Why Are These Athletes Following Plant-Based Diets? - Performance Kitchen

Original Author: Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN

You’re likely hearing about plant-based eating patterns everywhere as they’re more popular than ever, but can veganism sustain a physically active lifestyle? In this article, we’re covering the basics of plant-based diets, potential benefits, and why the following professional athletes are following a plant-based diet. You’ll see how athletes who participate in a variety of sports—from ultra-endurance running to Olympic Lifting—have proven you don’t need meat to build muscle and support optimal performance. 

What Do Vegans Eat?

Vegan diets exclude all animal products, which leads to the main concern people have about incorporating a plant-based eating approach: the misconception they won’t obtain enough protein. What most people don’t realize is how rich plant foods are in this structural nutrient. Vegan protein sources include legumes, whole grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds. While a vegan diet does not necessarily exclude processed foods (and many prepared options exist at the grocery store) those following this eating pattern tend to have a higher intake of fruits, vegetables, and other whole plant foods. 

Vegan Diet Benefits

With a high intake of plant foods comes a high intake of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Compared to the eating patterns of omnivores, vegan diets are found to be more protective against chromic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and even all-cause mortality. The positive impact on gut microbiota associated with a vegan diet may reduce inflammation–adding to the anti-inflammatory benefits of consuming a wide variety of phytochemicals (active beneficial chemicals found in plants). By limiting inflammation and supporting heart function, there is a good reason to believe that plant-based diets are not only adequate but may offer benefits for enhanced athletic performance. 

The Rise of Athletes Following Vegan Diets

The 2018 Tennessee Titans increased awareness of veganism for performance when their best season in over a decade happened to occur while 15 players were following vegan diets. The year prior, Forest Green Football Club in the UK went entirely vegan. Even the fans eat plant-based at the stadium. And it doesn’t stop there. Both men and women in every professional sport are going plant-based and not turning back.

Nate Diaz - UFC Fighting

After being mocked for his vegan lifestyle by top UFC fighter Connor McGregor, Nate Diaz shook the world by submitting McGregor, then-UFC featherweight champion. Diaz ate a lot of fast food growing up, and his transition to a vegan diet began with eliminating dairy. He’s mentioned that he still receives criticism, but the intensity of his training and his successes are proving critics wrong.

Venus Williams - Tennis

After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder in 2011 that causes muscle and joint pain, Williams adopted a raw vegan diet. She claims it “changed her life,” improving symptoms and allowing her to continue to excel in tennis. She is the first African American woman to be ranked No. 1 in the world in the Open Era and is tied for the record for the most Olympic medals held by a male or female tennis player. Tennis great Novak Djokovich also follows a vegan diet.

Tia Blanco - Surfing

Tia was a lifelong vegetarian before transitioning to a vegan diet for animal welfare reasons. Two years after making the switch, she claimed victory at the International Surfing Association Open Women’s World Championships. She is now a two-time World Champion.


Kyrie Irving - Basketball

After viewing the documentary What the Health, Kyrie Irving transitioned to a vegan diet and continued as a top NBA performer. The Celtics point-guard even advocated for a plant-based diet in a Nike ad in 2017, attributing his dribbling skills to veganism.

Kendrick Farris - US Olympic Weightlifting

While Farris had already made two Olympic teams in the past, after switching to a plant-based diet, he qualified for his third Olympic team and broke two American records. He was the only Olympic lifter representing Team USA and has said he wonders why he didn’t make the switch sooner.

Scott Jurek - Ultramarathon Running

Scott is well-known in and outside of the running world and is a leader in plant-based eating for athletes. Most recently, Scott set the record to be the fastest to complete a trek of 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine, along the Appalachian Trail. He accomplished this despite a quadriceps injury early on, which healed along the way. 

Dotsie Bausch - Indoor Track Cycling

After switching to a plant-based diet, Bausch claims that at an age where others in her sport are retiring, her younger teammates couldn’t keep up with her stamina. Her strength increased dramatically, she recovered more quickly, and she became the oldest woman in her sport to stand on an Olympic podium. Bausch has since founded Switch4Good, out to prove that dairy isn’t necessary for optimal performance.

Succeeding on a Vegan Diet

Exploring a plant-based eating approach can be easy, if you’re incorporating variety, and have convenient, nutrient-dense options on hand. On top of ensuring you are eating enough total energy, here are a few things to consider:

Check your meat alternative’s protein

Foods such as jackfruit, almond milk, coconut yogurt, and many veggie burgers do not contain significant amounts of protein. Make sure to read labels to check protein content rather than make assumptions.

Eat a variety of plant proteins

While all plants do contain all of the essential amino acids, most contain one or more in limited amounts. Research shows that eating a variety of plants over the course of the day provides adequate essential amino acids for the average person, but it may benefit athletes to pair plants to optimize muscle recovery. Consider pairing at least two of the following: grains, legumes, vegetables, and nuts and seeds. Performance Kitchen vegan meals offer plant-based protein, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber.


Eat protein consistently throughout the day

It’s common practice to eat a lot of protein after a workout and at dinner, but research shows consuming moderate amounts every 3-4 hours throughout the day is best for maximizing muscle protein synthesis. At breakfast, incorporate soy milk, nuts, seeds, and whole grains into nutrient-dense bowls, or have a tofu scramble. Consider mini-meals throughout the day rather than larger meals and smaller snacks.

Nutrients to be mindful about

If poorly planned, or lacking a variety of whole plant foods, vegan diets may be low in nutrients such as iron and vitamin B12. Aim to obtain plenty of legumes, a variety of whole grains, and greens to obtain adequate iron.