Plant-Powered Athletes Are Changing Public Perception about What It Takes to Win in Sport and in Life

Cristen Iris

This article was first published by Unbound Northwest who I thank for supporting my work.


The much-anticipated documentary “The Game Changers” hit theaters on September 16, 2019. The announcement of its release created a swell of interest in plant-based eating and plant-powered athletes in no small part due to the fact that its executive producers are James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, Lewis Hamilton, Novak Djokovic, and Chris Paul. The film is also the product of extensive research and testing by its creator, combatives instructor for the US military and former UFC fighter, James Wilks.

Professional, plant-based athletes are drawing attention to the benefits of fueling their bodies with plants rather than animals and certainly helping to shift the public’s perception regarding what it takes to perform at the highest levels, but this article isn’t about them.

This is about competitive amateur athletes who live in the real world, your world. It’s about people who, as plant-based former Ironman triathlete and ultra-runner Andrew Parrish does, see nutrition as “the fourth discipline,” the thing that fuels us and over which we have near total control. This is about you and me and how a plant-based diet gives us an advantage in sport and in life. But before we get to that, let’s define a few terms.

Plant-Based versus Vegan

“Vegan” is often shorthand for “plant-based,” but there are some differences.

Plant-based eaters eat only foods derived from plants. They do not eat animal products: no meat, no dairy, no eggs, nothing that is or comes from the body of an animal. People who identify as plant-based are often motivated by health and environmental concerns.

Vegans eat only plants too. However, people who identify as vegan eat a plant-based diet for ethical reasons related to animal compassion. Vegans do not purchase items made from or containing leather, fur, feathers, beeswax, fish scales (in cosmetics), and more.

So, while all vegans are plant-based, not all plant-based eaters are technically vegan.

They may differ in what motivates them to be plant-based, but they’ll all give the same answer to one question.

The Protein Myth

Ask any plant-based eater what the most common question they hear is, and they will tell you (with or without rolling their eyes) that it’s, “Where do you get your protein?”

That’s because the mother of all dietary myths is that humans need to consume animal protein for optimal health and that the human body needs high levels of protein to build and repair muscles. But plants do contain the amino acids that are in animal protein. Some plants have all the “essential amino acids,” in fact. Even though many plants do not contain all of them in one package, there’s no need to combine plant-based foods as was once thought.

Certified Food for Life instructor Barb Smith describes how the body uses protein this way: “Think of the amino acids in protein as letters in the alphabet. You take in the protein (words), and your body breaks them down (like the letters in those words) and stores them to rearrange later for whatever need the body has.”

With all the emphasis on the macronutrient protein and the second most pervasive myth that carbs are bad, the question most people don’t ask themselves is “Where are my fiber and micronutrients coming from?” And it’s interesting that few omnivores ask plant-based athletes about their experience with endurance and recovery.

The Jury Went out and Is Back

Competitive athletes are among the most motivated people on the planet to manipulate their bodies for optimal performance and are, therefore, highly attuned to their body’s reaction to stimuli and diligent about tracking cause and effect. They’re often among the first to try new diet trends and food supplements.

Of course, early and ardent adopters don’t always get it right. Americans are among the most innovative food producers when it comes to generating quantity and finding new and creative ways to isolate, concentrate, and repackage food-like products. Despite looking like a big, strong country, our nation’s population suffers from some of the highest rates of lifestyle-related illnesses.

Clearly our experiment failed, and research-oriented physicians wanted to know why.

Michael Gregor, MD, FLCAM, founder of and author of the exhaustively researched books How Not to Die and How Not to Diet found that our diets are primarily to blame. He now challenges physicians to follow the evidence (not the money) and patients to do the same, to extend our lives and reclaim their health the way nature intended—by eating a whole-food, plant-based diet.

Dr. Kim Williams, cardiologist and former President of the American College of Cardiology, is another medical professional who challenges his colleagues to look to the scientific method for answers. At the 2019 Plant-Based Prevention of Disease (P-POD) conference, Williams said (and says often) that

"There are two types of cardiologists. Vegans and those who haven’t read the data."

It stands to reason that the one diet that can prevent and even reverse the leading causes of death would also be the diet that would offer the most fuel and restorative benefits for athletic performance.

Like the most forward- and long-term thinking health care professionals today, most athletes are evidence-based. They know that looks can be deceiving, that bigger isn’t always better, and that we can only fool the body for so long. (Steroids and the havoc they wreak on internal organs despite the positive external results is one example.) After studying the evidence and testing it on their own bodies and against training and racing data, they’re switching from Team Omnivore to Team Vegan.

