Nutrient Dense Plant Rich Diet Adds Powerful Punch to Athletes' Performance

June 29, 2016 by Joel Fuhrman, MD

More and more professional athletes from a wide range of sports have adopted a Nutritarian style of eating. They are not all vegan Nutritarians, but they have sworn off processed foods, minimized animal products and are eating lots of veggies, beans, nuts and seeds.

NFL defensive lineman David Carter, also known as “the 300 pound vegan,” made news with his diet of whole plant foods. In a recent article in GQ, Carter described what he eats in a typical day: several smoothies made from greens, berries, beans and sunflower seeds; whole grains, beans, nuts, avocado and salad. He also noted that the joint pain he attributed to his football career disappeared after he changed his diet.1 He reports he is quicker, has better stamina and actually got stronger.

Powerlifter Nathaniel Jordan follows a vegan Nutritarian diet. High-nutrient plant foods fuel his strength. Weighing 165 pounds, with about 5 percent body fat, Nathaniel can bench press 275 pounds, squat 445 pounds and deadlift 600 pounds—and counting. Previously, overweight, his Nutritarian diet enabled him to not only become one of the strongest pound–for–pound athletes in the world, but also to lose 90 pounds of body fat.

These stories of Nutritarian professional athletes are beginning to break stereotypes and correct misconceptions about strength and athletic performance. For an athlete in a sport that demands a large body size, maximizing performance without compromising health and longevity is a challenge.

Old myths about what to eat to maintain a strong, muscular body and support high levels of physical activity keep many athletes from improving the nutritional quality of their diet. As a result, they continue to rely on calorie-rich, nutrient-poor foods that promote bulk but do not promote health.

Training triggers muscle building and dietary protein provides the raw materials that muscles need to grow stronger. Large athletes must meet large calorie and protein needs, but meat, milk, eggs and whey protein shakes are unnecessary.

Nutrient dense plant rich foods for the athlete

Consider the protein content of a meal of beans, a whole grain (here, quinoa) and green vegetables, topped with a cream sauce made from nuts and seeds:


Protein (g)


1.5 cups red kidney beans, cooked



1 cup quinoa, cooked



1 ounce Mediterranean pine nuts



2 ounces hemp seeds



2 cups broccoli, cooked



1 cup spinach, cooked







Mediterranean pine nuts and hemp seeds are high-protein, calorie-dense foods great for muscle building without the drawbacks of animal products. Hemp seeds are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, and Mediterranean pine nuts provide vitamins E and K and are rich in cholesterol-lowering plant sterols.

Beans add a generous amount of protein plus carbohydrate in a low-glycemic package. Whole grains are another carb source that can help the athlete to meet high caloric needs. Carbohydrate serves the purpose of replenishing muscle and liver glycogen stores for the next training session.

Another myth that is still around is that in order to get all eight essential amino acids (i.e. complete protein) you have to combine different plant proteins together. However, it has been known for a while that all plants contain all of the amino acids. Different plant foods may be low in a certain essential amino acid, but as long you are eating a variety of plant foods and adequate calories, you will get adequate—but not excessive—amounts of all the essential amino acids without having to purposely mix any plant foods together.2

Athletes are often overly concerned about getting enough protein and wind up consuming too much animal protein, which can damage their health. It is a major feature of what is wrong with a standard diet for athletes, full of meat, dairy, eggs and whey protein shakes. Excess animal protein leads to elevated IGF-1 levels, which are associated with an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and premature death.3-10

The addition of a plant protein powder may be appropriate for athletes trying to maintain a very large body size. I recommend hemp or pea protein, rather than soy, since the essential amino acid profile of soy is similar to animal protein and can raise IGF-1 when consumed in large quantities. Also, I don’t recommend spirulina, because spirulina supplements have been found to sometimes contain toxins that damage the liver or brain.11-12

Micronutrients support super strength while helping to prevent sickness

Athletes can thrive on a high-calorie, plant-centered diet. Choosing longevity-promoting foods does not mean compromising on performance. In fact, a high-nutrient, plant rich diet has several properties that offer the potential to enhance performance by maximizing immune function to prevent illness, counteracting training-induced oxidative stress, and improving muscle soreness and recovery after training.

Of course, it’s the exercise that primarily makes you super strong, but eating right can also enhance your endurance, prolong your athletic prowess to lengthen your athletic career as you age.

