"No Meat Athlete" - Is It Right For Me?

Photo by Jakub Kapusnak

Photo by Jakub Kapusnak

By Kellsey O’Donnell, MS, RD, LDN

With more and more people adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet, it leaves us wondering, “Is this right for me?” Various athletes, even up to the elite level, are implementing these routines while still excelling in their respective sports. For example, ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek has embraced a vegan lifestyle, and recently set a world record for running all 2,189 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 46 days, eight hours, and seven minutes. Yikes. 

Additionally, legendary Joe Namath is a vegetarian member of the NFL Hall of Fame.  These examples, from opposite ends of the athletic spectrum, show that if done properly, one can still benefit from a meatless diet if he or she chooses to! Regardless of athletic build or muscle fiber type, athletes from varying backgrounds can benefit from going meatless.

So, what are the potential benefits? 

Good question. General health benefits that one can associate with a vegetarian diet include lower risk of death from heart disease, lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) levels, lower blood pressure, lower rates of type 2 diabetes, lower body mass index, and lower rates of cancers. 

However, in athletes, intense training can potentially increase risk of cell damage, which can further lead to impairments in cells and tissue functions. To compensate for this, consumption of antioxidants is highly recommended. Compared to the average American diet, consumption of a vegetarian diet usually includes intakes richer in fiber, phytochemicals, and antioxidants, while sometimes staying lower in cholesterol, total fat and saturated fat intake.  

This combination assists in fighting the battle against cell damage, while also helping to lower blood pressure and cardiovascular disease risk. The increased consumption of whole plants foods is likely responsible for these relevant health benefits.

So does this mean being vegan/vegetarian is better for me

Not so fast. This is not to say that a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is appropriate for everyone. Those choosing to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet should be aware of key micronutrients that have potential to be deficient if not monitored correctly. The key nutrients that have been identified for vegetarians include omega-3 fatty acids (the “healthy” fats), iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.  

Many online portals and apps, such as MyFitnessPal, make it easy to log foods as well as note nutrient intake at the end of the day to determine which nutrients you may be lacking in your diet. It is recommended that nutrients be consumed from a food source before any supplement utilization, as research regarding benefits from supplement usage alone has been sparse.  

So what foods should vegans/vegetarians eat for nutrients? 

Almond milk can be a great source of calcium and vitamin D, while fortified cereals and breads are a good option to ensure vitamin B12, iron, and iodine consumption. Leafy greens and seeds are high in omega-3s, and zinc can be found in legumes such as chickpeas or kidney beans.  

Finally, it is crucial as an athlete to maintain proper protein intake to aid in muscle recovery and rebuilding. Plant based protein sources include soybeans, quinoa, legumes, nuts, and nut butters.

Meat or no meat, find what’s right for you as an athlete.

Kellsey O’Donnell, MS, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian, licensed in Pennsylvania.  She is currently the Sports Dietitian for Philadelphia Runner, offering individualized nutrition counseling sessions and group/team talks. Kellsey is happy to answer any questions you may have at kellseyo@philadelphiarunner.com. To schedule an appointment, click here

Blog References

  • Fuhrman J, Ferreri DM. Fueling the vegetarian (vegan) athlete. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2010;9(4):233-241.

  • Hadžović-Džuvo, Almira A. Oxidative stress status in elite athletes engaged in different sport disciplines. Bosnian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences. 2014;14(2):56-62.

  • Li D. Effect of the vegetarian diet on non-communicable diseases. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 2014;94(2):169-173.

  • Craig WJ, Mangels AR. American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 2009; 109(7):1266-1282.