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Why Pro Athletes Eat Plant-Based Meals

Dec 9, 2021

From Michael Strahan and his “Got Milk?” mustache to LeBron James McLovin his McDonald’s chicken nuggets, celebrity athletes are no strangers to backing meat and dairy-based diets (hence the super-fun ads). In the past, medical professionals encouraged omnivorous diets for highly active people. More recently, however, plant-based nutritionists and influencers have been touting the benefits of vegetarian or vegan diets. Now, many sports superstars are jumping on the plant-based bandwagon, boasting that the benefits are well worth the switch.

Venus Williams, tennis’ leading lady, committed to a vegan diet to fight fatigue and joint pain after her diagnosis of Sjogren's Syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disease. Football icon Colin Kaepernick made the change a couple of years back to speed up his injury recovery time between big games. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, plant-based diets may have an anti-inflammatory effect. Since eating fewer meat and dairy products and replacing them with plant-based protein sources can decrease saturated fat and cholesterol intake, it can also likely give vegan and vegetarian athletes a leg up in their performance. 

Plant-based eating isn’t strictly for the seasoned pros. Crystal Grimshaw, clinical exercise physiologist and Tough Mudder athlete, adopted a fully plant-based diet five years ago.  Tough Mudder is an obstacle course event series that spans across the US and UK regions. (Side note: We’re big fans of Tough Mudder.) As their official prepared meal partner, we power up participants with our done-for-you dishes, including a new line of satisfying plant-based options. 

Crystal’s first event with Tough Mudder was in 2013 and she’s been running with them ever since. To stay in the zone between events, she runs, cycles, practices yoga, and lifts weights weekly, crediting her steadfast stamina to a dairy- and meat-free diet.

“As I started cutting dairy out of my overall diet, I noticed I felt lighter and quicker in my movements. I also noticed that meals didn’t sit so heavy in my stomach. I could eat larger meals closer to workout times and still feel good. I even felt like my energy lasted longer during workouts.”

Crystal thinks athletes can truly thrive on plant-based meals, as long as they are (mostly) reaching for the right foods. 

“We’re all human and life happens, but at the end of the day, I try to incorporate many fruits, veggies, beans, lentils, and whole grains into my food choices.”

She keeps active in some capacity each and every day, intuitively eating along the way. 

“Before workouts, I like to snack on fruit and a little protein, and will occasionally drink a mix of beet powder and tart cherry juice, especially for longer endurance workouts and harder strength sessions,” says Grimshaw. “For races and morning workouts, my go-to is my oatmeal and berries, or a whole grain bagel with almond butter and some fruit. After workouts, if I’m at home, I’ll make a well-rounded meal of grains, beans, lentils, tofu, and veggies to replenish my nutrients.”

Our very own registered dietitian and expert on all things nutrition, Jenna Amos RD, believes that vegan and vegetarian athletes can healthily maintain a long-term plant-based diet. 

“Plant-based eating, when well planned, encompasses all the nutrients a person requires—even an athlete with potentially higher nutrient needs.” 

Jenna recommends that veggie-based athletes incorporate iron through legumes, green leafy vegetables, and fortified grains. Zinc is another key nutrient, which one could supplement through beans, nuts, and seeds. 

If you’re stressing about calcium, don’t sweat it! Jenna suggests soy products like tofu, edamame, tempeh, and some fortified plant-based drinks (make sure to check the labels!) as superb sources. You can step up your Omega-3 fatty acid intake by adding flax, chia seeds, or walnuts into your pre-workout smoothies.

“In some ways, a plant-based diet may be more beneficial,” Jenna explains. “They tend to be higher in carbohydrates, a key fuel source for athletes.”

If you’re an active person or athlete looking to put a plant-based diet to the test, start with small swaps. First, see how you feel when dialing down your dairy consumption, and then gradually cut back on meat-based meals. This way, you’re not going cold turkey!

Try integrating one or two of our plant-based meals into your weekly menu. These dishes are chock-full of nutrients to fuel you forward—packed with clean plant protein and fiber. They’re also delivered to you fresh, ready in 3 minutes, and perfect if you’re in a pinch before the gym or practice!

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Why Pro Athletes Eat Plant-Based Meals