The Impact of Vegan and Vegetarian Diets on Physical Fitness and Sport

Vegan and vegetarian diets are more popular and “in the zeitgeist” now more than ever before. Thanks in large part to documentaries like Netflix’s You Are What You Eat and Game Changers, plant-based diets have been revealed to be totally revolutionary for some athletes. 

Hugely successful athletes like Venus Williams, David Haye, and Novak Djokovic all credit plant-based nutrition in helping them stay at the top of their game. Like the rest of us, their reasons for going vegan vary. For Williams and Djokovic, it was initially health-related (an immune disorder and allergies respectively) while Haye, in a 2017 Sun interview, said that seeing a documentary about the treatment of animals influenced his decision to become vegan.

All three (and many other athletes besides!) have spoken extensively about how they have found that their plant-based diets have improved athletic performance and recovery time. Now, this evidence is anecdotal, but more studies are backing up these findings!

Check out this article from Viva! (the UK’s leading vegan campaigning charity), which outlines some amazing research-backed evidence on the benefits of the vegan diet in sports.

Let's dive into our article and learn about how these diets can impact our physical fitness and exercise! 

Nutritional Components of Vegan and Vegetarian Diets

Any diet, whether plant-based or omnivore, is made up of macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients can be broken down into recognisable food groups: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals found in food: vitamins A through K and minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc (among others).

Carbohydrates in vegetarian or vegan diets

Macronutrients in a vegetarian or vegan diet are pretty straightforward to come by. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body. There are three main kinds of carbohydrates: sugar, starch, and fibre. Sugars are found in lower quantities in fruit, vegetables, and milk as well as in food with added sugar like sweets and biscuits. Starchy carbohydrates are made when simple sugars are joined together and are found in foods like pasta, bread, and potatoes. 

According to Heart UK (a cholesterol charity), fibre is not technically a nutrient because we cannot absorb it in the gut or blood, but it does play a crucial role in keeping our bodies healthy. And, according to Heart UK, most of us don’t have enough fibre in our diet. Fibre is found naturally in wholegrain foods like brown rice and wholemeal bread as well as many fruits and vegetables.

Carbohydrates are vital to our diets because they give us energy and promote a healthy gut biome as well as providing us with essential vitamins and minerals not found elsewhere. 

Protein In Vegetarian Or Vegan Diets

The second pillar in the house of macronutrients is protein. We’ll explore protein a little further later on but for now, suffice to say, that in a vegan and vegetarian diets, protein is not hard to come by. 

Protein is pretty amazing. Not only does it play a role in repairing and creating new cells, but, according to Healthline, it reduces the level of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, whilst boosting the hormone that tells the brain that you are full, peptide YY. For athletes, protein is crucial not only for recovery but also for building muscle and strength.

On a molecular level, protein is made up of a chain of amino acids. Omnivores tend to get protein from animal sources. Those who eat a plant-based diet get protein from pulses, nuts, and seeds, which can be processed into things like tofu, tempeh, and quorn. Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Naina Juneja says that, “Including multiple sources of plant-protein along with combining different sources of protein is good way for vegans and vegetarians to ensure their protein requirements are met.

The British Heart Foundation recommends a serving size of at least 45g a day for women and 55g a day for men. Remember, this is an average, so this might be a little different depending on your body type, age, and fitness goals. If you are trying to build muscle, for example, you might find that increasing your protein intake is useful.

Fats In Vegetarian Or Vegan Diets

And finally, when talking about macronutrients, we need to talk about fat. Fat is so important. It is the lubricant of our cells. Fat, in small amounts, is crucial to absorbing certain vitamins: A, D, and E are all fat-soluble, so need some fat for the body to use. Fats also give us energy and help us stay warm. If you don’t have enough fat in your diet, it can lead to a lowered immune system, as you are not able to get the nutrients you need. 

Yes, there is good fat and bad fat. Monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat are so-called healthy fats. Saturated fat and trans fat are ‘unhealthy’ fats. Monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats help to regulate cholesterol levels in the blood. Saturated and trans fat are associated with an increased risk of stroke and heart disease. 

Some sources of good fat are nut butters, olive oil, and avocados, as well as oily fish. Some sources of bad fat include fatty meat like burgers and bacon as well as hydrogenated oils, which ten to be in biscuits, cakes, and margarine. The NHS recommends that men shouldn’t have more than 30g of saturated fat a day, while for women it is 20g

On a plant-based diet, good news! By naturally avoiding sausages and hard cheese, you are already ahead of the omnivores (it’s not a race; well, if you’re a runner it might be!).

Micronutrients for vegan and vegetarians

We all eat many vitamins and minerals without even thinking about it. Most of us are familiar with vitamin C for immunity, vitamin D for mood, calcium for bones, and iron for your blood. In fact, there are so many that this article would be far too long if we went into them all here, so let's talk about where vitamins and minerals come from. 

For the most part, vitamins and minerals are in the food we eat. Some foods are higher in certain vitamins or minerals than others. Citrus fruits and bell peppers are high in vitamin C, mushrooms (if exposed to UV light) can be high in vitamin D, and dark leafy greens like spinach and kale contain lots of vitamin K. 

