Despite the overwhelming success of so many vegetarian athletes and bodybuilders making headlines lately, there are still lots of people who question the merits and feasibility of the vegetarian fitness lifestyle.
The American Dietetic Association asserts that vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of life, including athletes. And a look back through history tells us that the best athletes in ancient times swore by vegetarian diets.
Yet many questions and concerns continue to prevent athletes from adjusting their meals and phasing out meat to live healthier lifestyles and enhance their performance.
Rooted in science and proven effective by some of the top athletes and bodybuilders on the planet, here is a defense of the vegetarian fitness lifestyle and how you can start living it too.
What Is Vegetarianism?
In its most basic sense, a vegetarian is a person who doesn’t eat meat. This means avoiding foods that consist of or that have been produced from products that come from any part of an animal.
However, there are several variations of vegetarianism, so it’s important to make a few key distinctions. Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat dairy and eggs, and lacto-vegetarians eat dairy but not eggs. Meanwhile, ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy and vegans don’t eat any of either of these foods.
A Vegetarian Times study determined that 22.8 million people, representing 10 percent of adults in the U.S., mostly (but not entirely) follow a vegetarian diet. Approximately 7.3 million people, representing 3.2 percent of American adults, strictly stick to vegetarian meals.
However, these figures have been increasing by the year, and a more recent survey estimates that around 16 million people in America have gone totally meat-free.
Vegetarianism and General Health
In terms of both general health and physical fitness, there are clear, undisputed advantages associated with the vegetarian lifestyle.
Although there are some overweight and obese vegetarians in the world today, those who do not eat meat are generally healthier and have a lower risk of disease.
In “Meat Intake and Mortality: A Prospective Study of Over Half a Million People” published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers concluded that red and processed meat intakes are directly connected to increases in total mortality, cancer mortality, and cardiovascular disease mortality.
Health benefits of vegetarianism include lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, fewer digestive disorders, and lower incidences of obesity and diabetes. Other studies reference greater resilience to renal disease, dementia, diverticular disease, gallstones, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Animal-based foods are often high in acidity, which is a known cause of inflammation. Meanwhile, fresh and organic fruits and vegetables fuel the body with essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are easy to digest and provide energy.
Many types of meat sold in America are packed with hormones and antibiotics to sustain factory farming practices with no regard for their impact on human health upon consumption.
Vegetarianism and Fitness
But the benefits of vegetarianism go far beyond general wellness and disease prevention. In fact, a meat-free diet can give athletes a competitive edge that helps them perform and compete better than their meat-eating counterparts.
For endurance athletes, performance is largely driven by fueling the body with carbohydrates, which can easily and healthily be obtained through plant-based sources.
As long as a vegetarian diet isn’t unnecessarily restrictive, it can provide athletes with all the nutrients needed to perform and compete.
Furthermore, “Physical Fitness and Vegetarian Diets: Is There a Relation?” published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that “athletes who consume diets rich in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains receive high amounts of antioxidant nutrients that help reduce the oxidative stress associated with heavy exertion.”
Female athletes, in particular, may be hesitant to cut dairy products out of their diets because calcium is essential to maintain bone health and prevent osteoporosis. Fortunately, there are lots of plants that are packed with calcium, including broccoli, bok choy, collards, kale, and Chinese cabbage.
Regardless of gender, the benefits of a vegetarian diet are so overwhelming that this lifestyle is worthy of consideration by all athletes.
The fat, protein, and carbohydrate balance associated with vegetarian diets can help endurance athletes maximize body glycogen stores and ultimately boost performance during periods of heavy training.
A 2016 study published in Nutrients concluded that vegetarian endurance athletes’ cardiorespiratory fitness is greater than that measured in omnivorous.
This exemplifies that not only does a vegetarian diet not compromise performance outcomes, but it can actually enhance the level of aerobic capacity in athletes and help them compete for longer periods of time.
Arguments Against Vegetarianism
But despite all these proven health benefits, vegetarianism sometimes gets a bad rap, especially in terms of supplying enough protein to athletes to facilitate a competitive fitness lifestyle.
