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.

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Comments (15) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Daniel - July 28, 2010 8:22 PM

I agree that it is better to eat less animal protein, but I certainly would not advocate being totally vegan for life, unless thats what someone really wants. I think it would be smart to have fish with the lowest mercury levels 1-3 times a week, and even have some white and lean red meat now and then. You can still eat lots of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds, and still have some animal protein. Also, whole grains are very important! I run 50-75 miles a week, and I need to have lots of whole grains and starches, I don't care what anyone tells me. I have lots of fruits and vegetables and nuts and seeds and I still feel like I need plenty of starch. I don't know why Dr. F says to only have 1-2 servings. Heck No!!!! Whole grains, potatoes, corn, etc is very important. I would just say to avoid added sugars and preservatives.

Julia - July 29, 2010 4:55 AM

What about salt - do you need really to add extra to your diet when sweating more, as I've always been led to believe - or not?

Michael - July 29, 2010 9:01 AM

Limiting the starch servings is for those that have a lot of weight to lose and/or have difficulty losing weigh. The is no reason to continue limiting starches to that degree when you are thin and athletic.

Deana Ferreri, Ph.D. - July 29, 2010 9:10 AM

Daniel and Michael,
To clarify, Dr. Fuhrman does recommend that athletes use additional servings of whole grains and starchy vegetables to help meet their increased calorie needs.

gina - July 29, 2010 10:32 AM

I recently began working with a trainer and now do 45 minutes of cardio twice a week, plus 4 days or one.5 hour weight and cardio sessions. The trainer tells me I need 130 grams of protein a day and to eat 5 - 6 mini meals where the protein intake averages 25 grams. This is so counter to Dr. F's advice. i read the newsletter #42 but am confused about the frequency of eating and how I will manage getting this much protein as a vegan. Also I read the book Thrive (lots of sugar in his recipes) So far i have hemp protein and lentils as main sources. Over the last two weeks I added chicken and salmon and I am seeing results in terms of lost body fat. Still I wonder about sustaining this diet. Where can i get more specific advice.

Christy - July 29, 2010 10:33 AM

I would love for Dr. Fuhrman to write a book addressing the needs of serious athletes! I have 2 teenage sons who play soccer.I am trying to teach them the correct way to fuel their bodies. Thanks for all your help!

Sara - July 29, 2010 9:03 PM

Gina- You don't want to get nutritional advice from a trainer at the gym. They have no knowledge and give very bad advice. You don't need that much protein. Athletes who need more calories etc are training for way more than an hour a day. Follow Dr. Fuhrman's advice. He is the most knowledgable and he himself is an athlete.

StephenMarkTurner - July 30, 2010 6:34 AM

Gina - In general you are going to hear personal trainers tell you that you need lots and lots of protein.

Remember that many strength trainers take lots of pills and potions and other supplements ie they are the most prone of all athletes to nutritional folklore. Also many of them would rather be huge than healthy ("Life's too short to be small" mentality).

I eat lots of potatoes and grains, including bread, since I do a lot of cycling. I'm not going more than about 95% veggie, which on an active day, allows me about an egg and 2 oz lean turkey. This way I "just do it" and don't over analyze my diet.

Regards, Steve

Joel Fuhrman, M.D. - July 30, 2010 8:44 AM

The article “Fueling the Vegan Athlete” does not claim one has to be totally vegan to be a good athlete, rather it is explaining how a vegan can plan their diet and still perform at a high level and obtain sufficient protein and other important nutrients to do so.

StephenMarkTurner - July 30, 2010 11:22 AM

I like the idea of Dr F writing a book regarding athletes and nutritarians. Advice for near/total vegans, distance or strength or all around athletes.

I'd buy it, absolutely.

Regards, Steve

lightweight - August 2, 2010 12:14 AM

I read the Healthy Times Newsletter "Fueling the Vegan Athlete" but still have questions about fueling during long bouts of exercise. My stomach is pretty sensitive and I'm wondering what kinds of ETL-friendly food I can eat during long training sessions or racing. Also, what does Dr. Fuhrman think about the idea in general of fueling during long exercise sessions (e.g. 2-4 hr bike rides) even when not hungry? The standard literature for athletes says to eat every X minutes, even if you're not hungry to avoid bonking but everything I've read from Dr. Fuhrman says to eat only when hungry.

I would also absolutely buy a book by Dr. Fuhrman regarding serious athletes!

StephenMarkTurner - August 3, 2010 7:50 AM

I think that during exercise is a special case, and is not really the time for leafy greens or low caloric density food. You need calories.

I think endurance athletes should probably eat before hunger during exercise or event, since it takes time to digest, and energy can rapidly run out, and 'bonking' is just plain horrible.

If I'm out on a long bike ride, I'll even have chocolate or pop if I really need to get some energy. I'll have smoothie or something better when I get home.

Cheers, Steve

Joel Fuhrman, M.D. - August 4, 2010 9:06 AM

Intense exercise suppresses hunger, nevertheless if you are involved in high intensity competitive sports in an event that lasts for more than 2 hours, it is advisable you consume fluid and calories. Banana water is a good choice.

The amount of salt loss with sweating is proportional to the sodium level in the diet. A person on a high salt diet loses lots of sodium in their sweat and urine, a person accustomed to a low salt diet, does not. So if you are a nutritarian, presumably on a very low sodium diet, you will not lose much sodium with heavy exercise.

StephenMarkTurner - August 5, 2010 6:18 AM

Is there any easy way to test sodium levels? Not involving a medical lab, like perhaps something you pee on?

I have always 'salted up' before and during long summer bike rides.

Perhaps I have been overly influenced by things such as ads from the 'Gatorade Sports Science Institute'. In Canada they have ads showing hockey players losing a tremendous amount (5 grams or so!) of salt during a hockey game. The assumption of course, is that is sodium that you need to replace. Perhaps not.

Regards, Steve

drecar - August 14, 2011 1:44 PM

ive recently bought ETL. i have googled and search your site for answers. i am very interested in losing fat, high blood pressure and avoiding diabetes. however i am not at all interested in being 6' 185lbs and weak at age 41. i need to know how i can make this way of eating compatible with strength sports. i wont be breaking any records but since i got stronger i feel and perform better. i truly need to get leaner and stronger at the same time. for some background info about 2 years ago i lost 85lbs. i started squatting, benching, pressing and deadlifting and could hardly move an empty bar at 210lbs body weight. my goal is to a 500lb squat, 600lb deadlift, 315lbs bench and 225lbs press. now i am 295lbs. i squat 365lbs, dl 405lbs, 225lbs bp, and 135lbs press. its been less than a week since grossly increase the fruits and vegetables that i eat and i see progress so i will continue. i simply do not want to impede my progress on my lifts, help!

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