The Benefits of Plant-Based Diet in Athletic Performance

The popularity of plant-based diets has grown exponentially in the last few years. Not only do most of us now understand what a vegan diet is, but eating plant-based is no longer considered a weird character trait. More and more of us are understanding that incorporating more plants in our diet is one of the best things we can do for our overall health.

Not only that, but more public personalities and (perhaps more importantly) more athletes are turning to plant-based eating to gain an edge in athletic performance. Ethical and environmental arguments aside, people who eat a plant-based diet might be able to lengthen life, decrease risk of disease, and improve mood. Anecdotally, many athletes and performers from Lewis Hamilton to Novak Djokovic and Beyonce to Venus Williams have touted the benefits of plant-based eating.

In this article, we’ll explore the specific plant-based diet benefits, both for elite athletes and those who are more relaxed about the whole fitness thing.

What is a Plant-Based Diet?

Here in the UK, when we talk about a plant-based diet, we are usually talking about a diet that comes entirely from plants. This is also called a vegan diet. A vegetarian diet is mostly plant-based, but includes eggs and dairy products like cheese, milk, and yoghurt. If you are an omnivore or have a more flexitarian approach, that is not to say you can’t benefit from adding more plants to your diet. More on this later!

For the purposes of this article, we will mostly be focussed on the plant-based diet. Staples of this diet are grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds. We’ll explore plant-based nutrition, some of the science-backed benefits, and finally take a look at some athletes who credit the plant-based diet with optimising their fitness.

Understanding Plant-Based Nutrition

There are a plethora of nutrients available in a plant-based diet. Often more than an omnivore diet! Of course there are many reasons for this, but the most basic and important is that the vitamins and minerals available in plants are more readily available to the body than those in animal-based foods. Also, a plant-based diet tends to be lower in saturated fat and higher in fibre.

Carbohydrates and Athletic Performance

Carbohydrates are essential for our bodies: they are the main source of sustained energy. For athletes, this is absolutely crucial as physical activity burns through energy. 

Plant-based sources of carbohydrates include grains such as wheat, rice, and barley as well as starchy vegetables like potatoes. Beans and legumes also contain carbohydrates as well as protein. Oats and bananas also deserve a special mention as oats are brilliant for your gut and bananas are high in fibre and potassium. 

In any diet, variety is key. Varying sources of carbohydrates will help provide the greatest range of vitamins and minerals, vital to body and brain function.

Protein Sources and Muscle Mass

We’ve explored the link between protein and muscle elsewhere, but suffice to say, protein is an absolutely essential component in both building and maintaining muscle. Athletes who are building muscle or trying to stay at a certain level will find that getting an adequate amount of protein is crucial. Protein aids in cell repair as well, so is super important when talking about recovery post-workout.

Plant-based sources of protein include nuts, seeds, beans and some grains. Protein is made up of a chain of amino acids, a complete chain is a whole protein. While there are fewer sources of complete protein in a plant-based diet, varying sources of protein will complete the chain. Some sources of complete plant-based protein include quinoa, tofu, and tempeh.

If you are trying to up your protein intake, one final thing to consider is a plant-based protein powder, where the work of assembling a complete protein has been done for you. Gone are the days when the only protein powder available was whey-based. These days, there are lots of vegan alternatives, often using pea protein (which we, obviously, love).

Fats: The good, the bad, and the absorption

Fats got a bad reputation in the 90s and we’re still recovering from that mindset. However, fats provide essential fuel and energy and enable the body to absorb certain vital vitamins and minerals. Understanding the difference between good and bad fat, however, is key to getting the most from your nutrition.

In a nutshell, monosaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are considered to be healthy in moderation. Saturated and trans fats are considered to be unhealthy and should be consumed only sparingly. Healthy fats are mostly found in nuts and nut butters, olive oil, seeds and avocados. Unhealthy fats to keep an eye out for include palm oil, coconut oil, and margarine made with hydrogenated oil. They often also make an appearance in baked goods like biscuits and cakes. Main sources of unhealthy fats happen to be found in animal-based food such as high-fat meat (bacon, burgers), hard cheese, and high-fat dairy products like cream. If following a plant-based diet, you’re a step ahead as you are already avoiding those items.

Some vitamins and minerals are fat soluble, which means that in order for the body to absorb them, they have to be consumed with fat. These vitamins include vitamin A, D, and E. 

Vitamins and minerals and their importance

The importance of vitamins and minerals in nutrition cannot be overstated. They are essential to body function, health, and wellness. Vitamins and minerals are in all the food we eat and run the gamut from the ubiquitous C to the more mysterious K.

If you are interested in a full breakdown of vitamins and minerals, check out this article from All Plants about the A to Z of vitamins.

On a plant-based diet, so long as it includes a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, you will be getting a similarly wide variety of vitamins and minerals. For example citrus fruits and bell peppers are super high in vitamin C. Dark leafy greens contain lots of vitamin K. Sweet potato and carrots have a high amount of vitamin A. This list goes on!

Two things to keep in mind is that research has shown that those following a plant-based diet might have a harder time getting enough vitamin B12 and vitamin D. This can be addressed through supplements or by planning your meals to include things like nutritional yeast and marmite (which contains B12) and mushrooms and fortified plant-based milk. 

