Most people probably wouldn’t put the words vegetarian and athlete together. If you do, though, then there might be a few things that come to mind; skinny, anemic, possibly even weak.
What does the research say, though? Are vegetarians less fit than nonvegetarians? Are they fitter? First, a few basics on vegetarianism.
Vegetarianism Defined: an individual that doesn’t eat meat and sometimes other animal products oftentimes for religious, moral, or health reasons.
Types of Vegetarians:
The word vegetarian is an umbrella term. It ranges from people that avoid some red meat all the way to vegans. The different types can get a little confusing, so here are a few of the basic ones (for the purpose of simplicity I’m using the word meat to include red/white meat, fish, and seafood);
- Semivegetarian/Flexitarian: avoids some animal products, but not all (ex: eats fish, eats white meat, etc.).
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: avoids meat, but consumes milk, dairy, and eggs.
- Ovovegetarian: avoids meat and dairy, but includes eggs
- Lactovegetarian: avoids meat and eggs, but includes milk
- Vegan: avoids all animal-derived foods
- Macrobiotic: avoids most animal-derived foods, but emphasizes eating unprocessed organic foods
Within each subgroup of vegetarians there can still be a range, however. For instance, some vegans will go as far as not eating any honey because it is technically an animal-derived food while others will consume it. Things can get a little complicated when we try and organize them nicely.
Why Do People Become Vegetarians?
The reasons why people choose this lifestyle varies as much as the different subgroups of vegetarians. More and more reasons are emerging, but here are a few;
- Health benefits – some meats contain quite a bit of saturated fat, hormones, and preservatives
- Economics – meat oftentimes costs more than other foods
- Religion – some types of religions advise people not to eat certain types of animals
- Environment – Don’t like the adverse affects that meat consumption has on the environment
- Taste – Some people don’t like the taste of meat.
- Ethical – Love animals, don’t want to kill them, or disagree with the way they are raised.
Well, the truth is that being a vegetarian doesn’t hurt or help athletic performance. For a class project last semester a few of my friends and I researched this topic. One particularly helpful article we found was this one. It analyzes a bunch of different studies that compare vegetarian athletes with nonvegetarian athletes. ALL of the studies found no significant difference in sport performance.
Are There Health Benefits to Being a Vegetarian?
There are plenty of positive health benefits that are correlated with vegetarianism.
Vegetarians have decreased rates of;
- Heart disease
- Certain types of cancer
Increased intakes of;
- Fruits and vegetables
- Dietary fiber
- Folic acids
And Lower intakes of;
- Saturated fat
Concerns with the Vegetarian Diet
Like any diet, there are some concerns that people have with the vegetarian lifestyle. Here are a few common concerns:
- Protein intake – There are plenty of other ways to get adequate amounts of protein in one’s diet besides meat (nuts, tofu, eggs, cheese, quinoa, seeds, legumes, yogurt, seitan). For vegans it can be a little more difficult, but if you put in the effort then there should be no problem. Most Americans consume WAY more protein than they actually need anyways.
- Iron – Most studies actually show similar prevalence of iron-deficiency anemia in vegetarians and nonvegetarians. However, the type of iron that vegetarians eat (nonheme) is more difficult to be absorbed, so higher amounts of iron should be consumed. Some common sources of vegetarian iron include; quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal, legumes, nuts, seeds, tomatoes, swiss chard, collard greens, and prune juice.
- Amenorrhea – Oftentimes people with disordered eating/eating disorders will adopt the vegetarian diet as a means to control their weight, which can often lead to amenorrhea (irregular menstrual cycle due to low body fat). However, it is important to remember that amenorrhea is caused by low energy intake not by dietary quality. Therefore, the vegetarian diet does not cause amenorrhea.
Is it possible to have a bad diet and be vegetarian? Yes. Is it also possible to have a bad diet and be a meat-eater? Of course. If a vegetarian just eats lettuce all day then they will not be getting all of their essential vitamins and minerals. It’s the same as if a nonvegetarian decides to just eat meat – they will not be getting proper nutrition either. As long as a vegetarian puts adequate effort into eating a well-balanced diet then they should have no trouble with their nutrition.
The vegetarian diet does not hurt or harm an athlete’s performance. One does not have to give up or adopt the vegetarian diet in order to improve sport performance. A well-planned and balanced vegetarian diet can provide all of the essential vitamins and minerals that one needs. However, nutrition should be something that all athletes (vegetarian or not) should be concerned with. There are also some health benefits that are correlated with being a vegetarian.
What are your thoughts on the vegetarian athlete? Have you had good luck/bad luck with it? Thoughts?