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Vegan or Plant-Based: What Is Right For Your Running? Here’s What Science Says

The difference between vegan and plant-based and which type of diet is better for runners. Plus, sample meals for each.

The term “plant-based” has been increasingly tossed around over the past couple of years. Now it seems like everyone from hardened athletes to weekend warriors have begun to push eating loads of plants as a sure-fire way to get healthier and boost sports performance. But what exactly does it mean? Plant-based is often conflated with vegan, but plant-based and vegan diets are not synonymous. While vegan diets are often plant-based, plant-based diets are not, by definition vegan.

Confused? To bring some clarity, here is the lowdown on these diets: what they are, what they do and do not include, why distinguishing between the two is important, and if either one is right for you as a runner. 

It’s never been easier to go pro-plant since the availability of plant-based foods has skyrocketed. According to a recent report released by the Plant Based Foods Association (yes, that is a thing), total plant-based food sales, including dairy-free milks and meatless burgers have risen by 31%, outpacing overall grocery sales. Even fast-food menus are becoming saturated with plant-based versions of burgers and chicken nuggets to keep up with demand. Choosing between vegan and plant-based diets is mostly a matter of deciding how far along the plant-only spectrum you want to go.

What is a Vegan Diet?

Healthy vegan lunch bowl making. Detox beautiful Buddha bowl with various fresh vegetables, edamame beans, mushrooms, seasoning and pumpkin seeds and nuts topping on rustic table with ingredients. Top view.
Photo: Getty Images

A vegan diet excludes all animal-based foods. This includes obvious foods like meat, poultry, and fish — in addition to other animal products including eggs, milk and yogurt. But vegans also avoid any ingredients derived from animal sources, including honey, collagen, and gelatin. That leaves plant-based foods as the sole source of nourishment, i.e. beans instead of beef and maple syrup instead of honey. This includes supplements, which also need to be derived only from plants. Most vegans will also eliminate animal-based products beyond diet — such as leather or fur goods.

What is a Plant-Based Diet?

Bowl of kale salad with boiled eggs and avocado on white background.
Eggs can be included in a plant-based diet, but not in a vegan diet. Photo: Getty Images

It’s trickier to define plant-based than it is vegan, and plant-based is often misunderstood. While plant-based eating does include making a plan to nosh on a lot more, you guessed it, plants, it doesn’t mean you have to necessarily cut out all other food groups including meat and dairy. (Some vegans now call themselves plant-based because it sounds hip.)  

Even though plants are the priority in this eating style, it was meant to be a flexible dietary concept — meaning it’s certainly possible to be “plant-based” while still dabbling in steak and scrambled eggs. Think Michael Pollan’s famous exhortation to, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In contrast to the typical American meal plan, in this diet, animal-based foods serve as more of a supporting role to those derived from plants. So it’s a dietary lifestyle that is open to interpretation and flexibility, whereas veganism is not. This is likely another reason for the term’s growing popularity.

Note: Vegetarianism, a third option, generally means that no meat, poultry, or seafood is consumed, but eggs and/or dairy can be included, with no specified amount or frequency.

Among the plant-based crowd, some don’t eat dairy or red meat, but they do eat eggs and seafood. Others avoid eggs yet include yogurt or cheese, and they may use dairy-based protein powders and fish oil supplements. If you follow this diet, perhaps your intake of animal-based foods may only make up 10 to 15% of your diet, so you would have several plant-based meals throughout the week that are anchored by legumes, whole grains and vegetables. People who eat animal-based foods a little more often may refer to themselves as “plant-forward” or “semi-plant based.”

The Good and Bad With the Vegan Diet

With a plant-only approach to eating, a vegan diet can certainly increase the intake of certain important vitamins, minerals and disease-thwarting, recovery-accelerating antioxidants. You’ll also likely add more fiber to your diet, which can help promote digestion and gut health, support steady blood sugar levels, and keep you feeling satiated. Vegan diets have been linked with improved weight loss along with a lower risk for cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Some of these benefits might be attributed to the plant-heavy diet improving the gut microbiome. And a study in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition that compared vegan and meat-eating runners found that those who shun animal flesh in their diets don’t experience any detrimental impact on measures of exercise capacity including maximum power output. 

Still, the hard reality is that there are a handful of nutrients — including iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids — that are more easily obtained from animal-based foods. In some cases, such as iron, the animal-based forms are more easily absorbed by the body. So a vegan diet needs to be well thought out to make sure all the nutrient bases are adequately covered via appropriate foods and, if necessary, supplements. For example, come up short in iron and vitamin B12 and your energy levels will sag, which it goes without saying is not ideal for optimal running performance.

But as long as you’re consuming a healthy balance of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains and nuts, there’s no reason you shouldn’t get most of the vitamins and nutrients your body needs. The critical nutrient to pay attention to is protein, as research shows that as long as active bodies get enough total protein to support muscle recovery and growth, it does not matter much where it comes from – plants or animals. That said, getting enough protein can be more of a challenge on a vegan diet since animal-based foods are a more concentrated source of higher quality protein. 