Some studies, including a recent one published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, have found little to no difference in the athletic performance of vegetarians and omnivores. This fact makes some athletes hesitant to make significant dietary changes for perceived minimal gains.
There’s a common perception that meat is required to bulk up and increase muscle and strength; however, vegetarian athletes continue to thrive on plant-based foods and targeted supplementation.
Concern about certain nutrient deficiencies, including vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and iodine, prevent some athletes from cutting meat from their diets.
But based on research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, a vegetarian diet can meet the current recommendations for each and every nutrient needed in the human body.
Yet, poorly planned vegetarian diets can be detrimental to athletes, as in the case of a young vegetarian athlete who developed rhabdomyolysis, which was studied and published in the American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
“A vegetarian diet, per se, is not associated with detrimental effects in athletes, but an optimal protein intake should be achieved through careful planning with an emphasis on protein-rich plant foods,” the researchers concluded.
Some people initially experience weakness and fatigue when they cut meat out of their diets, which is another argument against restricted diets like vegetarianism.
However, these symptoms are common with any kind of dietary change at first and will subside with good nutrition knowledge and well-balanced meals.
Vegetarian diets can make dining out inconvenient and social gatherings awkward, which is why it’s so important for vegetarians to establish a network of support and have access to reliable nutrition information rooted in science to defend their convictions.
While fruits and vegetables can be easily obtained at local farmer’s markets, food manufacturers have created pre-packaged versions of vegetarian foods that can be shipped from halfway around the world. This requires excess packaging and does nothing to reduce one’s environmental footprint.
Vegetarian diets can be just as unhealthy as meat-based ones if they revolve around industrially produced food preserved with chemical additives.
Meanwhile, it may actually create a lesser environmental impact to eat meat in geographic locations with large wild animal populations that require no grocery store packaging or long-distance shipping.
This can be a valid argument for people who live in remote places, are members of indigenous cultures, or who are on the fence about vegetarianism because of environmental discrepancies.
But as we will explore in the sections that follow, the health and fitness benefits of adopting a vegetarian diet far outweigh the adverse ones.
Building Muscle Without Meat
Many athletes and bodybuilders are concerned about their ability to gain muscle while only eating plant-based foods.
Protein is the muscle-building macronutrient that most athletes are concerned with, and since the protein in vegetables is different than that contained in meat, vegetarians may need at least 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.
However, more protein is required to fuel the bodies of hardworking athletes. The recommended amount for adults undertaking resistance or endurance exercise is more like 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
With the right knowledge and a little guidance, it’s easy to add muscle-building foods to your training diet without including meat. Athletes can be more efficient with their meals by choosing foods that contain multiple macronutrients at once (i.e. protein, carbs, and fat).
One example is quinoa, which contains nine amino acids that the body can’t produce on its own and complex carbs for enhanced energy. Legumes, including beans, peas, and lentils, are rich in protein, fiber, potassium, iron, magnesium, and folate.
An added bonus is that legumes boost insulin response and enhance nutrient absorption, which are both essential for muscle growth.
Nuts are packed with protein, calories, fiber, and healthy fats. Green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach contain vitamins, calcium, and folic acid to enhance muscle concentration. And fruits build muscle with a healthy mix of complex carbs, fiber, and minerals.
Increasing Strength on Plants
For competitive athletes, it’s simply not enough to have a perfectly sculpted muscular physique. Heightened levels of strength are also required in a wide range of sports and to support a healthy body in a more general sense.
Endurance is an integral part of building strength because extended sets and reps with increased weight are required to become stronger over time.
A study involving 55 endurance runners who ate ovo-lacto-vegetarian diets and regular Western diets revealed that the intake of nearly all vitamins and minerals was higher in the vegetarian group and that the vegetarians’ intake exceeded all nutritional recommendations.
Another big conclusion was that high nutrient density vegetarian diets are more than adequate to cover the nutritional requirements of endurance athletes.
