Plant-Based Diets for Fighters: Pros, Cons and Making it Work

Plant-Based Diets for Fighters: Pros, Cons and Making it Work

Plant-Based diets for fighters (vegan and vegetarian) are becoming increasingly popular among athletes, including those in combat sports like MMA, Boxing, Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu. There can be some great advantages for fighters, athletes or active individuals eating more of a plant-based diet, but potential pitfalls too.

In a recent discussion I had with my good friend and leading sports nutritionist Matt Lovell, we explored the pros and cons of plant-based diets for fighters and combat athletes.

In this article written up from that talk, he offers science-backed advice on how to make it work - fuelling your training, building strength and power, making weight and staying fighting fit on a vegan or vegetarian diet.


Who's it for?


This post is aimed at fighters, coaches and the parents of younger athletes who may be considering going meat-free. It will give you a balanced view of the potential benefits and challenges, bust some myths, and provide practical tips from Matt on how to thrive on a plant-based diet.


Let's jump in!


Topic 01: Introduction to Vegetarian and Vegan Diets


Matt starts out by laying some foundations...

He explains the different categories of vegetarian diet:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian - eats eggs and dairy but no meat
  • Pescatarian - eats fish but no other meats
  • Vegan - eats no animal products at all

And discusses some of the common reasons athletes choose plant-based eating:

  • Ethics/animal welfare
  • Environmental reasons
  • Health
  • Religion
  • Taste preference

He then outlines some of the potential general health advantages of vegetarian and vegan diets:

  • Higher antioxidant and phytonutrient intake
  • More fiber
  • Can help maintain an alkaline pH balance

But notes that simply being more health-conscious in their food choices is a key reason many vegetarians/vegans enjoy these benefits over meat-eaters.

Okay, that's the quick intro. Now we get stuck into the specifics for fighters and combat athletes thinking of going plant-based. Let's start with the potential advantages:


Topic 02: Advantages of Plant-Based Eating for Fighters


There are some really great reasons why a vegetarian or vegan diet can work well for fighters and combat sports athletes. Here are some of the main ones:


1. Lower Body Fat

Studies show vegetarians and vegans, on average, have lower body fat levels than meat eaters. One reason is fibre - plant foods are packed with fibre, which can promote fat loss by improving digestion, hydration levels, gut health and more.

Going meat-free also naturally leads to higher intake of low energy density foods. You can eat a big serving of vegetables, lentils or oats for relatively few calories. This helps fighters make weight and stay lean.


2. Improved Cardiovascular Fitness

Heart health is vital in fighting, and vegetarian diets are linked to lower blood pressure and cholesterol on average. Plant foods, especially berries and beetroot, also boost nitric oxide levels which can enhance oxygen delivery working muscles.


3. Quicker Recovery

The antioxidants and compounds found in colourful fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices can reduce inflammation and muscle damage. This helps accelerate recovery between training sessions. Cherries, turmeric, ginger, greens and berries are all fighters' friends!


4. Long-Term Health

Let's not forget - unlike some other athletes, fighters have to stay healthy and training consistently over many years to succeed in this sport. This is another area where plant-based eating seems to have advantages over a typical Western diet. Vegetarians have upwards of 10% lower rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.


5. It's Better for Taking Punches!

Okay we're joking here...slightly! But studies do suggest diets rich in vitamin C and antioxidants can improve collagen production. Most veggies, berries and herbs are packed with vitamin C. More collagen equals better skin elasticity and strength. So maybe those punches won't cut up your face so easily!

On the serious side though - improved heart health, blood flow and recovery is going to benefit fighters in the long run.

Now, before you all turn vegan tomorrow, it's not all positive. There are also some specific challenges to address...


Topic 03: Potential Pitfalls of Plant-Based Diets for Fighters


Matt highlights four main areas fighters need to pay attention to on vegetarian/vegan diets to make sure they're fuelling their training and keeping themselves fighting fit:


1. Lower Protein Intake

Let's get the elephant in the room out of the way first. Getting enough high quality protein can be THE biggest challenge of plant-based diets for athletes.

Here's a reality check on some typical protein amounts:

  • A fillet steak or large chicken breast provides around 50g protein
  • 3 eggs packs over 20g
  • A salmon fillet or tin of tuna - 30 to 40g


  • A cup of lentils or large serving of quinoa - around 15 to 20g
  • A handful of nuts - maybe 5 to 8g

Big difference right? Matt explains why both QUANTITY and QUALITY of protein matter:

  • Fighters need UPWARDS of 150 to 200g protein per day to build / maintain muscle mass. Very tough on plants alone.
  • Most plant proteins are lower quality and lack some "essential amino acids" needed to build muscle. Unlike beef, eggs etc.


2. Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies

Many vegetarians and especially vegan athletes end up deficient in things like:

Iron - vital for energy levels. Hard to get enough on a vegan diet.

Vitamin B12 - only comes from animal foods. Linked to fatigue, weakness and even neurological issues.

Vitamin D & Omega-3s - normally obtained from oily fish and eggs. Tough to get adequate DHA/EPA omega-3s.

Zinc & Selenium - important for immunity, thyroid function and metabolic rate. More abundant in meats.


3. Blood Sugar Crashes

Eating more grains and carb-heavy foods like bread and pasta instead of meat can play havoc with blood sugar levels. Cue: carb crashes mid-training, the hangries, sweet cravings, weight gain and more!


4. Loss of Power & Strength

Red meat in particular contains nutrients like creatine, carnitine, iron, zinc and B-vitamins that can help support our strength and power output. Lacking these, some vegetarians notice faster tiring, reduced strength gains and loss of "explosiveness".