Five Fantastic plant-based Benefits Backed by Science

  • Lower Your Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is one of the things that is an indicator for scary things like heart disease, strokes, and type 2 diabetes. Along with lifestyle, the food you eat affects your blood pressure. 

According to research conducted with over 20,000 participants, people who followed a vegetarian diet had lower blood pressure than those on an omnivore diet. 

  • Keep Your Heart Healthy

As explored above, meat contains saturated fat, which is not good for us. According to a study published by The Journal of American Heart Association revealed that eating a plant-based diet could reduce the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease dropped by a whopping 31 percent. 

  • Help Lose Weight

An article published in The Public Health Advocate references two compelling studies that found people who followed a plant-based diet had “statistically significant” reduction in overall BMI. 

Even taking into account other lifestyle factors, this article was happy to conclude that eating a plant-based diet (and therefore less meat products) would result in losing weight. 

  • Improve Your Cholesterol

High cholesterol can lead to fatty deposits in the blood which essentially causes your blood to move less effectively. This can have very detrimental long-term effects on overall health. What you eat significantly influences cholesterol levels. 

One pretty amazing study out of the University Toronto found that people who had a plant-based diet rich in oats, beans, and barley (non-soluble fibre) reduced their bad cholesterol levels by an incredible almost 30 percent in just four weeks. 

  • Help You Live Longer

Everyone wants to live healthier and longer, right? See your grandchildren grow up, travel the world, perhaps? Well, according to this ground-breaking study from the University of Borgen, following a balanced plant-based diet long-term could increase life expectancy by an absolutely astounding 10 years. 

Case Studies: Successful Athletes on Plant-Based Diets

As explored above, the benefits to one’s overall health are now well-documented. But we’re talking about athletes and fitness. Does a plant-based diet really work them? Let’s get into some vegan athlete success stories.

  • Formula One Champion Lewis Hamilton found he has more energy after switching to a vegan diet, while also feeling more productive. He has been vegan since 2017, originally citing environmental and ethical reasons, but also his family’s history of cardiovascular disease. He said "Every person I have met who has gone vegan says it is the best decision they have ever made.”

  • Roma and former England footballer Chris Smalling credits plant-based eating with better health and reduced recovery times. First inspired to cut out red meat by his vegan wife, Smalling found that his tendinitis improved. This led to going fully vegan, telling The Telegraph that on a vegan diet he was able to “keep banging out games without being too sore.”

  • In 2011, Venus Williams withdrew from the US Open following a diagnosis of Sjorgen’s disease, an autoimmune disorder characterised by crippling muscles aches. Changing to a mostly raw vegan diet allowed Williams to come back to tennis “it changed everything,” she said, enabling her to manage her immune condition and spreading the message that a vegan diet can be life changing. 

  • Patrik Baboumian is a retired powerlifter. The year he went vegan, he was amazed to find that “My performances exploded. I got heavier, I got stronger.” Not only that, but he broke world records, made Guiness Book records, and went up a weight class. He is now a PETA ambassador and a passionate advocate for the ethical treatment of animals. 

  • Tennis champion Novak Djokovic, who has won 24 Grand Slam titles, said “Eating meat was hard on my digestion and that took a lot of essential energy that I need for my focus, for recovery, for the next training session, and for the next match.” In other interviews, he has also said that plant-based eating has helped to manage allergies and food sensitivities he has had since childhood.

  • And finally, a special mention for Beyonce (the girl is an athlete!), who does not follow a strictly plant-based diet. However, in the lead-up to big performances like Coachella or Glastonbury, Beyonce has been vocal about following a plant-based diet to get her body in peak condition.

Simple ways to get started with a plant-based diet

If you are new to eating a plant-based diet, you might not know where to start. With some simple steps and a little thought, making the transition can be easy and even exciting as you embark on a new, more healthful journey!

First off, you don’t need to go full on plant-based right away. A good rule of thumb for early plant-based adopters is to think about what you can add to your diet rather than cutting out all meat and dairy on day one. Diet is all about balance, so to begin with try tipping the scales in favour of more plants and plant-based protein.

You will definitely have heard of Meat Free Monday, so start with one day a week. On that day, swap out meat for lentils or tofu, like in this delicious lentil and pasta stew. You might find that experimenting with ingredients and meal planning might help. We have lots of plant-based recipes on our website, another great resource. 

Once you have mastered a day or two a week, you might feel up to a more challenging length of time. Veganuary is a great option! According to YouGov surveys conducted in participating countries, nearly 25 million people took part in Veganuary in 2024, so you’ll be in good company. 


In conclusion, the future of food is undoubtedly shifting towards plant-based diets. With growing evidence supporting their health benefits and the undeniable positive environmental impact, more and more people are choosing plant-based options every day.

ZENB believes in a world where plant-based eating becomes the norm, offering innovative and nutritious products that make the transition both exciting and delicious.

Why not give it a try yourself? Embrace a sustainable future and explore the vibrant world of plant-based eating with companies like ZENB, leading the charge towards better health for you and the planet.


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