The Vegetarian Athlete



by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

Regardless of the sport, being an athlete requires a ton of work. Even if you aren’t a high level professional athlete, generally speaking you are still going to put in a lot of time and effort; because being an athlete also means being competitive and wanting to be your absolute best at what you do. Your sport may even just be fitness, in which you usually directly relate your success to muscle gains, fat loss, or new personal bests in amount of weight lifted. No matter what level, one of the biggest areas you need to hone in on is your nutrition. But what if you had a restricted diet that prevented you from eating certain foods, such as being a vegetarian? Some of you may look at it as one more hurdle to your success, while others may look at it as a benefit.

Meat is one of the most protein-rich food sources out there, so eliminating it from your diet can make it a little more difficult to get the necessary protein your body needs for muscle repair and growth. But does it really? Now I have been guilty of this, but many of us have probably asked a vegetarian where they get their protein. While meat may be much higher in protein content than most foods, it actually really isn’t all that difficult to still get all the protein you need to perform at a high level. Nuts and seeds are a quick and easy protein source that are pretty easily accessible and generally require no cooking. While this is a little different if you are a Vegan, there are also a number of dairy products that are good protein sources like eggs, cheese, milk, and yogurt. There are also many fruit and vegetable protein sources as well - most notably beans. Beyond that you can even go to some grain options for protein as well, like couscous, quinoa, rice, oats, noodles, and some breads.

Protein is no foreign substance to vegetarians. Despite not partaking in the protein-rich meat options, they still have an extremely wide variety of options for protein consumption. One of the major differences is that they may have to consume a higher quantity of what they are eating to get that essential amount of protein. While we can eat only a 4 ounce grilled chicken breast and get about 36 grams of protein, a vegetarian would need to eat about half a dozen eggs just to get that same amount of protein. It should also be mentioned that carbohydrate intake is going to be a factor for both the vegetarian and non-vegetarian athlete as well, and in this way the vegetarian’s diet is not particularly limited at all. Carbohydrates is where our energy comes from, and just as essential as protein when it comes to talking about performing at a high level. But does being a vegetarian affect your performance?

There was a study completed with 70 endurance athletes, with 27 being vegetarian and the remaining 43 being omnivores. Each participant had almost equal body mass index and percentage of lean body mass. Their strength was measured by peak torque during leg extensions, and the finding was that this was equal across the board. They also tracked the individual’s food intake over the course of a week and found that vegetarians only averaged about 0.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight less than their omnivore counterparts, but still fell within a range recommended by sports dietitians. Carbohydrates also made up a greater amount of the vegetarian’s diets/

While this was only one test, it still appears to be a pretty good indication that being a vegetarian looks to have no negative impact on performance. Granted there are also other measures of strength that can, and probably should be taken beyond just peak torque in a leg extension; but the test was the same across all participants, so the results should definitely still be recognized.

I also thought it’d be interesting to note some high level current and former athletes that are vegetarian: Prince Fielder (MLB), Ricky Williams (NFL), Venus Williams (Tennis), Mac Danzig (UFC), Hannah Teter (Olympic and X-Games Snowboarder), Carl Lewis (Track), Tony Gonzalez (NFL), Mike Tyson (Boxing), and even professional bodybuilder Bill Pearl. So fear not, if you are considering a vegetarian diet or are currently on one, you can still get your protein and perform at a high level!

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