But evidence is one thing, feelings quite another. The idea of committing to a lifetime of plant-based eating leaves many people, even motivated athletes, feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

Vegan for a Day

Endurance athletes know that the only way to win is to stay in the game. They must sometimes will themselves one footfall or pedal stroke at a time to keep moving forward. They do not focus on how many miles and obstacles lay ahead. They allow their higher purpose, their goal, to pull them to the winner’s circle while they live and move only in the moment.

When I asked him how long he’s been plant-based, best-selling author, speaker, and life coach Bryan Falchuk told me he went vegan in a single day back in 2015. He went on to say, “Rather than looking at a life of all the ‘I’ll never eat that again,’ thoughts, I just looked at a single day, and realized how simple that was. I’ve been vegan for a day ever since.”

Can’t versus Don’t

As a communication expert, Bryan’s words strike a chord with me. Every time an omnivore says to me, “You can’t have that,” I correct them by saying, “I can have that. I choose not to.” I go on to point out that for everything we say yes to, we say no to something else and that I choose to say yes to my health and to my overall performance, so many of the things “normal people” eat are not on my menu. I want health and performance (among other things) more than I’ve ever wanted any slice of bacon or cheese nib.

Athletes are often thought of as extremely disciplined. And that is true. But, as Bryan pointed out, discipline isn’t as hard as many think it to be. Who originally stated this is unclear, but its wisdom is undeniable:

"Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most."

What athletes (and entrepreneurs and dedicated family men and women and social justice warriors and the list goes on) want is more. They want the most they can get from themselves and from life, so when they find better ways of doing things, they no longer do the things that offered only limited results and choose the thing most likely to result in a positive outcome.

From Good to Great

Jenn Williams, former college basketball player and competitive body builder shared her thoughts about her pre-vegan athletic days to her current experience: “I have never experienced any negative effects on a plant-based diet, only positive. My performance has improved, I recover faster, and I’m easily able to maintain a physique that contributes to my success as an athlete in all that I do.”

When I asked her to describe what she loves about sport, she said it’s “pushing through those moments of uncertainty or fear. Not knowing if you can hit that jump, ride that trail, shoot the shot, or lift the weight. Sure, I’ve had those epic career moments, like hitting the game-winning shot or winning the overall title in a bodybuilding show, but the thrill for me, comes from overcoming the challenges that arise, both physically and mentally, every single day.”

Much like the body does with protein, the plant-based athletes I talk to tend to break down and store their life experience and reassemble them to build and repair as needed. And they do so with a compelling mix of enthusiasm and grit.

What It Takes to Win

Bryan Falchuk is an excellent example. He says, “I try to find things every day that push me with positivity. Even if it’s a fleeting moment in a run that just felt perfect.” He told me this about a bad day he had: “While my first marathon, the 2015 Chicago Marathon, did not go well (I was sick, and nearly had to drop out), I ran for St. Jude, which is a cause I care about a lot. I was one of the top fundraisers and wore their singlet with such pride. I really struggled in that race, but knowing I had their logo on my chest, seeing their staff, supporters and patients at the charity cheering area around the half-way mark, and knowing how much harder the struggle was for people there than it was for me was so powerful, so moving, and so empowering for me to keep pushing. That impacted me permanently as a human being.”

Competitive athletes, whether professional or amateur, are tough. Winners don’t quit, and they don’t let negative thoughts or the smack talk of others distract them from their goals. Winners are competitors for a day, parents for a day, entrepreneurs for a day, vegans for a day. Just one day. Just one hour. Just one minute. Just one second at a time. And like Bryan, they know why they’re in the race and what’s at stake.

When I asked Andrew Parrish what his best athletic experience was, he said this about his Ironman Lake Tahoe finish: “I didn’t know it at the time, but this particular Ironman would be the 2nd highest DNF rate in Ironman’s history because of the extreme conditions. Of course, I had an immediate mix of emotions: joy, relief, and expectation of a well-earned meal. Weeks, months, and years later, that moment still serves as the bedrock for a sturdy confidence in my ability to plan, prepare, and overcome challenges, no matter their form.”

Ask almost any endurance athlete and they will tell you that in some races, finishing is winning. Finishing requires focus and consistent effort. It requires confidence and self-compassion. This is where plant-based eaters have a competitive edge that has nothing to do with nutrition.

Plant-based eaters have learned to think through decisions and act with purpose, to stand strong when challenged or mocked, and to practice compassion. These are skills that strengthen their minds, bodies, and relationships and help them act like professionals and win at the game of life.

Want to learn more about evidence-based medicine and a whole-food, plant-based diet?

Check out the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and consider attending the annual Plant-Based PRevention of Disease (P-POD) medical conference.

Looking for an online, self-guided diet transition program?


(Disclosure, Kathy Pollard, MS is one of my clients. However, I have no financial interest in Sustainable Diet nor do I receive any compensation for mentioning it here.)


Photo by mauro paillex on Unsplash

Cristen Iris

CI Communication Strategies