3/19/09

Athlete and Vegetarian...can you be both?

It's my turn!

This topic is close to my heart because, well, I am a vegetarian (Lacto-ovo). I have been living a meat-free life since I was 12 years old, which makes almost 15 years that I have been a competitive athlete, getting stronger on non-meat protein. Everyone knows my love for animals and that is how it all started at such a young age. Now I live a life of healthy eating in order to keep my body clean and well-fueled. I can say it took me a good 10 years to find out how to eat like a vegetarian athlete rather than an athlete who loves eating carbs to fuel workouts(ex. high school and college swimming years). It's not always easy (ex. traveling) to eat healthy on a budget, as a vegeterian, but I am always learning about what to feed my body as an athlete and I think being a vegetarian just makes life a bit more fun...and interesting.
When I was in graduate school, many of my professors and researchers in the field told me that I wouldn't succeed as an athlete because I don't get enough protein in my diet. During this time, I was just about to do my first marathon and at the time, I would probably have to agree with them that I was not getting enough quality protein. However, times have changed and now my poor recovery days are a thing of the past.
I never preach vegetarianism to people and seeing that my family, my husband and most of my friends eat meat, I don't judge people by what they eat. Although it takes a little effort to read menus ahead of time to check for "Marni-friendly" foods (as Karel would say), I know what food my body needs on a daily basis and I love giving my body the right fuel to help me get stronger, healthier and faster as an athlete.

I hope you enjoy the article...

Athlete and Vegetarian..Can you be both?
Marni Rakes, B.A., M.S., CISSN

Have you ever considered going green? According to FamousVeggie.com, you may recognize some of the following names; Carl Lewis* (track star), Murray Rose (Olympic swimmer), Pat Reeves* (Power lifter), Billy Jean King (Tennis Pro), Ed Moses (Olympic athlete) and Sally Eastall* (marathon runner). Uncertainly, you’ve heard of Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, Bob Barker, Charles Darwin, Henry Ford, Isaac Newton and Upton Sinclair. Of the list mentioned, including myself (Marni Rakes), all are vegetarians.

Since many individuals, both young and old, are choosing vegetarianism for the reason of animal rights, religion, ethics or health, it is becoming more common for an athlete to choose a diet free of meat. (*Vegans)

Training requires protein

Despite the comments from the non-vegetarians, not everyone requires meat, fish or products from animal origin to live a healthy and active lifestyle. Besides, gaining muscle mass and building strength requires exercise, training and a balanced diet, not just a high consumption of protein. If you are a vegetarian looking for a more active lifestyle or a competitive athlete seeking a change in the diet, do not allow a skeptic to convince you that you can’t be an athlete and a vegetarian.

If you took a look at the stereotypical protein-rich diet of a non-vegetarian, food choices probably include milk, eggs, fish and meat. However, as our carnivore friends are under the belief that their daily intake of animal products offers plenty of protein, let’s consider what the meat-lovers are most likely consuming.

Typical eating habits of non-vegetarians

Searching for the most affordable milk in the dairy isle of the grocery can be overwhelming, but 1% or 2% milk in addition to high fat creamers, high sugar yogurt and fatty cream cheese appears more appetizing to the average dairy consumer than light, watery skim milk or fat-free cottage cheese. Need I mention the look you receive when you tell a non-soy drinker that you actually enjoy soy milk in your cereal. And although egg whites provide one of the highest biological values of protein, some athletes continue to choose 3-4 sunny-side up eggs with bacon, ham and cheese for a morning sandwich. Fish is filled with heart-healthy, omega fatty acids but when fried and soaked in butter, you have one heart unhealthy catch when eating out at your favorite local restaurant. And not to mention the poor nutritional value of “protein” bars for a recovery snack, here comes the burger with fries which tops off the list for the non-vegetarians who claim that a vegetarian diet can’t be healthy...especially if you are an athlete.

