If you’re tuning in to watch the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, you may be surprised to hear that Olympians at the top of their game have credited their sporting success to adopting a plant-based diet. In honor of the Summer Games, we're spotlighting seven athletes who say their plant-based diet helped them prepare and compete at the highest Olympic levels.

Now, more than ever, athletes are switching to plant-based to raise their strength, fitness, and overall performance levels. However, there still seems to be a huge misconception of plant-based lifestyles, especially in regards to if they are adequate enough to fuel athletic performance. We spoke to Tara DellaIacono Thies, RD, a registered dietitian at Summit Nutrition Strategy and a member of Gainful’s science advisory board, who regularly counsels athletes on how to incorporate healthy foods and nutritional habits for optimal health. Here’s what she had to say about vegan diets for athletes.

Athletes and Plant-Based Diets

“Athletes can thrive on a plant-based diet. In fact, many athletes make the elite ranks without eating meat and animal-based foods,” Thies says. A 2019 review published in Nutrients found that athletes who follow plant-based diets could see improvements in their heart health, performance, and recovery. Vegan diets have been studied to help reverse plaque, improve high blood cholesterol, and reduce high blood pressure, excess weight, and diabetes risk.

Eat Like a “Game Changer”

It’s been a couple of years since The Game Changers was released and became one of the most-watched documentaries, showing that some of the world's strongest and accomplished athletes don't need meat or dairy to succeed. Athletes are now swapping out dairy and animal protein for plant-based protein sources, like chickpeas and lentils. Here, Thies breaks down how athletes can eat like a “Game Changer” to optimize their performance and improve recovery.

“Plant-based athletes should pay close attention to calcium, iron, vitamin B12, choline, vitamin D, and zinc,” she says.

  • Iron-rich foods: Legumes, soy products, nuts, seeds, whole & enriched grains, certain dark-green leafy vegetables, and dried fruits.
  • Calcium-rich foods: Dark-green leafy vegetables, calcium-fortified foods such as tofu, soymilk, almond milk, rice milk, and orange juice; legumes, nuts, and seeds.
  • Vitamin B12 foods: These are few and far between but it is sometimes fortified in foods like soymilk, cereal, meat substitutes.
  • Zinc-rich foods: legumes, soy products, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.”

Many plant-based athletes also take supplements for nutrients such as choline, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, as they are not found in many plant foods, Thies says. Athletes should consult their physician about the best supplement to take to suit their nutritional needs. There are plenty of plant-based options available on the market, including ones packed with fruits and vegetables.

From tennis and soccer to figure skating and weight lifting, there are a number of plant-based athletes that credit switching to a vegan or plant-based diet with improving their fitness and results––with greater energy levels, faster recovery time between workouts, and improved mental clarity. Here are seven world-renowned Olympic gold medalists who are powered by plants.

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1. Serena Williams

Professional tennis player and four-time Olympic gold medalist Serena Williams has been vegan since 2012.

Serena told Bon Appetit that she cleaned up her diet and started eating vegan when her sister Venus was diagnosed with Sjogren. She said that together, they learned to eat lots of raw foods and smoothies. While they do eat mostly plant-based foods, they both say they do cheat once in a while, calling themselves “chegans” recognizing they are not perfect and it’s ok to allow some room to be imperfect. "I try to make the majority of my meals raw and vegan, but I’m only human and am known to cheat a little bit,” says Serena.

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2. Venus Williams 

Tennis champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist Venus Williams swears that making the switch to veganism was one of the factors that helped to improve her performance and reduce symptoms of Sjögren's syndrome, an autoimmune disorder.

Now 39, Williams says that being mostly plant-based or vegan helps her dial back the symptoms of debilitating joint pain and fatigue. "I started eating raw and vegan for health reasons," Venus told Women's Health in an interview. "I needed to fuel my body in the best way possible."

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3. Meagan Duhamel

Trained figure skater and Olympic gold medalist Meagan Duhamel has lived a plant-based lifestyle since 2008. She even has a wellness blog called Lutz of Greens, where she dives into her journey as a vegan athlete.

“I am able to recover and train with more intensity than most of my training mates. I also managed to stay completely injury-free while competing at the highest level into my 30s, which is extremely rare (if not unheard of) in figure skating. I credit so much of my health and sports success to my plant-based lifestyle,” she told MindBodyGreen in an interview.

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4. Alex Morgan

Soccer star and Olympic gold medalist Alex Morgan adopted a vegan lifestyle in 2017 and has not looked back ever since.

“​​As I started to go more plant-based, first giving up meat and then giving up dairy, I realized the health benefits. I would get reports from my doctor, and my cholesterol dropped in half, which is crazy. All of my blood work, which I do every few months, was better. And my recovery was much better, I wasn't fatiguing as much. So it benefited me all around. I was fearful it would affect soccer in a detrimental way but it was the opposite. It made me feel better,” says Alex in an exclusive interview with The Beet when asked about her vegan lifestyle.

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5. Carl Lewis

Carl Lewis is one of only four athletes to have won nine Olympic gold medals during his career as a runner. He’s been fueled by a plant-based diet for over 25 years now.

“I changed my diet to a vegan diet and I set all of my personal bests at thirty years old,” said Carl during an interview with Oprah Winfrey. “I basically shop at the health food store," Lewis shared in an interview posted by YouTube channel Food for Athletes. "I eat tons of lentils. Love beans ... I did the things I need to do to replace the things you would get with the tremendous amounts of meat most people eat."

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6. Hannah Teter

Professional snowboarder and Olympic gold medalist Hannah Teter adopted a plant-based diet in 2008. She switched to a plant-based diet and started advocating for animal cruelty after watching the documentary, Earthlings, which sheds light on the harsh treatment of animals for meat production.

She credits turning plant-based for making her a better athlete: “I started that [a plant-based diet] last year and feel stronger mentally and physically, and springier,” she told People in an interview.

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7. David Verburg

Track and field athlete David Verburg is a three-time Olympic gold medalist. He started his journey into veganism in 2018, which was inspired by his advocacy and love for animals.

“Once I tried [a vegan diet], I noticed an increase in my energy, and it’s been great so far. [In quarantine,] I’ve been taking recipes I used to do before I was vegan and making them vegan,” he said in an interview with Runner’s World.

20 Athletes Who Went Vegan to Get Stronger