The Benefits of a Whole Foods Plant Based Diet For Athletes (Runners, Hikers, Movers)

Plus, a plant-based diet food list, tips on meal planning and choosing plant-based sports nutrition.


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This post explains what a whole foods plant based diet is, why you may want to try, or transition to, eating a plant based diet, and how it can be beneficial for your health, as well as the environment.

A whole foods plant based diet should be seen as more than just a food diet because choosing to eat this way has the potential to not only provide potential health benefits and help you lose weight (if that’s a goal for you), but also to live a more mindful lifestyle will also contribute to animal welfare and the sustainability/protection of the environment.

I also provide tips for runners and other athletes eating a whole foods plant based diet to help ensure you are eating the right foods, including protein and sports nutrition, for your training and recovery.

What is a whole foods plant based diet?

A whole foods plant based diet is choosing to eat food that has been minimally processed.

Minimally processed foods are fresh or frozen fruits, vegetables, nuts and other foods that have not been processed with additives, preservatives or otherwise ‘tampered’ with between leaving the tree, shrub or ground and getting to your home.

Whole food diets are something also referred to as clean eating.

Whole foods can also include animal based foods, including eggs, fish and meat.

So we’re basically just talking about eating REAL food, not made up stuff that’s been highly processed, created and marketed to you. If you want to have SOME animal products too, then that’s your choice.

As acclaimed author and journalist Michael Pollan puts it, his best advice for the most sensible diet plan ever is to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I like this – it resonates with me on many levels.

Let’s stop going to extremes and being too specific about what and how we eat. Just follow some simple guidance rather than strict rules about what is ‘allowed’ (or not)!

It makes sense, when you think about it, that a food has not been processed in factory and had a load of added sugars, salts, saturated fats, preservatives, flavors, colors and whatever else added to it, it’s not likely to be as nutritious for you as a whole food.

Even worse, those highly processed foods could be detrimental to your mental and physical health.

Is a plant based diet the same as a vegan diet?

Some people following a whole foods plant based diet lean heavily on the plant-based aspect of what they choose to eat, choosing to avoid some or most animal products.

However, it’s important to note that a with a whole foods, plant-based diet there’s no ‘rule’ requiring you to completely cut-out animal foods, including dairy, eggs and even honey (that would be a vegan diet). You can make your own decisions around whether you choose to consume some of those more minimally processed animal products.

For example, I follow a plant based diet and on occasion eat eggs, chicken, fish and cheese. We always check that the meat is organic, and ethically sourced and that the animals have been treated well on the farm.

Personally, I believe that if you do eat animal meat then it should only be as a treat on the odd occasion and not a frequent part of your diet.

For me, the main point of choosing to prioritize plant based nutrition is that you are simply focusing on, and prioritizing, eating mostly plants, and minimizing the amount of processed and animal products you consume so there isn’t meat in your meals every single day – and if there is, it’s a small part of a balanced plate.

What are the top plant based diet benefits?

There are probably even more reasons to turn to plant based eating, but these are the key ones that stand out and increasingly grab headline attention.

An increasing amount of anecdotal evidence and research suggests that following a whole-food, plant-based diet and lifestyle can help:

  1. make you feel more alert and energized. I know for a fact that eating processed foods adversely affects my energy levels.
  2. promote weight loss and the ability to maintain your goal weight and avoid weight gain.
  3. saves money, buying plant-based food is generally less expensive than buying animal products, even when buying organic produce.
  4. improve sustainability for our environment – if you eat mostly plants, you’re not driving demand for the huge burden on our planet that comes with raising farm animals, and – something that many people don’t appreciate – how much space and resources are required to grow crops to feed those animals.
  5. improve animal welfare.

Here are some other medical benefits that have been reported:

If you’re curious about the health benefits of plant-based eating, then a great place to start is by reading up and viewing documentaries on the subject.

Here’s some great plant-based documentaries available to view or download online.

Also check out our list of the best books about plant-based eating.

Many of the potential health benefits listed above are covered in the Forks Over Knives documentary featured on the first list. This is one of the most popular, and has already influenced millions of people, including ourselves, to try out a plant-based diet.

The documentary examines the profound claim that most, if not all, of the chronic diseases that afflict us (such as heart disease and diabetes), can be controlled or even reversed by rejecting animal-based and processed foods.

If you haven’t watched it already, you should definitely do so, I think you’ll be amazed at what it uncovers.

Whole food plant based diet food list

If the thought of eating plant-based makes you think about small, limp salads that leave you finishing the meal hungry, then never fear!

People in cultures all over the world have been eating a healthy diet rich in nutrients and made up of filling plant-based meals for centuries.

To do so yourself, it helps to learn a few tried-and-tested meals to ease you on that journey.

