Q: I AM A VEGETARIAN FITNESS ENTHUSIAST BUT HAVE STARTED TRAINING FOR AN IRONMAN 70.3 (1.2-MILE SWIM, 56-MILE BIKE, AND 13.1-MILE RUN). SHOULD I ADD MEAT TO MY DIET TO ENSURE ADEQUATE PROTEIN AND IRON AS I STEP UP MY TRAINING?
A: No, meat is not needed in your diet to support intense training. Misconceptions regarding exercise and the vegetarian diet are widespread, and I will clear these up for you.
A vegetarian diet is defined as one that does not include meat, fish, or fowl. A lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet includes dairy products and eggs but no meat. Vegetarian diets, when properly planned, provide all the nutrients you need and, at the same time, help prevent and treat disease (1-3).
Vegetarian diets also offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E (1). Vegetarians tend to be leaner than nonvegetarians, have lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and are less likely to have heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer (2,3).
What food is best for fitness enthusiasts and athletes? Next to training and heredity, nothing is more important to athletic endeavors than diet. And there is no lack of opinions about the best kind of diet. Ancient Greek and Roman athletes and warriors emphasized a diet based on meat to gain the competitive edge. Milo of Crotona, a legendary Greek wrestler who reportedly consumed gargantuan amounts of meat, was never once brought to his knees over five Olympiads (532 to 516 B.C.) (4). Roman gladiators believed that meat made them better warriors, a myth that persists to this day among many football, basketball, and baseball athletes.
Vegetarian athletes fought back during the mid-to-late 1800s. Vegetarian societies formed athletic and cycling clubs, and members often outperformed their carnivorous competitors in long-endurance race events (4). During modern times, elite athletes such as triathlete Dave Scott, body builder Bill Pearl, long distance runner Paavo Numi, tennis players Martina Navratilova and Billy Jean King, Olympic wrestler Chris Campbell, and Olympic figure skater Surya Bonaly demonstrated that the vegetarian diet was compatible with successful athletic endeavors at the highest level.
Research during the past half century indicates that carbohydrate is the primary fuel of the working muscle for all athletic endeavors including weightlifting, team sports, and endurance activity (e.g., running, swimming, and cycling). Because the vegetarian diet is naturally high in carbohydrate, a growing number of athletes have become vegetarians or at least near vegetarians.
Can vegetarians obtain enough iron, zinc, and other minerals in their diet? A well-planned vegetarian diet provides the athlete with adequate levels of all known nutrients, although the potential for suboptimal intake of these minerals exists if the diet is too restrictive (4-7). However, this concern exists for all athletes, vegetarian or nonvegetarian, who have poor dietary habits. Fortified breakfast cereals are an important source of iron for vegetarian athletes.
Although there has been some debate concerning adequate protein intake for vegetarian athletes, data indicate that all essential and nonessential amino acids can be supplied by plant food sources alone, as long as a variety of foods is consumed and the caloric intake is adequate to meet energy needs. The vegetarian athlete can achieve optimal protein intake through an emphasis on protein-rich plant foods such as legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grain products (4). The Table summarizes the protein content of recommended plant foods.
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is high in many antioxidant nutrients and flavonoids, which help reduce the oxidative stress associated with heavy exertion (4-7). This is a major benefit for vegetarian athletes.
There has been some concern that vegetarian female athletes are at increased risk for oligoamenorrhea, but evidence suggests that low energy intake, not the absence of meat, is the major underlying cause (8).
To sum up, vegetarian fitness enthusiasts and athletes eating a well-balanced diet will obtain all the nutrients and energy needed to perform at any level their training and heredity take them (4). In other words, a varied and well-planned vegetarian diet is compatible with hard training and successful athletic endeavors.
Although you may be thinking about performance now, the vegetarian diet can improve your odds of a high-quality life free of disease as you grow older. As a vegetarian, you will not be held back when performing but, better yet, will surpass your meat-eating peers in terms of health and longevity.
1. American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada. Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association
2. Berkow, S.E., and N. Barnard. Vegetarian diets and weight status. Nutrition Reviews
3. Sabate, J. The contribution of vegetarian diets to human health. Forum Nutrition
4. Nieman, D.C. Physical fitness and vegetarian diets: is there a relation? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
70(3 Suppl):570S-575S, 1999.
5. Venderley, A.M., and W.W. Campbell. Vegetarian diets: nutritional considerations for athletes. Sports Medicine
6. Barr, S.I., and C.A. Rideout. Nutritional considerations for vegetarian athletes. Nutrition
7. Wells, A.M., M.D. Haub, J. Fluckey, et al. Comparisons of vegetarian and beef-containing diets on hematological indexes and iron stores during a period of resistive training in older men. Journal of the American Dietetic Association
8. Barr, S.I. Vegetarianism and menstrual cycle disturbances: is there an association? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
70(3 Suppl):549S-554S, 1999.