Meat-free athletes—from tennis champion Venus Williams to Formula 1's Lewis Hamilton to Derrick Morgan of the NFL's Tennessee Titans—have already proven the performance-boosting power of a plant-based diet.
Now, a new review my colleagues and I published in the journal Nutrients examines the science behind the advantages a plant-based diet provides to athletes.
- Even athletes are at risk for heart disease: In one study, 44 percent of endurance cyclists and runners had coronary plaques. A plant-based diet keeps athletes’ hearts strong by reversing plaque, bringing down blood pressure and cholesterol, and reducing weight.
- Meat consumption and high cholesterol levels exacerbate inflammation, which can result in pain and impair athletic performance and recovery. Studies show that a plant-based diet may have an anti-inflammatory effect.
- A plant-based diet, which is low in saturated fat and free of cholesterol, helps improve blood viscosity, or thickness. That helps more oxygen reach the muscles, which improves athletic performance.
- Plant-based diets improve arterial flexibility and diameter, leading to better blood flow. One study found that even a single high-fat meal, including sausage and egg McMuffins, impaired arterial function for several hours.
- Compared with meat-eaters, people eating a plant-based diet get more antioxidants, which help neutralize free radicals. Free radicals lead to muscle fatigue, reduced athletic performance, and impaired recovery.
- Plant-based diets, which are typically low in fat and high in fiber, can reduce body fat. Reduced body fat is associated with increased aerobic capacity—or the ability to use oxygen to fuel exercise. Studies show that athletes on a plant-based diet increase their VO2 max—the maximum amount of oxygen they can use during intense exercise—leading to better endurance.