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

How Not to Lose Weight

Some people have high energy requirements, and getting enough calories may be a challenge. Some of the “risk factors” for having high energy needs are: endurance sports, male gender, high muscle bulk and high resting metabolic rate. It is not difficult to plan a whole foods plant based diet to meet these needs.

Even for those with average energy needs there may be difficulties getting enough calories. Gastro-intestinal disease, gastric banding, chronic medical conditions, cancer and recovery from prolonged illness may all present challenges for eating enough plant based food.

We refute the common belief that Australian meal sizes are too large: they are small and too energy dense. Western meals are smaller than those in cultures that eat a more plant-based low-oil diet. When it comes to vegetables and whole starchy foods most Australians are seriously under-nourished.

This culture of small energy dense meals creates some problems for “high energy needs” plant eaters. After a lifetime of energy dense meals, some people find it difficult to retrain their stomach to stretch enough to eat a large meal without discomfort: “eating into the pain”. The common habit of only eating one substantial meal a day will not work with minimally processed whole plant foods: a full day’s allowance of whole plant foods will not fit into a normal stomach. This is normal for herbivores. See Humans are Herbivores page. Restaurants usually do not understand energy density and serve up inadequate portions to vegans – containing little starch and very few calories (Asian restaurants are most likely to understand “a lot of rice”). Large meals can even offend some people.

Strategies for getting more calories

  1. Eat larger portions* of starchy foods – e.g. rice, oats, whole grain pasta and legumes.
  2. Eat more for breakfast and lunch. Don’t leave most of your food intake for the evening.
  3. Have between meal snacks, e.g fruit and dried fruits such as dates and figs; small amounts of nuts; baked potatoes.
  4. Schedule your meals. Eat or begin cooking before you are hungry.
  5. Add calorie boosters to meals: e.g. dried fruits to porridge or nuts and avocados to salads.
  6. Many athletes have a small snack before morning training.

    Click here for Jenny’s sister’s whole grain fruit cake recipe

  7. Drink some non-dairy smoothies in addition to your main meals (i.e. not as a meal replacement).
  8. Dried baked goods are your friend for weight gain as they are more calorie dense than intact whole grains and whole grain pastas. Make whole grain cakes, slices and energy bars with dried fruit. Find a good wholemeal bread in your region (in Victoria find stockists for Irrewarra sourdough wholewheat bread).
  9. Be familiar with the calorie density chart and eat more foods from the 100-300 calories per 100g range

* What is a large portion?
The following are examples for an average sized male (weights are dry weights):

  • Morning porridge: 140g rolled oats, 40g dried fruit. Served with fresh fruit
  • Lunch: 150g of pasta. Served with soup or vegetables
  • Dinner: 200g brown rice or pasta. Served with vegetables and beans

We recommend you purchase kitchen scales. Aside from getting some idea of your portion size, they are very useful for getting the proportion of water and rice/oats just right.

See also:


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