Have you noticed that more and more professional athletes are making the switch to plant-based diets? What gives? Well, turns out eating a plant-based diet can actually improve your athletic performance (despite common misconceptions about animal protein!). Plants are loaded with essential nutrients for muscle growth, oxygen distribution, reduced inflammation, and recovery – and these 12 vegan Olympians show us just that!
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1. Boosts Energy
Want more energy for your workout? Eat more whole plants! Plants contain both carbohydrates, which turn into glucose, and fiber. When coupled, your body slowly releases a steady stream of glucose into your bloodstream, giving you a nice slow burn of sustained energy.
Glucose without fiber (as found in refined carbohydrates) will spike your blood sugar causing inflammation, weight gain, and sudden energy crashes. 97 percent of Americans are fiber deficient, and then only solution: plants. Plants contain fiber, while animals and animal products do not. For optimal steady energy during your workout and beyond, turn towards plants.
2. Reduces Inflammation
Inflammation is the bane of any athlete – amateur or pro. And it’s no secret that dairy causes inflammation. That’s inflammation of the muscles, joints and organs, all of which are essential for healthy exercise. Antioxidants, which are found in abundance in plants, reduce inflammation. The more plants you eat, especially dark berries, seeds, and leafy greens, the less inflammation you will have. Reduced inflammation means quicker muscle recovery, not to mention disease prevention.
Wondering if you're eating enough antioxidants? Find out here.
3. Improves Endurance
When you train your body, you make it easier for your muscles to get oxygen. Stronger lungs make for bigger breaths. A stronger heart increases oxygen-rich blood flow. Stronger red blood cell development means the cells can carry more oxygen. Bigger muscles can take in more oxygen. That’s all great! However, the effort it takes to get energy from that oxygen remains the same. But not when you eat foods with dietary nitrates – like beets! Nitrates help dilate your blood vessels so blood and oxygen get to your muscles faster.
4. Quicker Recovery
This means you can go harder, more often, for longer. Protein, potassium, calcium, and vitamin C are all essential nutrients for muscle recovery and oxidative stress prevention. And where are these nutrients found in abundance? Plants!
On whole food plant-based diets, vegan diets, and even the Standard American Diet people consume on average, 70 percent more protein than they need on a day-to-day basis.
Plant-calcium sources absorbs at twice the rate as calcium derived from milk, so the quality of calcium you are consuming is better. Potassium is found in abundance in plant based foods, and Vitamin C is only found in plants.
If you’re looking for a quicker recovery, introduce more plants into your diet.
Here are some of our favorite vegan olympians thriving on plants!
1. Jehina Malik
Image from Instagram account @vegantheonlyway
Let’s start out with a bodybuilder who is definitely getting enough protein. Many people assume that Jehina Malik built the majority of her muscle before going plant-based, but this forward-thinking athlete was raised in a vegan household and has been eating plants since she was a toddler! So yes indeed: vegans can build muscle, too – Olympic-worthy ones, at that! Malik is immensely proud of breaking down the stigma behind “weak vegans” and is a proud activist for the vegan lifestyle and animal welfare.
2. Meagan Duhamel
Image from Instagram account @meaghanduhamel
This plant based figure skater cut out meat and diary in 2008 after reading Skinny Bitch, (the book is essentially a fun-to-read wakeup call to stop putting cr*p in your body, and eat some real food!). This Canadian Olympian is also a vegan activist and lives with her rescue, who she saved from the dog meat trade in South Korea.
3. Alexey Voyevoda
Image from Instagram account @alexeyvoyevoda
If you watch the Winter Olympics, you’ll know the name Alexey Voyevoda. He is a two time gold medalist, and has competed in three bobsled events for the Russian Olympic team. Like many of us, Voyevoda went plant-based for scientific health reasons (the research was just too hard to ignore!), but ended up learning a lot about veganism as a lifestyle and ethical movement, too.
4. Tia Blanco
Image from Instagram account @tiablanco
It really seems that the surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding world is turning vegan! Tia Blanco, a champion of the World Surfing Games is a (mostly) raw vegan. While she's been a vegetarian since birth, and went fully vegan in 2013. Since then, she sticks to mostly raw vegan foods including a boat load of fruits, but diverts to more of a regular vegan diet when on the road.
5. Kendrick Farris
Image from Instagram account @kendrickjfarris
Plant-based weight lifters used to be far and few between, but these days they're certainly on the rise. And they're killin' it! Kendrick Farris can lift 831 pounds of weight, and has been vegan since 2014. He notes being vegan sets a good example and it actually helps him to recover faster (sensing a theme here?).
Image from Instagram account @hannahteter
A Vermonter like most of the MamaSezz team, Hannah Teter became an ethical vegan and never looked back. She claims after making the switch to a plant-based lifestyle she feels like an entirely new person, for the better!
7. Carl Lewis
Image from Instagram account @carl_lewis_official
Nine gold metals isn’t anything to take lightly. Carl Lewis won four of those while vegetarian and five while vegan. This runner is a true testament to what plant-based eating can do for endurance athletes.
9. Alex Morgan
Image from Instagram account @alexmorgan13
Alex Morgan has been in four Olympic games and is a FIFA champion! She went plant-based for her dog, but found that it helped with her athletic performance.
10. Micky Papa and Amelia Brodka
Image from Instagram account @micky_papa
Image from Instagram account @ameliabrodka
Look out for these Olympic skateboarders: Micky Papa and Amelia Brodka. Micky has been plant-based for XYZ and Amelia went vegan 10 years ago in order to participate in her favorite sport for as long as possible!
Alongside Micky and Amelia, there are plenty more plant-based skateboarders in Tokyo this year: Kaylin Whitney, Victoria Stambaugh, Vivian Kong. It seems the skateboarding world has unlocked the secret to endurance, recovery and strength…and it all starts with plants.
11. Venus Williams
Perhaps one of the most well-known vegan athletes, Venus Williams has been eating a plant-based diet after struggle from Sjögren syndrome in 2011. Six years later, her world-champion sister,Serena joined her and the pair have never felt better.
12. Novak Djokovic
Image from Instagram account @djokernole
While we're on the subject of tennis, ranked as the world No. 1 tennis player, Novak Djokovic is on track to get the gold this year in Tokyo – and yep, he's plant-based! He credits his lifestyle for faster recovery times and with getting rid of his allergies!
Image from Instagram account @simonebiles
Mental health is just as important as physical health and we want to give a hearty shout out to Simone Biles for prioritizing her well-being in the a world where that's not often easy to do. While we're so focused on the physical performance of Olympians, we can forget the immense pressure these athletes are under mentally, too.
Simone's recent decision to bow out of the Olympics is a welcome reminder that we are all human and that mental health should 100 percent be recognized and prioritized – whether it’s at work, with your family, in your social circle, and even at the Olympics. She made one incredibly brave call, and is the blazing the way for so many of us. For that we are always grateful. Shine on.
- There's a reason so many athletes (including Olympians) are going plant-based: it's an awesome way to boost your athletic performance and endurance, and reduce recovery time and inflammation.
- Vegans are taking the Olympics by storm, during the 2021 Olympics and past events.
By Caroline DiNicola Fawley
Caroline is a plant-based chef, recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition educator, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.