To increase strength, the body relies on oxidative metabolism to create energy. Oxygen is essential for muscle fiber growth, and through a process called aerobic metabolism, oxygen is transported to working muscles.
Mitochondria use oxygen in the body to convert the macronutrients of proteins, carbs, and fats into adenosine triphosphate to support muscle contractions.
A study that compared vegetarian and conventional hypocaloric diets found that maximal oxygen consumption increased by 12 percent in the vegetarian test group, compared with no change in the non-vegetarian group.
But lifting weights at the gym is just one part of the muscle-building and strength-building equation. Studies have shown that those who eat vegetarian diets also recover significantly faster after exercise. Rest periods are crucial to gaining and sustaining muscle and strength for the long-term.
Considerations of Weight and Fat Loss
It’s a simple fact that vegetarians tend to weigh about six to 10 pounds less on average than people who eat meat. But evidence suggests that an athlete’s resting metabolic rate (RMR) and thermic effect of a meal (TEM) measurement also rests in vegetarians’ favor.
In a study involving 12 male vegetarians and 11 non-vegetarians of similar body fat and fitness, researchers found that both RMR and TEM were lower in the vegetarian men.
This finding provides support as to why vegetarians have lower body weight and both fat than omnivores. If shredding fat or losing weight is part of your overall fitness goals, then vegetarianism is definitely worth a try.
Vegetarianism and the Planet
While some athletes choose to become vegetarian because of their health and fitness, others make the decision based on environmental convictions.
There’s been a big push in America and around the world to reduce one’s individual carbon footprint, and eating habits like cutting out meat and choosing locally grown foods can do a lot to achieve this goal.
Raising animals to be slaughtered for meat is a huge contributor to resource depletion and the prevalence of droughts. Furthermore, the deforestation of earth’s forests and rainforests is largely due to cutting away native vegetation to raise animals that need to feed on grains and soy.
Meat-free diets help athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness buffs do their part to preserve this amazing planet we call home.
Is Vegetarianism Really More Humane?
This is a debate that comes up time and time again, and honestly, there are both pros and cons to consider.
Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Although humans have a moral and ethical obligation to eliminate pain and suffering among animals and extend humanity to all living things, some argue that humans are part of the cycle of life that revolves around predatory/prey relationships.
Philosopher, author, and long-time vegetarian Andrew F. Smith, who wrote A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism, asserts that there is no morally defensible argument for vegetarianism and that it’s not even actually possible to truly be a vegetarian because even plants consume animals.
Smith also argues that plants have biochemical reactions that are not unlike those as animals and feel pain too, so it is no more humane to kill and consume plants than animals.
Factory farming involves another moral issue that many people have an issue with and that drives them to vegetarianism. It involves a total disregard for the wellness of animals as living beings, and by avoiding meat products, vegetarians can show their support against this inhumane practice.
Some philosophers believe that a plant-based diet can actually enhance compassion and empathy through mindful eating over time as well. By eliminating meat products from the diet, people may naturally begin caring more about animals, the environment, and even other people.
Mindful eating makes us more conscious about where our meals come from and require us to think about the foods we choose to put in our bodies. Consciously taking one being’s life to fill the stomach is morally questionable when other viable options are available.
However, it’s important for vegetarians to resist the urge to adopt a holier-than-thou stance, but simply do the right thing for their bodies and be aware of what personally feels right and wrong.
By adopting this mindset, athletes can live a healthier and more fulfilled lifestyle that they can feel good about from the inside out.
Upon review of many medical studies, it’s easy to see why science continues to support the vegetarian fitness lifestyle for all types of athletes and bodybuilders.
The evidence is compelling when fitness buffs are able to break away from stereotypes and misconceptions to consider the facts and the promising potential of meat-free diets.
Of course, every athlete and bodybuilder is unique and has different nutritional requirements to stay on top of the game. However, the vegetarian fitness lifestyle is definitely worth a try, even if it only means reducing the number of meat-based meals eaten every day.
Every little bit counts, in terms of general health, athletic performance, the environment, and the fate of humanity.