can safely eat more protein than this by including more legumes and higher protein grains in your diet, however isolated plant protein supplements may have negative health effects and should be avoided. A diet based on whole plant foods including generous serves of fruits and vegetables will provide adequate amounts of all vitamins and minerals, with the exception of vitamin B12 which should be taken as a supplement.

Here are some hints on making a smooth transition to a plant based diet:

  • It may be useful to take several weeks building up your skills in preparing plant-based meals before going fully plant-based.
  • Don’t aim for plant perfection – eating an abundance of plant foods is much more important than whether or not it’s organic or GMO free, and instant rice, canned beans and frozen vegetables/fruits are an excellent choice if you are time poor and can’t easily source fresh.
  • For athletes with a sensitive gut, low FODMAP choices may need to be considered, particularly before events.
  • Once you have gained confidence in preparing plant-based meals we recommend that you give it 100% for a few weeks to reset your food tastes and experience the full benefits of being a plant powered athlete.

See also:



Web links:

On the protein question:

Fitness, Personal Trainer, Coaching websites:

Key plant based athletes


Last updated 25th November 2016