“You Can’t Be a Vegetarian Athlete”: Myths About Plant-Based Diets and Sports


We’ve all heard them before: the reasons that we couldn’t or shouldn’t have a plant-based diet. And for athletes, the shock and concern can be even more vocal, and the assumptions even more prevalent. How could people who have to perform such physical feats survive without animal meat?

We’re here to discuss some of the research and showcase top athletes who have busted the myth that you can’t abstain from meat and still rule the court, field, rink, and floor.



What the Research says…

One of the most impactful studies comparing vegetarian and omnivore athletes took place at the end of 2016. Researchers at Arizona State University tracked both vegetarian and omnivore athletes for seven days, watching their food logs and measuring their endurance. By the end, they had found that:

“Vegetarian endurance athletes’ cardiorespiratory fitness was greater than that for their omnivorous counterparts, but that peak torque did not differ between diet groups. These data suggest that vegetarian diets do not compromise performance outcomes and may facilitate aerobic capacity in athletes.”

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ official position is:

To train and perform optimally, athletes of all levels — from recreational to elite — should consume a diet comprised of wholesome foods high in carbohydrate, low to moderate in fat, and adequate in protein, vitamins, minerals, and fluid. A vegetarian diet easily meets these needs and offers additional health and performance advantages.”

Julieanna Hever, M.S., R.D., is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition and has been a vegan herself for six years. In working with her clients and conducting her own research she has concluded that “Athletes perform better on a plant-based diet, and, since vigorous exercise exposes you to higher levels of free radicals, they’ll also recover faster with a plant-based diet full of antioxidants [which squelch the radicals].”

On the other side, there has yet to be any research showing that eating a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet is actually a bad choice for an athlete.



The Athletes Who are the Evidence

Now for the fun part. Let’s take a look at some of the top athletes who have chosen to go vegetarian or vegan–and performed all the better for it.


Tennis Champs

We’ve already written an in-depth article on the Williams sisters, but we couldn’t discuss plant-based athletes without mentioning these “chegan” (cheating vegan) tennis stars. Especially since Venus Williams just won second place in the 2017 WTA finals, a championship title that she won in 2008. Congratulations!


Medal-Winning Bodybuilders

A San Diego native, Derek Tresize has been a vegan for the last seven years, and a competitive bodybuilder since 2011. In competitions this year he has won 2nd place in the competitive Pro Men’s Physique class at the Naturally Fit Games in Austin, Texas. While there, he competed alongside 38 other vegan athletes (out of more than 1,000 competitors), who together took home 32 medals.


NBA Stars

In very recent news, several basketball stars have announced that they have removed meat from their diets for a variety of reasons.

Before he made the switch to play lighter and alleviate pressure on his joints, Damian Lillards had thought it was all hype. He quickly found that he could actually feel a difference, and has already lost weight.

Kyrie Irving says his energy is up and his body feels amazing.

Wilson Chandler has been the most vocal about his diet change, which he made after several injuries, surgeries, and health concerns. “Eating a vegan diet has changed my everyday living. I sleep better, I wake up in a better mood, I recover faster, I’m not so inflamed, not so achey. I feel better overall, in everything that I do.”


Top Names in NFL

Two years ago, Saturn wrote about the (self-proclaimed) 300-pound vegan, David Carter, and other plant-based football players. Now, it seems that more are joining all the time. Tony Gonzalez, six-time pro veteran of the Atlanta Falcons, posed with his wife in the “I’d rather go naked” campaign for PETA. And after watching Netflix’s documentary ‘What the Health,’ a handful of players announced intentions to eat more vegan and vegetarian meals.

In the team sport that can be one of the most grueling, these players are showing that meat isn’t a must.


Nascar Racer 

Animal rights activist and vegan Leilani Münter’s mic-dropping quote on her website kind of says it all: “Never underestimate a vegan hippie chick with a race car.” In her past races, she’s stayed right in the thick of things, and been featured by The Atlantic and VegNews.

There are many other plant-based athletes who have proven that you don’t have to eat meat to excel in your sport. What vegan and vegetarian athletes inspire you? How has choosing fruits, vegetables, and grains impacted your physical abilities? We’d love to hear your stories!