A major advantage of a Nutritarian diet for athletes is not getting sick. The stresses of daily high-intensity training can mildly suppress immune function, increasing susceptibility to upper respiratory infections. Nutritional support of the immune system means not having to miss training days due to illness, which is critical.13 This is an important strategy in the face of intense training.

The immune-supporting micronutrients include folate, carotenoids, vitamins B6, B12, C and E, zinc, copper, iron and selenium.13-14 When whole foods supply these essential nutrients, thousands of additional beneficial phytochemicals come along for the ride.

Exercise is a stressor—especially the intense and prolonged exercise of a professional athlete. As the body gets stronger it adapts to the stress, however sometimes the magnitude of the stress results in muscle damage, oxidative stress and inflammation, limiting performance at the next training session. Through a diet of high-nutrient plant foods, athletes can acquire the nutritional tools to deal with this stress. A combination of the body’s innate antioxidant defenses and dietary antioxidants help to prevent free radicals from causing damage. Professional athletes must pay attention to replenishing their antioxidant stores with foods rich in a symphony of antioxidants that is gotten from an assortment of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.15

Beet juice is recognized for its potential as a natural athletic performance enhancer. Nitrate—found in high concentrations in beets, spinach and other vegetables—is converted to nitric oxide in the body, which enhances blood flow and reduces blood pressure, enhancing exercise tolerance and performance. Though these studies have been done on beets, other vegetables work just as well here. Nitrate also appears to reduce oxygen consumption during exercise, which means that a nitrate-rich diet improves exercise efficiency.16-17

Phytochemicals in cherries and berries may also help to limit delayed onset muscle soreness after exercise, which is the major cause of impaired performance in the days immediately following a workout.18 For example, tart cherry concentrate led to reduced inflammatory markers and maintained muscle performance over consecutive training days compared to placebo in cyclists.19

Cherries may also provide natural pain relief for muscle soreness. After strength training workouts, those who drank tart cherry juice experienced less pain and strength loss over the next four days compared to placebo.20

There is also some promising evidence that blueberries, black currants and pomegranate may reduce muscle pain following exercise.18,21

Watermelon is rich in the amino acid citrulline. Similar to nitrate, citrulline helps to increase blood flow, and watermelon may help to reduce muscle soreness.22

These studies suggest that the health-promoting properties of berries and other colorful plant foods help to improve recovery, to heal and prepare the body for the next day of training.

Supplementing wisely is important for everyone, athletes included

Vitamin B12 and zinc are especially important for vegans.

Adequate omega-3 fatty acids help to keep inflammation (and muscle soreness) down while maintaining brain health.18

Vitamin D is important for muscle function and may aid recovery. Correcting vitamin D deficiency resulted in increased muscle strength and fewer injuries in indoor athletes.23-26

Taurine is an amino acid that is concentrated in the heart and skeletal muscle, and frequently low in vegans, so it is likely a beneficial supplement for the strength-training athlete.27

To support maximal exercise performance, the key for athletes is to meet their energy needs with high-nutrient whole foods. To learn more about sports nutrition, read my position paper on vegan athletes and my book Super Immunity.

Sample daily menus for Nutritarian athletes

Menu 1: approximately 2907 calories, 126 grams protein


  • Smoothie made with kale, black beans, banana, blueberries, cherries, sunflower seeds and hemp seeds
  • Sprouted grain bread topped with natural, unsalted peanut butter


  • Mixed greens & romaine salad topped with tomatoes, avocado, carrots, and tomato almond dressing(tomato sauce, almonds, sunflower seeds, vinegar, raisins)
  • Baked tofu topped with tomato sauce
  • Bean chili (onions, garlic, green bell peppers, tomatoes, bulgur, kidney beans, corn, chili powder and cumin)
  • Strawberries


  • Raw broccoli and green peppers with garlicky hummus
  • Sautéed kale, shiitake mushrooms, peas, and onions in cashew cream sauce (cashews, hemp milk, onion flakes) topped with sesame seeds, served over wild rice
  • Artichoke Lentil Loaf (onion, mushrooms, celery, lentils artichoke hearts, pecans, oats and tomato paste)

Date Nut Pop’ems (dates blended with chopped cashews, almonds, walnuts, sunflower and hemp seeds)

