4 Myths of Plant Based Eating for Athletes

Rania Dempsey, MD, MS | October 14, 2021

Plant-based diets are gaining popularity among athletes. Eating more vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds means a higher intake of fiber, phytonutrients, and antioxidants, which can improve blood flow, decrease inflammation, aid in weight control, and potentially lead to improved athletic performance and recovery. But despite these and other possible benefits, many are concerned about whether plant-based diets are appropriate for strength and endurance athletes. Here are 4 common myths of plant-based eating for athletes that don’t stand up to scrutiny:

MYTH #1: Athletes can’t get enough protein on a plant-based diet

Fact: While athletes generally need more protein than inactive people, it is absolutely feasible to get enough protein exclusively from plants, and protein deficiency among vegetarians and vegans is uncommon. Athletes need between 0.5 and 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, or about 90-144 grams per day for a 180 lb athlete. Tofu contains 20 grams, lentils have 18 grams, and seitan (a popular wheat-based protein source) has 25 grams of protein per serving. Find other great sources of plant-based proteins here.

But what about protein quality? Animal products contain “complete” proteins; that is, they supply all 9 essential amino acids that cannot be produced by the body so must be obtained from the diet, but they also contain lots of saturated fat and cholesterol that can be unhealthy for athletes (and non-athletes). While some plant foods, such as soy, quinoa, hemp, chia, and buckwheat do contain complete proteins, the best way to ensure you are getting all 9 essential amino acids is to eat a wide variety of plant-based protein sources including edamame, tofu, quinoa, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, and mushrooms.

MYTH #2: Plant-based diets are high in carbs

Fact: All carbs are not created equal. Carbohydrates in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and intact grains, provide the complex carbohydrates that athletes need to perform at high intensity, plus the high fiber content of these foods prevents the rapid spike in blood sugar followed by the crash that occurs with eating simple, refined carbohydrates. Research has shown that skimping on carbs before a workout can lead to decreased exercise performance.

MYTH # 3: Plant-based diets mean feeling hungry all the time

Fact: Salad for every meal may not cut it, but legumes, tubers, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are a great way to quell hunger and stave off cravings. Unlike animal foods which contain no fiber, plant foods are rich in fiber and water which increases feelings of fullness that last. And nutrient dense, high fiber plant foods allow athletes to eat a large volume of food and feel satisfied without negatively impacting lean body mass.

In contrast, diets containing lots of calorie-dense meat, dairy, processed foods, or sweetened foods and beverages, make it easy to take in more calories than needed before actually feeling satisfied.

MYTH #4: Plant-based diets don’t taste good

Fact: While individual tastes vary widely and are shaped by exposures as early as in the womb, there are innumerable ways to prepare plants in delicious and interesting ways that appeal to all palates. Generally, the more exposure to a food, the more appealing it becomes, and it can be fun to experiment with different sauces, spices, and preparation methods. For those who are resistant to trying new vegetables, this tutorial gives a step by step approach for how to develop a taste for them. Other great resources for creating delicious plant-based dishes for athletes include the No Meat Athlete, and the NFL’s favorite vegan chef, Charity Morgan.

Bottom Line

Eating more plants is beneficial for athletes and non-athletes alike. With a healthy whole food plant-based diet, athletes can enjoy satisfying and delicious foods that fuel their energy needs and support optimal athletic performance.