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4 benefits of plant-based diets for endurance athletes

New research investigates the potential effects of a plant-based diet on improving athletic performance and overall health in middle-aged and older endurance athletes.

It is no secret that regular exercise is essential for good health. Keeping active in combination with a nutritious diet is beneficial in preventing obesity, maintaining bone density, and preventing loss of muscle mass, especially in older adults. It is also helpful in maintaining good mental well-being, as exercise produces endorphins that make people feel satisfied and happy.

Despite the benefits of exercise, recent studies dispute whether exercise alone could have a negative effect on cardiovascular health. A 2017 United Kingdom study found coronary arterial plaques in 44% of a group of middle-aged endurance runners and cyclists, compared with only 22% observed in a sedentary control group. Exercise-induced increased heart rate combined with atherosclerosis leads to an increased risk of heart attacks during exercise.

However, diet plays an important role in cardiovascular health. Plant-based diets, free of any animal products, are becoming more popular than ever due to their positive effects on personal health, environmental sustainability, and well-being of animals. Vegetarians alone have a 32% lower chance of developing coronary heart disease than meat eaters. A recent United States study examined the potential benefits of an entirely plant-based vegan diet on the overall health and performance of middle-aged endurance athletes. They published their results in the journal Nutrients.

1. Decreased body fat

Vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be high in fiber and low in fat, and plant foods are typically less calorie-dense than animal products.  They also have been shown to increase postprandial metabolic rate due to their beneficial effects on gut bacteria and mitochondrial activity.  Both factors facilitate a caloric deficit, which is essential for fat loss.  Having a lower body fat percentage is helpful in both performance and overall health; having less fat and more muscle ultimately makes performance more efficient and decreases the risk of many diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

2. Optimal glycogen storage

During moderate and high-intensity aerobic exercise, carbohydrates are the body’s primary energy source.  Inadequate carbohydrate intake puts athletes at risk for overly fast glycogen depletion from muscles, resulting in early fatigue. A plant-based diet is usually rich in complex carbohydrates from vegetables, grains, and legumes, which helps athletes get enough carbohydrate for optimal performance.

3. Reduced blood viscosity

Viscosity is the term for resistance to flow, or thickness, of the blood. Plant-based diets tend to decrease plasma lipid concentrations due to their low saturated fat and cholesterol content, resulting in a decrease in blood viscosity. Lowering blood viscosity improves blood flow and improves athletic performance because more oxygen is reaching the tissues. Vegetarian diets are also associated with improved vasodilation ability, which also allows more blood and oxygen to reach tissues during aerobic exercise.

4. Decreased oxidative stress and inflammation

During exercise, muscles produce free radicals from cellular respiration. Excessive levels of free radicals result in oxidative stress, which can cause DNA mutations, atherosclerosis, and cell damage. They can also lead to muscle fatigue, reduced recovery rate, and overall decreased athletic performance.  Plant-based diets are typically rich in antioxidants from fruits and vegetables, which neutralize free-radicals and their negative effects on athletic endurance and overall health. Furthermore, plant-based diets are effective in reducing inflammation, which can impair health in general.

The review emphasizes the benefits that a plant-based diet can have on the athletic performance and overall health of middle-aged athletes as they age.  These findings can also be extended to the general population to potentially lower the risk of many diseases. Vegan and vegetarian diets are becoming more common, and many plant-based meat and dairy substitutes are now being sold to make these lifestyles more accessible. Overall, balanced plant-based diets appear to be highly beneficial for personal health, especially for older athletes.

Written by Avery Bisbee, BSc Candidate


  1. 5 Benefits of Exercise for Seniors and Aging Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2019, from
  2. Barnard, N. D., Goldman, D. M., Loomis, J. F., Kahleova, H., Levin, S. M., Neabore, S., & Batts, T. C. (2019). Plant-Based Diets for Cardiovascular Safety and Performance in Endurance Sports. Nutrients,11(130). doi:10.3390/nu11010130
  3. Merghani, A.,Maestrini, V.,Rosmini, S., Cox, A.T.,Dhutia, H.,Bastiaenan, R., David, S., Yeo, T.J.,Narain, R., Malhotra, A., et al. Prevalence of Subclinical Coronary Artery Disease in MastersEndurance Athletes with a Low Atherosclerotic Risk Profile. Circulation 2017, 136, 126–137. [CrossRef] [PubMed]


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