So in summary - fighters going plant-based need to be even more proactive with their nutrition to make sure they're getting enough protein and nutrients to fuel their hardcore training.

The good news? It IS totally possible with the right dietary strategies - as explained in our next section...


Topic 04: Making Plant-Based Work for Fighters - Practical Guidance

Ok here's the meaty section (pun intended)...

Matt offers his top practical suggestions for fighters succeeding on vegetarian and vegan diets. This covers how to:

  • Get Enough Protein
  • Correct Nutrient Deficiencies
  • Balance Blood Sugar
  • Maintain Power and Strength


PART A - Protein Strategies

He provides tips for vegetarians and vegans to get both sufficient QUANTITY and high QUALITY protein by:

  1. Choosing more complete plant proteins - quinoa, buckwheat, hempseeds, chickpeas
  2. Combining incomplete proteins in meals judiciously to fill "amino acid gaps"
  3. Consuming fermented soy products like tempeh for quality protein. Going easy on soy milk and analogues.
  4. Including eggs and dairy if lacto-ovo vegetarian. Cottage cheese is a hidden gem.
  5. Adding veggie protein supplements like pea, hemp and sprouted brown rice proteins to smoothies or protein oats.
  6. Getting creative to up protein with tofu, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and veggies in curries, stews, salads, chilis and more.

He then gives plenty of specific examples of high protein plant-based meals and snacks...

  • Chickpea curries
  • Lentil stews
  • Hempseed chocolate smoothies
  • Pumpkin seed protein bars
  • Tofu veggie scrambles
  • Quinoa chili Etc.


PART B - Balancing Nutrition

Matt provides science-backed advice on the best supplements and foods for fighters to correct potential nutrient deficiencies on plant-based diets:

  • Cronometer app to analyse diet for "gaps"
  • Micro-algae oil for EPA/DHA omega-3s
  • Vitamin D3 + K2 combo supplement
  • Vitamin B12 shots/spray if vegan
  • Liquid iron (bisglycinate) or iron-rich cooking pot
  • Zinc picolinate capsules
  • Greens powders ( Athletic Greens / Amazing Grass)
  • Sprouts and fermented foods for bioavailable nutrition

He also explains why sea salt, mushroom powders and sulphur-rich foods can benefit plant-based athletes.


PART C - Managing Blood Sugar

Here Matt offers solid tips for fighters to help regulate blood sugar levels even when eating lots of nutritious whole grains and carbs:

  • Always eat carbs and protein together
  • Add oils, nuts or seeds to meals
  • Stay hydrated - electrolytes help stabilise glucose
  • Limit fruits high in simple sugars
  • Go higher protein - shoot for 30-40g per meal
  • Experiment with carb cycling
  • Consider intermittent fasting (restrict eating window)


PART D - Power and Strength

Finally some suggestions to help vegetarian and vegan fighters maintain their strength and power for training and competition:

  • Eat complex carbs - oats, quinoa, sweet potato
  • Snack on nuts between meals
  • Have a small pre-workout banana
  • Be disciplined on protein intake
  • Creatine monohydrate supplement (vegan)
  • Beta-alanine to boost power
  • Limit cardio duration
  • Get bloodwork done - address deficiencies!

So in summary - with attention to protein intake, supplementation where required, smart peri-workout nutrition and some savvy carb management, it's absolutely possible for fighters to not just survive but THRIVE and kick butt on a plant-based diet.


Topic 05: Revisiting the Pros and Cons

In this penultimate section Matt summarises the pros and cons discussed previously, concluding that plant-based diets can work extremely well for fighters - but require extra effort, planning and self-education:

The Pros

  • Lower Body Fat
  • Heart Health
  • Quicker Recovery
  • Long-Term Disease Prevention
  • Staying Fighting Fit Longer

The Cons

  • Lower Protein Quantity
  • Inferior Protein Quality
  • Increased Risk of Nutrient Deficiencies
  • Blood Sugar Crashes
  • Loss of Power and Strength

He caveats there are no black and white answers or one-size fits all approach. Some fighters may lean heavily plant-based but include salmon a couple times a week. Others thrive on a vegan diet with sports supplements. It requires personalisation, flexibility and paying close attention to your body - qualities any good fighter possesses!


Which leads us to a final conclusion...




Matt finishes by reinforcing that a plant-based diet CAN allow fighters and combat athletes to meet their protein needs, train hard and perform at their competitive best.

But it takes commitment to planning quality nutrient-dense meals, being consistent day-in-day-out, getting bloodwork done to address deficiencies early, and making up for potential shortfalls of essential micronutrients with quality supplements when required.

If you have the drive and self-discipline that all successful fighters need however, it is absolutely possible to excel in your sport on a vegetarian or vegan diet.



Matt Lovell, (BA (Hons) Dip ION NTCC CNHC Registered mBANT) is a specialist performance nutritionist with 20 years' practical experience in elite sports.

He has worked at the top of elite sports for over 20+ years. As the lead nutritional clinician in performance teams across world cup winning, premiership, European title and world title teams and Olympic medallist athletes alike.

Matt has worked directly with international teams (England Rugby and Football, Manchester City, Tottenham, Aston Villa) and many individual athletes (Jonny Wilkinson, James Haskell, Jermain Defoe, Jodie Taylor, Will Sharman, Vic Wild) from the sporting world, as well as the likes of actors such as Hollywood superstar Ed Skrein.

His nutrition company Aminoman is one of the leading supplements producers and suppliers in the UK today.







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