Hard-charging runners will also need to make sure they are consuming enough total calories to meet the increased energy demands of training – whole-food plant foods are typically less calorie-dense. After all, there are only so many lentils you can eat at once until your stomach cries fowl. 

Also, when you eliminate a handful of food groups, your cooking options dwindle. To be successful on a vegan diet you’ll need to learn more ways to cook with beans and tofu. 

In the end, the health and performance benefits are really contingent on how someone chooses to practice the diet. Certainly, there is more than one way to eat lousy. Though mindsets are changing, historically veganism has typically focused more on avoiding animal products than on eating mainly unprocessed, plant-based, whole foods. A vegan diet can certainly still be full of highly processed foods – candy, white bread, and potato chips are all fair game for vegans. Eat too much of this stuff when giving up meat and dairy and there is little chance you’ll improve (or maintain) your general health and athletic performance.

The Good and Bad With a Plant-Based Diet

Plant-based sandwich.
Photo: Unsplash

Making plants the emphasis of your eating has some notable nutritional benefits, if done right. These benefits include greater intakes of plant protein, dietary fiber, certain micronutrients including magnesium, and a host of cell-protecting antioxidants. 

In a 2020 study, researchers looked at data of more than 400,000 U.S. men and women over a 16-year period. They found that a higher intake of plant protein was associated with a lower risk of death from all causes, especially heart disease, which remains the number one killer of adults in America. One of the benefits attributed to upping your plant game is that it can wedge out some of the red meat from your diet – there is some data linking higher red meat intake with heart-health woes. 

The caveat here is that because of the loosey-goosey definition of plant-based, it’s hard to compare studies when the authors use the terminology “plant-based.” Were the study participants fully plant-based (i.e. vegan) or did they partake in some meat and dairy, and, if so, how much? Whether a plant-based diet offers benefits that are different or beyond those seen with a vegan diet is not known. 

The growing number of runners and other professional athletes switching to a plant-based lifestyle suggests that the concern that it will hinder performance is waning. This journal article suggests that the higher intakes of phytochemicals associated with plant-based eating can lower inflammation in the body which theoretically could bring on performance gains, though any fitness improvements still need to be tested. Despite the rhetoric, there is zero proof that a plant-based or plant-only diet is better for exercise metrics than a healthy diet that includes animal-based foods. 

Since it can be less restrictive than vegan or vegetarian, some will find a plant-based diet easier to stick to long-term. A steak or real ice-cream craving need not go unsatisfied, as long as it’s in the context of plants being at the forefront. And because there can be some allowance for animal-based food, you’ll more easily obtain certain nutrients like calcium and vitamin B12 in your diet, which are key to optimal health and exercise achievements.

Additionally, eating less meat and dairy in favor of more plants has also been touted as being a big win for the environment. A 2019 study, published in the journal Sustainability, found that meatless meals have more than a 40% reduction in environmental impacts including water use, resource consumption and ecosystem quality.

As with vegan, going plant-based only works in your favor if it is a whole-foods approach. Take, for example, this study review showing that eating plenty of legumes, nuts and whole grains is protective against heart disease, but relying on too much on refined grains, sugary drinks and fried potatoes — even though still plant-based — can be bad news for your ticker. Further, a report in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health linked a healthy plant-based diet index to lower blood pressure, with a reverse relationship for an unhealthy plant-based diet index.

Research suggests that people who go all-in on plant foods may take in more ultra-processed foods than meat eaters. This is not overly surprising considering that there is now no shortage of highly processed substitutes for foods like eggs, dairy, burgers and hot dogs that are conventionally made with animal products but now made with plants. However, filling your cart with frozen, plant-based pizzas and protein-deficient coconut yogurt that is full of sugar isn’t the best way to benefit from a plant-based diet. These types of items are fine as occasional treats, but they shouldn’t be considered a healthy, whole-foods approach to plant-based eating. 

Keep in mind that depending on which animal foods you include and how often you eat them, you may still need to take certain supplements to get all that you need. (Vitamin B12 is one nutrient that’s naturally found only in animal products, like meat, eggs, and cheese.) 

The Take Home Message

Both vegan and plant-based diets have their merits and potential drawbacks, so, as with most things, the one you choose to follow boils down to individual preference. Whichever path you go down, continue to make whole, naturally nutrient-rich plant foods your focus and educate yourself on how to cover all your nutrient needs. If you aren’t ready to give up your daily bowl of yogurt and tuna salad sandwich at lunch, there is nothing wrong with that. Just make sure you also welcome plenty of plants into your kitchen.

Plant-Based and Vegan Meals

Here’s a sample day’s worth of meals for each type of diet, assuming the definition of plant-based is a meal plan that allows for some animal foods.

Vegan Plant-Based
Breakfast: Oatmeal with berries and chopped nuts, toast with nut butter Breakfast: Oatmeal with berries and chopped nuts, toast with nut butter
Lunch: Bean and rice burrito bowl Lunch: Bean and rice burrito bowl
Snack: Apple, handful of almonds Snack: Apple, handful of almonds
Dinner: Grilled tofu, quinoa, big salad Dinner: Grilled salmon, quinoa, big salad with collard greens