Menu 1 Protein: 16% Carbohydrate: 52%, Fat: 32%

Menu 2: approximately 4009 calories, 159 grams protein


  • Oatmeal with blueberries, apples, sliced banana and ground flaxseeds
  • Sprouted grain bread with almond butter


  • No-oil pesto dip (almonds, Mediterranean pine nuts, basil, parsley, garlic, lemon and tomato)
  • Flax and Sesame Crackers
  • Mixed greens salad with topped with chickpeas, avocado, tomato, red pepper, tempeh, and orange sesame dressing (cashews, sesame seeds, oranges, vinegar)
  • Vegetable bean soup (vegetable stock, mushrooms, leeks, carrots, zucchini, onions, split peas, cannellini beans, collards, cashew butter, no-salt seasoning)
  • Cantaloupe




  • Chia Seed Pudding
  • Nut, Seed and Dried Fruit Mix (walnuts, Mediterranean pine nuts, raw sunflower seeds and currants)

Menu 2 Protein: 15% Carbohydrate: 47%, Fat: 38%

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  8. Davies M, Gupta S, Goldspink G, Winslet M. The insulin-like growth factor system and colorectal cancer: clinical and experimental evidence. Int J Colorectal Dis 2006, 21:201-208. 
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  10. Kaaks R. Nutrition, insulin, IGF-1 metabolism and cancer risk: a summary of epidemiological evidence. Novartis Found Symp 2004, 262:247-260; discussion 260-268. 
  11. Jiang Y, Xie P, Chen J, Liang G. Detection of the hepatotoxic microcystins in 36 kinds of cyanobacteria Spirulina food products in China. Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess 2008, 25:885-894. 
  12. Rellan S, Osswald J, Saker M, et al. First detection of anatoxin-a in human and animal dietary supplements containing cyanobacteria. Food Chem Toxicol 2009, 47:2189-2195. 
  13. Gleeson M. Can nutrition limit exercise-induced immunodepression? Nutr Rev 2006, 64:119-131. 
  14. Chew BP, Park JS. Carotenoid action on the immune response. J Nutr 2004, 134:257S-261S. 
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  16. Clements WT, Lee SR, Bloomer RJ. Nitrate ingestion: a review of the health and physical performance effects.Nutrients 2014, 6:5224-5264. 
  17. Jones AM. Dietary nitrate supplementation and exercise performance. Sports Med 2014, 44 Suppl 1:S35-45. 
  18. Kim J, Lee J. A review of nutritional intervention on delayed onset muscle soreness. Part I. J Exerc Rehabil 2014,10:349-356. 
  19. Bell PG, Walshe IH, Davison GW, et al. Recovery facilitation with Montmorency cherries following high-intensity, metabolically challenging exercise. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 2015, 40:414-423. 
  20. Connolly DA, McHugh MP, Padilla-Zakour OI, et al. Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. Br J Sports Med 2006, 40:679-683; discussion 683. 
  21. Tarazona-Diaz MP, Alacid F, Carrasco M, et al. Watermelon juice: potential functional drink for sore muscle relief in athletes. J Agric Food Chem 2013, 61:7522-7528. 
  22. Hutchison AT, Flieller EB, Dillon KJ, Leverett BD. Black Currant Nectar Reduces Muscle Damage and Inflammation Following a Bout of High-Intensity Eccentric Contractions. J Diet Suppl 2014. 
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  25. Wyon MA, Koutedakis Y, Wolman R, et al. The influence of winter vitamin D supplementation on muscle function and injury occurrence in elite ballet dancers: A controlled study. J Sci Med Sport 2013. 
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  27. Schaffer SW, Jong CJ, Ramila KC, Azuma J. Physiological roles of taurine in heart and muscle. J Biomed Sci 2010, 17 Suppl 1:S2.

Joel Fuhrman, M.D. is a board-certified family physician, seven-time New York Times bestselling author and internationally recognized expert on nutrition and natural healing, who specializes in preventing and reversing disease through nutritional methods. Dr. Fuhrman coined the term “Nutritarian” to describe his longevity-promoting, nutrient dense, plant-rich eating style.
For over 30 years, Dr. Fuhrman has shown that it is possible to achieve sustainable weight loss and reverse heart disease, diabetes and many other illnesses using smart nutrition. In his medical practice, and through his books and PBS television specials, he continues to bring this life-saving message to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.