Green and Lean: Plant-based diets can improve athletic performance and increase longevity

Woman with plant-based snack after workout

The pursuit of peak athletic performance often leads to a myriad of dietary and training strategies aimed at gaining a competitive edge. Now, research and anecdotal evidence is pointing to plant-based diets and their potential to enhance athletic ability and overall health.

Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, senior dietitian with Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, advocates for the anti-inflammatory benefits of plant-based diets. While beneficial, exercise inevitably causes stress and micro-tears in tissues that lead to inflammation; a diet replete with the antioxidants, B vitamins and vitamin C found in fruits and vegetables can help counteract this inflammation, Dr. Hunnes says. 

"When you're eating an anti-inflammatory diet, you're helping to reduce some of that inflammation faster," she said. That may translate to quicker recovery and enhanced muscle rejuvenation.

Plant-based diets & life expectancy

In addition to improved athletic performance, plant-based diets boast other physiological benefits.

"People who follow these diets have a reduced risk of mortality overall," said Mopelola Adeyemo, MD, MPH, assistant professor with the UCLA Health Division of Clinical Nutrition. She noted increased life expectancy and improvements in weight management, cardiovascular risk factors and metabolic conditions.

The benefits of plant-based diets are not a secret. The Adventist Health Studies, published in 1974, demonstrated lower mortality rates among those who adopted plant-based diets as a part of their lifestyle. Now, people are starting to pay more attention to such research. 

“Looking at the Adventist Health Studies, where they looked at more than 30,000 people in California who are on these diet, they found that they actually have increased life expectancy,” said Dr. Adeyemo.

What about protein?

One of the enduring myths surrounding plant-based diets is that they don’t provide sufficient protein. That, however, is not the case, said Dr. Hunnes. "For the most part, if you're eating a balanced and wide variety of foods on a plant-based diet, you are also most likely getting enough protein," she said. Foods such as lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, tofu and quinoa are rich in protein and can sustain an athlete's rigorous demands.

“We hear those concerns a lot when it comes to the plant-based diet,” Dr. Adeyemo said. “It is definitely possible to get enough protein when you’re following a plant-based diet. We just have to focus on plant-based sources of protein such as chickpeas, lentils and even vegetables like broccoli, brussel sprouts and spinach, which have protein in them.”

Plant-based diets may also influence bone health and cardiovascular efficiency, and a diet low in saturated fats improves blood flow, thereby enhancing endurance, said Dr. Hunnes. 

Making the switch

Dr. Adeyemo recommends a balanced approach to transitioning to a plant-based diet. "Start off with 50% of your plate being vegetables and 25% being protein — either plant-based or a lean animal source — and then some healthy carbohydrates," she said. She emphasizes the importance of being conscious about incorporating plant-based protein sources until it becomes second nature.

The adoption of a plant-based diet by athletes is not just a passing trend. It is a strategic move towards optimized recovery, reducing inflammation and enhancing cardiovascular health. With careful planning and a focus on nutrient-rich plants, athletes can meet their performance goals while fostering overall well-being, the experts said. 



Take the Next Step

Visit the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition to learn more about plant-based diets.