What you need as an athlete-regardless of eating status

Regardless of vegetarian status, if you asked the typical athlete, he/she probably doesn’t consume enough protein to meet the demands of training. Ultimately, as a competitive athlete, your number one concern is a high percentage of daily quality proteins and complex carbohydrates, with limited calories from simple sugars and unhealthy fats. In order to gain strength, increase lean muscle mass, increase metabolism and decrease weight, all athletes should be conscious of the best sources of protein for the diet- regardless if it comes from an animal. Therefore, choosing to eat tofu instead of a chicken will not sabotage your performance!

Ultimately, a vegetarian diet emphasizes the most advantageous sources of protein for your active lifestyle. Many vegetarians go out of their way to emphasize heart-healthy protein as oppose to the meat-eater who often eats fatty and heart unhealthy meats. If you choose to eliminate animal protein from the diet, which contains a high amount of protein and often, a high amount of fat, you must look for ways of replacing those foods with a healthy protein-alternative to foster performance gains.

Regardless if you are a long-time vegetarian or an athlete thinking of making the switch to a diet free of meat, all athletes should consume a balanced diet with around 25-30% of their daily calories coming from food rich in quality protein (15-20% fat, 55-65% carbohydrates). Likewise, athletes should aim for atleast 1.4-1.8 g/kg body weight of protein per day.

No matter what type of diet you prefer, vegetables and fruits, carbohydrates high in fiber and low in sugar, healthy fats and high quality protein are the best foods to emphasize in a heart-healthy diet. If you consume the best protein sources at the right time, it doesn’t really matter what you choose to call yourself when you are feeling confident with your active, healthy diet.

Emphasize variety in your protein source

Because plants and fruits contain far less quality protein (in terms of amino acids) and iron compared to animal protein, you must have a variety of meat-free foods for your protein-rich, vegetarian diet. If you think eating a protein bar will increase your daily intake of protein, you’re only receiving a small amount of protein listed on the label after absorbing and digesting that bar. Rather, drink your soy milk or whey protein drink, eat your nuts or enjoy a cup of cottage cheese. With all meals and snacks, seek quality protein, high in amino acids, to complement foods rich in fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates.

Types of Vegetarians:

Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian – No meat or fish, consumes dairy products and eggs.
Ovo Veggie – No meat or fish, consumes only eggs.
Pesco Vegetarian – No poultry, beef or pork, consumes only fish.
Vegan – Omits all foods (and usually products) of animal origin and consumes only raw or plant-based food.
Semi Vegetarian – Eliminates red meat or occasionally omits meat, fish and/or eggs from the diet. Usually the first step of becoming a full-time vegetarian.

Foods rich in protein:

• Grains (Barley, Millet, Oatmeal, Rye, Wheat, Buckwheat)
• Tofu
• Veggie meat
• Beans (black, garbanzo, soy, navy)
• Legumes (lima, lentils, peas)
• Couscous, Brown Rice or Quinoa
• Whey or soy protein powder
• Hemp (seeds, powder, flour)
• Milk (soy, skim)
• Nuts and seeds
• Dark, leafy green vegetables (spinach, romaine, kale)
• Fortified cereal
• Peanut butter
• Eggs (whites contain most protein)
• Cottage Cheese
• Yogurt
• Cheese
• *Veggies (Broccoli, Zucchini, Mushrooms, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Peppers, Watercress, Beets, Artichokes, Eggplant, Okra, Tomatoes)
• *Fruits (Blueberries, Blackberries, Grapefruit, Pear, Banana, Orange, Strawberry, Papaya, Grapefruit, Cherries)
• Potatoes and Yams

*Due to the small amounts of quality protein content, fruits and vegetables should be combined with quality protein-rich foods. Ex. mushrooms with egg whites, beans and veggies or blueberries with cottage cheese.


Marni holds a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology and is a Certified Sports Nutritionist (CISSN). Marni is a Level-1 USAT Coach and is currently pursuing a Registered Dietician Degree. Marni completed the 2007 Ford Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii and is currently training for IMKY in August. Marni enjoys public speaking and writing. She has several published articles including monthly articles on Irongirl.com and Beginnertriathlete.com and in Hammer Endurance News, Shape magazine and Triathlete Magazine.