Can a plant-based diet fuel performance in serious athletes?

In 2010, Dr. Fuhrman was asked by the scientific journal Current Sports Medicine Reports to write a review of the literature and accordingly provide dietary recommendations for vegan athletes. His review was published in the July/August 2010 issue. An abstract of the article, "Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete", can be found on the American College of Sports Medicine's website here

A complete summary of Dr. Fuhrman's specific recommendations, specific considerations, a menu plan and recipes for maximum performance can be found in Dr. Fuhrman's Position Paper: Fueling the Vegan Athlete (available free to Members in the Member Center library). Dr. Fuhrman discusses the links between diet and athletic performance, specifically the role of plant foods in maintaining the health and performance of serious athletes. 


Athletes have specific nutritional needs due to the long-term physical stress of daily intense physical activity.

Athletes require a greater amount of caloric energy than sedentary individuals in order to fuel their training, and are particularly susceptible to certain micronutrient deficiencies as well as viral infections. Dr. Fuhrman's review provides guidance on using dietary means to maintain immunocompetence and to avoid exercise-induced oxidative stress as well as supplementing properly to circumvent deficiencies.

There is a widely held belief that a large amount of animal protein is required in order to build significant muscle or to sustain intense physical activity.

Plant foods are health-promoting, but lower in caloric density than animal foods. They are therefore thought by many to be inferior forms of fuel for athletes, especially in size and strength sports such as bodybuilding. However, the micronutrients in plant foods are indispensable for overall health; maximizing long-term athletic performance requires much more than protein (macronutrient) adequacy, micronutrient density and adequacy are crucial as well. Dr. Fuhrman addresses these issues and gives recommendations for obtaining adequate but not excessive amounts of protein with whole plant foods and also discusses the potentially deleterious effects of excess protein consumption by athletes.

Read Dr. Fuhrman's Position Paper, Fueling the Vegan Athlete.

Vegetable-fueled athlete breaks American record in 24-hour run

A recent New York Times article focused on Scott Jurek, an ultramarathoner with an impressive record – for example:

  • 7 consecutive wins in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run
  • 3 wins in the 152-mile Spartathlon in Greece
  • 2 wins in the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in California
  • 1 win in the 100-mile Hardrock Hundred in Colorado

And he also happens to be vegan.

When Scott Jurek was in college, he began to realize the connections between lifestyle and disease, and he transitioned his diet toward unrefined plant foods.

Scott Jurek recently competed in the 24-Hour-Run world championship in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France. He broke the American record by running 165.7 miles in the single-day run, finishing second overall. USA Today then named him their Athlete of the Week.

So what does Scott Jurek eat?

According to Mark Bittman’s article in the New York Times, Jurek’s lunches and dinners consist of “huge salads, whole grains, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and usually beans of some sort or a tempeh-tofu combination.”

Sounds quite close to a nutritarian diet, doesn’t it? Dr. Fuhrman would of course make sure that nuts and seeds were included in this overall plan. A diet based on unrefined plant foods benefits overall health, lifespan, immune function, and cardiovascular health, so it should certainly promote athletic performance also. Phytochemical-rich foods may suppress exercise-induced oxidative stress and micronutrient adequacy promotes immunocompetence, which helps to prevent disruptions to the training schedule due to illness. Unrefined plant foods, high in micronutrients, are therefore well-suited foods for athletes.

To the average person, it might seem unthinkable that Jurek could run these extreme distances fueled only by plant foods, which speaks to our society’s misguided overestimation of the importance of protein.

Scott Jurek simply increases his number of calories as he increases training volume – Dr. Fuhrman agrees with this approach. Athletes do have elevated protein needs compared to sedentary individuals, since protein is the raw material for muscle growth. However, protein needs increase proportionally with calorie needs. The main concern for vegan athletes is obtaining sufficient calories because of the high nutrient to calorie ratio of plant foods. Dr. Fuhrman advises athletes that they can easily meet these needs by putting additional focus on foods that are rich in both micronutrients and protein – like seeds, tofu, nuts, whole grains, and large quantities of green vegetables.

Dr. Fuhrman addresses dietary considerations for vegan athletes in his most recent newsletter, Fueling the Vegan Athleteand in his recent publication in Current Sports Medicine Reports.  In this newsletter, Dr. Fuhrman discusses micronutrients and supplements of particular concern to vegan athletes, as well as strategies for meeting their enhanced calorie and protein needs.

 

References:

New York Times. Diet and Exercise to the Extremes by Mark Bittman. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/13/sports/13runner.html?ref=health

USA Today. Scott Jurek sets record in 24-hour race, earns athlete of the week. http://www.usatoday.com/sports/olympics/2010-05-17-athlete-of-the-week_N.htm

Fuhrman J, Ferreri DM. Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2010 July/Aug;9(4):233-241