Can You Be A Vegetarian Athlete?

Gone are the days when vegetarianism and competitive sport were mutually exclusive. A well-planned diet, experts say, is all it takes to do well on the field without touching meat.

Many athletes are living proof–record-setting marathoner Scott Jurek, runner Bart Yasso, triathlete Brendan Brazier, and bodybuilder Robert Cheeke are just some examples. How do they do it?

According to the No Meat Athlete, the key is simply to focus on healthy, whole foods–just like a regular healthy diet, with the exception of meat. Athletes can go as far down the vegetarian line as they want, from simply cutting out red meat to going fully vegan, organic, and gluten-free. Some athletes claim they get even more energy out of restrictive regimes, such as the macrobiotic diet.

It’s not easy, that’s for sure–especially when you’re surrounded by barbecues and steak-houses. Some “special ingredients,” from little-known beans and pulses to fake meats, can also take some getting used to. Pressure from friends and family can also be prohibitive. But there’s no question that the biggest challenge is finding a diet that works and that you can stick to. For many, that can seem like a one-in-a-million match.

As one might expect, sourcing your protein is an important question, and admittedly the biggest challenge. Protein exists in other foods besides meat (tofu, milk, and beans, to name a few), but usually in smaller amounts. One trick is to keep your sources varied, and to make sure there’s some in every meal.

No Meat Athlete also suggests putting a few “staple foods” in your diet that are easy to find and don’t taste too out of the ordinary. This will make the transition to a vegetarian diet easier. Beans, lentils, brown rice, sprouts, and starchy vegetables (such as potatoes and rutabaga) are some common examples.

One thing about athlete-friendly vegetarian diets is that they can get technical very fast. Some people get lost in the calorie counting and carbohydrate-to-fat ratios. It’s not so much a numbers game as it is one of proportion: more than half of your food should be carbohydrate (that’s where you get your energy), about a fifth should be fat, and about half of that should be protein.

Of course, every athlete has his goals, and the numbers won’t work for everyone. But as long as you avoid the obvious bad apples (e.g. McDonald’s) and take everything in moderation, it’s not too bad if you go below or above from time to time.

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