Generally, plant-based meals are sourced from the following plant food groups:

  • Fruit (e.g. bananas, blueberries, oranges, strawberries)
  • Vegetables (e.g. broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, brussels sprouts)
  • Tubers & Starchy Vegetables (e.g. potatoes, corn, green peas, winter squash, sweet potatoes)
  • Whole Grains (e.g. barley, millet, oats, quinoa, wheat berries, brown rice)
  • Legumes (e.g. black beans, chickpeas, lentils, pinto beans)
  • Seeds & Nuts (e.g. almonds, pine nuts, sesame seeds)
  • Mushrooms

When cooked properly, and combined with healthy oils, herbs and spices, it’s amazing the diversity and flavor you can get from eating mostly plants!

You can also enhance the flavor and health benefits of these foods by choosing fresh, organic food wherever available and your budget allows.

What about plant based protein?

Beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are all plant-based sources of protein that are also filled with vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Protein needs vary from person to person depending on your age, health status, and amount of physical activity. Satisfying your protein needs from a plant-based diet is simple and achievable.

You don’t need to support your diet with supplements. If you’re eating the right foods then you should be able to get enough protein in your diet, even if you are an athlete or very active person.

After intense workouts and long runs, in order to speed up recovery times, I use a vegan protein powder for shakes, rather than the more common whey (dairy-based) protein powders that are available (which I used to use).

If you do a lot of strength work in the gym you should probably be using a protein powder like this to promote muscle repair and growth. Read more: the best plant-based protein powders.

What are animal-based whole foods?

When we say ‘plant-based’, we don’t mean – ONLY eat plants. That’s not our interpretation of the phrase (because, as mentioned at the start of this post, that would be a vegan diet). We mean, your diet is largely BASED on plants.

If you want to add animal products in small portions then that’s your choice. So, if you don’t choose to just eat plants, animal-based whole foods could include:

  • Meats such as chicken, fish or steaks that have not been treated or had anything added to them.
  • Eggs
  • Honey

What about cheese and other dairy products?

Dairy products are obviously processed foods, to some degree, however, I consider certain organic milks, yoghurts and cheeses to be minimally processed on the basis that very little is added or done to them before they reach the supermarket.

To find minimally processed cheese, look for organic, block cheese, that’s more white in color (i.e. it hasn’t had orange food coloring added to it – cheese is made from milk, after all), and full fat.

Full fat dairy products are better than low or no fat options because the latter are more processed.

I know this is a long list of foods, especially for those looking to start a plant-based diet. It can be confusing to know what to actually do with it all to make a tasty and satisfying meal.

Plant based diet for beginners

If you’re starting out trying a whole foods plant-based diet, here are a couple of ways we’ve found to help with the transition, while you get up to speed on learning easy new plant-based meals you can make for yourself.

Use an online plant-based meal planner

Whether you’re a seasoned plant based athlete already or just getting into it, the Forks Meal Planner is a great way to take the stress out of figuring out what food to buy and meals to cook.

The planner includes personalized meal plans for you every week that take around 30 minutes or less to get on the table.

Every meal plan can be customized to suit your needs for the week, and the site has a function that tells you what you can batch-prepare to save more time during the week.

Use a plant-based meal delivery service

You can pre-buy all your plant-based meals in a weekly meal delivery service from companies such as Splendid Spoon and Purple Carrot.

When you are starting out looking for healthy plant-based meals to try, it can be overwhelming, and also can get expensive if you find yourself ambitiously buying a lot of premium fresh fruit and vegetables, only to struggle to find the time to learn how to make meals you enjoy out of them.

This is a great way to try out tasty plant-based dishes and learn how to make your own meat-free meals, with minimal preparation and no ingredients-shopping.

They regularly offer flash sales such as $90 off your first set of meals, as well as offers that change between weeks – click the buttons below to see the latest deals:

FAQs about plant-based diets for runners and other athletes

Can a Plant Based Athlete Perform As Well as Meat Eating Athletes?

Yes they totally can! Here’s a list of plant-based athletes who are among the world’s best runners: Scott JurekSage CanadayKilian JornetEmelie ForsbergMichael WardianEllie GreenwoodBrendan BrazierTim Van Orden and Rich Roll to name just a few.

Is it possible to eat plant based or even Vegan while running and still get enough energy?

Yes, look into one of the many plant-based energy bars and snacks now available in stores such as Whole Foods (although you can find some in pretty much any supermarket these days).

I also love to take natural foods such as bananas, nuts and dried fruits (such as dried apricots) on long runs for snacks. These Solely bars are a great 100% fruit option – especially the banana version!

Our guide to what to eat before running contains more suggestions for plant-based running fuel that you can consider.

What are the best plant based running gels, drinks and chews

As well as energy bars and plant-based protein shakes, you can easily find endurance fuel that is not overly processed and uses ingredients from plant based sources.

They may not be whole foods like taking simple dried fruits on your long run, but the fact that you can buy easy-to-use sports nutrition made from clean, plant-based ingredients, is highly appealing.

As the founder of Trail & Kale, and seasoned marathoner & ultrarunner, Alastair loves bringing our readers independent running shoe reviews and gear insights to help you run your best. Learn more about Trail & Kale here.


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