How Athletes Can Score with a Plant-Based Diet

by: Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN

How you fuel your body can affect your athletic performance. Following a healthy diet is a good foundation, but athletes have unique nutrient needs. Even casual athletes or “weekend warriors” (we’re talking to you runners, spinners, and cross-fitters) have distinct needs.

If you’re exercising at a high intensity most days of the week, you need more carbohydrates and protein. Plus, you may benefit from additional micronutrients in your diet. Some people question whether athletes can meet their increased nutritional needs with a plant-based diet. Professional athletes like football players and ultra runners are proving that it’s not only possible, but a plant-based diet offers many benefits.

Fuel up with carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy to exercise. This is good news for plant-based eaters, since many plant foods contain carbohydrates.

Endurance athletes, like long-distance runners and triathletes, use a combination of both stored carbohydrates and fat to keep going. Athletes who sprint or expend short bursts of energy, on the other hand, run entirely on carbohydrates.

Fruits, starchy vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are excellent sources of carbohydrates. These foods also contain nutrients that may enhance exercise performance and recovery.  If you’re eating  during the 90 minutes before exercising, choose lower-fiber carbohydrate, think bananas, low-fiber bread, or dried fruit. These plant-based foods will you give quick energy and limit digestive distress.

Rebuild with protein

Protein is important to rebuild and repair muscle after exercise. Athletes need between 0.5-1g of protein per pound of body weight each day. This means that a 150-pound athlete needs between 75-150g of protein per day. Needs vary based on exercise intensity, age, gender, and body composition, be sure to check in with your M.D. to ensure you’re getting the protein you need.

Plant-based protein offers much more than just protein. Foods like beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, and seeds also provide vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that can enhance performance and promote recovery. Chia and hemp seeds, two popular plant-based protein sources, also offer omega-3 fatty acids, which are linked to reduced inflammation and post-exercise soreness.

Research is still needed about how the body uses plant-based protein versus animal protein, so vegans and vegetarians may need to eat slightly more protein than someone who eats meat and fish. However, you can easily meet your protein needs with plant-based protein. Try some of these great plant-based protein sources.

Build up your iron stores

Because we use more oxygen during exercise, athletes need to consume more iron than non-athletes. Beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, tofu, tempeh, and some whole and fortified grains are good plant-sources of iron. One thing to note, the iron found in plants is not as easily absorbed by the body as the type of iron found in animals. Eat a variety of plant foods that contain iron to guarantee you have what you need.

Even better, enhance iron absorption by getting your fill of vitamin C, it aids in the absorption of iron. Good sources?  Try bell peppers, broccoli, citrus fruits, and tomatoes.

Calcium, on the other hand, competes with iron for absorption, so avoid supplements that contain both iron and calcium. If you do eat some dairy, eat it separately from your iron-rich foods.

It’s also important to be aware of the presence of phytic acid in your diet; found in many whole grains and beans, it has been shown to reduce iron absorption. Soaking dried beans and grains before cooking can help reduce their phytic acid content and make iron more available for absorption.

Power up with Purple Carrot Meals

Eat a variety of whole foods to get the most out of your meals and enhance performance and recovery. Purple Carrot’s high protein meals can help you meet your elevated nutrient needs while taking the stress out of mealtime.


Sarah Gold Anzlovar, MS, RDN, LDN is a Boston-based registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and nutrition communication specialist helping active people fuel their busy lives so they can feel their best.

Sarah holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Marketing from The George Washington University and a Master of Science in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She completed her Dietetic Internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard University teaching hospital in Boston, MA.

When not in the kitchen, you can find Sarah seeking out the latest restaurant opening, teaching indoor cycling, running, training for triathlons, or hiking or skiing with her husband and golden retriever pup.