Calcium can be found in dark leafy greens, lentils have potassium, and almonds magnesium. Some vitamins and minerals that are harder to come by are sometimes added to cereals (sometimes called fortified cereal), these are usually B vitamins, iron, and calcium. 

Micronutrients are intrinsic to nearly every process in the body, so getting the right balance in your diet is very important. Research has shown that some vitamins and minerals have antioxidant properties which are disease preventers, lowering risks for a wide variety of illnesses from Alzheimer's to heart disease to certain cancers.

While vegans and vegetarians can obtain most of their nutrients from a diverse and whole-food plant-based diet it’s important to regularly monitor certain key micronutrients like Vitamin B12,” says Naina. For athletes at an elite level, she says, “working with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian to monitor their nutritional needs are being met through their diet and supplementing, when necessary, can help meet all nutrient requirements.”

Protein Focus: Meeting Athletes' Needs

We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again. You can easily get enough protein when following a plant-based diet. 

Debunking Protein Myths

There are two protein myths worth mentioning here. The first is the above - we can’t say it enough, there are plenty of available vegan and vegetarian sources of protein. The second is that there is an over-emphasis on the importance of protein in our diets. In fact, according to the British Heart Foundation, most people in the UK eat more than the recommended amount of protein. Of course, if you are working towards a specific goal (such as building muscle or weight loss), your protein needs might be different, but for the average person, the above is true. 

Now, while there are readily available sources of vegan protein, one thing to take into consideration is the difference between complete and incompleteprotein sources. Complete sources of protein are foods that contain all nine different amino acids that link up to make protein. There are fewer plant-based complete proteins than there are animal-based. 

Some examples of vegan complete protein are quinoa, tofu, edamame beans and tempeh. However, varying your sources of vegan protein can get you to a complete protein. For example, lentils are low in lysine (one of the big nine) but rice has a lot of lysine, so if eaten together they make (hey presto!) a complete protein.

Plant-based Protein for Athletes

So where are these readily available sources of vegan and vegetarian protein? If totally plant-based, the main sources of protein should come from beans, pulses, nuts, and seeds. These can be eaten whole or in the form of tofu, tempeh, or nut butters

For athletes looking to increase their protein intake, protein powder is nothing new, but there are now a lot more vegan options out there, often using pea protein (interested in why the humble pea is so incredible? Check out our post here). 

Vegetarian athletes can add eggs, milk, cheese, and yoghurt to their list of protein sources. However, these are often higher in fat and therefore should be had in smaller amounts. As with, well, everything, variety really is the spice of life: a variety of sources for vegan and vegetarian protein will get you where you want to be. 

Energy Levels and Endurance

It is no secret that those who transition from an omnivore diet to a vegan or vegetarian diet report an increase in energy levels. There a many reasons that contribute to this. One is that with more plants, the body has more ready access to a greater array of vitamins. Another is that animal protein is actually quite hard for the body to digest and therefore the body has to use quite a lot of energy to access its nutrients. Less effort is required to digest plant-based foods

When you look up a list of vegan athletes, there are a lot of endurance athletes on that list, whether they are ultramarathon runners or tennis players whose matches can run up to 5 hours. This is excellent anecdotal evidence that a plant-based diet works as well as an omnivore diet. Studies have shown that runners who follow a vegan diet have a better overall quality of diet. Not only that, but they also have increased stamina when compared to those following an omnivore diet.

One of the reasons that this might be the case is because, according to Viva!, a plant-based diet improves blood flow and therefore oxygen supply to the muscles. This is because on a plant-based diet, the blood vessels themselves are healthier due to lower saturated fats and higher antioxidants. Naturally occurring nitrates in plants also play a part in somewhat widening the blood vessels allowing for more blood to reach the working muscles. Plants are really amazing!

Muscle Gain and Maintenance on a Vegetarian & Vegan diet

If you are looking to gain (or maintain!) muscle mass on a vegan or vegetarian diet, you will know that protein is key. In fact, according to Heathline, for “optimal muscle growth to occur” you need to consume around 1.2-1.6 grams per kg of body weight plus taking into account your calorie surplus (which can vary depending on how experienced or in shape you already are). We’re not going to lie, it is a complicated rubric. But the bottom line is that if building muscle is a goal, protein absolutely plays an integral part in it.

Since animal protein is off the menu for vegan and vegetarian athletes, a bit more creativity is required. Beans, pulses, nuts, and seeds are great, along with tofu, tempeh, and protein shakes. If it is a priority, making a menu plan for your week can also be really helpful. Below see some proof positive that the vegan diet works for building and maintaining muscle mass.

Weightlifter Kendrick Farris, the current holder of the American record (he lifted 377kg), follows a vegan diet. According to an article in Men’s Journal, he credits it not only with allowing him to move up a weight class but also improving mood and mental clarity. It is worth noting that this improvement and his record was achieved after he made the change to eating plant-based. Farris was also featured in the Netflix Game Changers documentary.

