Monday, November 21, 2011

Can you be a vegetarian and an athlete?

People become vegetarian for many different reasons;  these reasons can range from health maintenance all the way to animal rights.  I have personally tried different vegetarian diets and did not feel like my performance was optimal without any animals products in my diet, but that doesn't mean that I think being a vegetarian is wrong, or even non optimal.  I have come to the point where I am happy to say I am a flexitarian (a person who eats a mostly vegetarian diet with occasional meat).  I'd like to share some stories of athletes that are very successful with a vegetarian life style and explain some of the pros and cons of a vegetarian diet so that you can make your own decision.

UFC star and strict vegan Jon Ficth.

The first group of athletes I would like to mention are: Jake Shields, Nate Diaz, Nick Diaz, Jon Fitch, and Mac Danzig, these men are all combat athletes at the highest level and are all vegetarians.  Jake, Nate, and Nick are all training partners and Jake Shields (a life long vegetarian) convinced his buddies to start up a lacto-ovo diet (these vegetarians eat dairy and eggs but no meat).  They all make strong claims that their vegetarian diets speed recovery and allow them to work harder than anyone else.  Jon Fitch is a fairly recent convert to vegan ism after his wife slowly convinced him about the benefits of a vegan diet.  He has also made claims about recovery time being decreased and also says he feels better in his training than he ever has before.  Mac is a strong advocate for animal rights.  He has stated in interview that at age 13 he witnessed a pig being slaughtered and they made eye contact, which made a profound effect on his life.  Mac is a strict vegan and also claims to enjoy a host of benefits from a vegetarian diet.  None of these men exhibit poor performance or seem hindered by their diets in competition, on contrary they are all well known for being exciting and dynamic fighters.

While there are many athletes who enjoy vegetarian diets that I could cover I want to mention just one more, his name is Brendan Brazier.  Brendan is a professional iron man triathlete, while this is impressive enough in itself he also follows a very strict, raw, vegan diet.  Brendan participates in super long distance running, biking, and swimming.  He recently even set a record for longest distance covered in 24 hours of straight running.  Not only does he eat a vegan diet, but also a diet where about 95% of his food consists of raw uncooked fruits and vegetables.  I personally own his book and recommend it as a good read for anyone considering a vegetarian and especially a vegan diet.  Another impressive quality is that in opposition to most triathletes and long distance runner Brendan sports a healthy looking and muscular frame.

So if you were to decide to become a vegetarian there could be some potential problems that lay in wait for you down the road;  these problems can include: iron, calcium, vitamin b12, and omega fatty acid deficiencies.  These deficiencies can be avoided but will require some pretty involved planning on your part to do so.  You must learn the sources of these nutrients and ensure that you get significant amounts of them each day to prevent deficiency.  Vitamin b12 and iron deficiency can both cause anemia, which can impact athletic performance extensively, while omega-3 fatty acids are important for: brain function, healthy joints, immune health, and to fight off inflammation.  You must also ensure than you get adequate protein intake from plant sources including: nuts, beans, lentils, and soy.  Pea protein isolate and soy protein isolate are both excellent supplemental proteins for vegetarians.  While it is not impossible to consume adequate protein through plant sources it is much more involved than when you consume animal products.

On the flip side, vegetarian diets can bring with them a whole other set of benefits including: lower cholesterol, a healthy heart, lower blood pressure, lower incidence of Type 2 diabetes and cancer, and also a longer life span.  Vegetarians often report increased energy levels, mental clarity, and increased recovery, although these are subjective and not easy to measure.  Vegetarians also enjoy the peace of mind that they do not eat animals that were raised in poor living environments.  Whether you are an advocate for animal rights or not, I doubt there are many people who can watch the horrors of factory farming on FOOD INC. and not become disgusted with the current meat and dairy industry.

I'd like to close with my personal beliefs and experience with vegetarianism.  The most accurate definition for my diet would be flexitarian

I am not saying that I don't agree with a vegetarian diet, only that a vegetarian diet does not agree with me.  I know plenty of people who enjoy vegetarian diets and the list of athletes I provided should serve as a way to reinforce the idea that a vegetarian diet CAN be a viable diet even for professional athletes, but you must learn and be knowledgeable on the subject.  The only way to know for sure is to give vegetarianism a try and see how you feel with it.  There is a good chance you might never go back.

I recommend getting or renting Brendan Brazier's book THE THRIVE DIET if you are interested in learning more about raw foods or becoming a vegan.  Please feel free to comment here or on my new facebook page if you have any tips, suggestions, or personal experience with a vegetarian diet.

Here is a food blog by fighter Jon Fitch where he runs through a day with a vegan diet.


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