Tyler Bate is a former WWE champion and vegan. According to an article in JOE, Bate credits his plant-based diet with improving his sleep, and therefore his recovery time, as well as improving overall energy levels. Interestingly, he doesn’t worry about getting enough protein, instead focussing on getting the right mix of vitamins and minerals from nuts and seeds, which, of course, also have protein!

Recovery Times: How Vegetarian and Vegan Diets Can Aid

The role of nutrition in recovery cannot be overstated. But what do we mean by recovery? When we exercise, we use up energy. We also work our muscles, essentially putting more stress on them. We also sweat, which leeches out fluid and electrolytes. Once the gym high wears off, it can leave our muscles feeling tired and sore, our brains foggy and overall exhaustion. This is not the goal! When recovering from a big session at the gym or on the track, wouldn’t it be great to continue to feel alert and energised?

There is more research coming out comparing the recovery times of omnivore diets versus plant-based diets. And it is leaning away from animal products. 

A vegan recovery diet might look like a fibre-rich carbohydrate, along with a healthy fat, like nut butter. Vegetarian recovery nutrition might include a dairy product like yoghurt while an omnivore diet might also include an animal-based protein. It is important to note that diets are compounded over time, so both acute and chronic inflammation caused by exercise can be positively affected by a plant-based diet. 

According to research compiled by Game Changers, an athlete following a plant-based diet can expect a faster recovery time. One reason for this might be the anti-inflammatory properties of whole foods. Novak Djokovic and David Hayes are just two athletes who have experienced faster recovery times on a plant-based diet.

Impact on Overall Health and Athletic Performance

Diet and physical activity (along with genetics, obviously), are some of the biggest indicators for long-term overall health. So if you are thinking about how your diet affects your athletic performance, there is more good news: the long-term impact of vegan or vegetarian diet can be hugely beneficial.

It is understood now that a plant-based diet will lead to better heart health. And the heart is a muscle, so we can infer that a plant-based diet will lead to healthier muscles overall. Plant-based diets tend to be lower in the so-called bad fats, which helps to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. As mentioned earlier, this can lead to a lower risk of heart disease, certain cancers, and even Alzheimer’s. 

But how does diet influence athletic performance over time? Well, the fact is that to maintain a level of athletic fitness, diet does play a key role because diet plays a key role in how healthy a person is. Evidence suggests that there are some pretty stellar benefits to a vegan and even vegetarian diet long-term.

The fact is that a vegan diet contains more fruits and vegetables, which are rich in fibre and antioxidants, some of the absolute power-houses of the food world. However, if you’re like the 3 million people in the UK who can’t quite give up cheese yet, you’re in luck: adding more plant-based food to your diet has a lot of the same benefits mentioned above. 

The bottom line? When thinking about athletic performance long term, it is imperative to have a holistic and diverse approach to diet.

Challenges and Solutions for Vegan and Vegetarian Athletes 

The two challenges that should be addressed for vegan and vegetarian athletes have been addressed above, getting enough complete protein and getting enough micronutrients, particularly B12 and omega-3. 

To address these vegan diet challenges, it is possible to take a B12 supplement or add nutritional yeast (which contains B12) to your diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds, as well as being readily available in supplement form. 

As far as protein goes, the key is to vary your sources (don’t just eat almonds)! Naina recommends making small changes, “swapping oats for chia seeds or quinoa in your overnight oats for breakfast, a handful of almonds or walnuts as a snack, combining rice with beans like mung beans, pancakes made with buckwheat flour rather than whole-wheat flour are all good ways to help boost the protein content in your diet.

Remember, that for overall health, a balanced diet is best. Just like any diet, it is possible to eat an unhealthy vegan diet, high in sodium and ultra-processed food. To get the most out of a vegan or vegetarian diet, try planning meals and sourcing as much whole food as possible. Whole foods are where the benefit truly lies. 

Please note that if you suspect that you have a nutrient deficiency, it is important to speak to your GP in order to rule out other health issues. 

The Future of Vegan and Vegetarian Diets in Sports 

So what have we learned? Plant-based vegan and vegetarian diets are growing in popularity, not only for ethical and general health reasons but also for their athletic performance enhancement properties. 

More and more athletes are turning to a plant-based diet to help recovery times and improve endurance and overall energy levels. Of course, not all of us have access to a personal trainer or the army of professionals behind such a person as, say, Lewis Hamilton, but all of us could consider incorporating a more plant-based approach to our training. 

And who knows, perhaps in the future, most athletes will follow a plant-based diet. All we know for sure is that we can provide the best* vegan and gluten free pasta out there.

Please note that if you suspect that you have a nutrient deficiency, it is important to speak to your GP in order to rule out other health issues. 

For this article, ZENB spoke to Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Naina Juneja. She graduated from IIN and with her expertise, she empowers individuals to cultivate healthier relationships with food, utilizing it as a tool for healing. Through her guidance, Naina has successfully aided numerous clients in managing various lifestyle based conditions such as diabetes, cholesterol issues, and hormonal imbalances like PCOS, fostering improved well-being and vitality. Find her on Instagram or online at

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