The Vegetarian Diet and Athletes

Huge steaks, chicken breasts piled high, gallons of milk—when many of us think of athletes, we think of these types of meals. In fact, many think that a meat based diet is essential to athletic performance especially in power sports such as football. But there are an increasing amount of athletes, both professional and amateur, who are turning to vegetarian and vegan diets and finding out how their performances are affected.

I want to provide a few examples of professional athletes who follow vegetarian or vegan diets. There really is a right way to eat vegetarian or vegan. The basic concept is the same as an omnivore diet—make healthy eating choices based upon your needs (physical activity level, what you want to accomplish, etc.).

Tony Gonzalez is a pro bowl tight end who changed to a vegan diet after 10 years in the NFL. His change was spurred by a few medical problems, a doctor’s order to go vegan and a chance encounter with a vegan on a flight. Gonzalez took a huge risk by changing his diet as a pro bowl NFL player (he changed in 2007). He said he did it by trial and error, and things started out shaky.

He lost 10 pounds at first and significant strength. This is not good for an NFL player! After he educated himself a bit and learned a number of vegan friendly recipes, he saw his strength and weight return. After his first NFL season he stated that he was feeling better than ever on and off the field. He can’t directly attribute this to the vegan diet, but it was the most significant change he’d made to his routine before the season.

Scott Jurek is an ultra-marathoner. These semi-crazy people run races that are often 100 miles or more in sometimes extreme weather conditions. Jurek is also a strict vegan which can seem crazy when you need to consume 6000 to 8000 calories a day during the most intense training and racing periods.

Jurek was already an ultra-marathoner when he started to phase out meat from his diet. After going full vegan but before his first race, he had doubts about whether he would be able to compete without the protein from meat. He ended up winning his first race as a vegan and hasn’t looked back since. He says he just needed to overcome that mental barrier that most of us have about needing to consume meat to stay athletically competitive.

There are still legitimate questions posed by people who are skeptical of athletes on vegan diets. There don’t seem to be any long term studies on the effects of vegan diets and muscle retention and all the athletes I have read about going meatless have done so later in life. Would they have been able to grow as strong without meat during puberty and development in their late teens and early twenties? We can’t answer this question now, but in the short term, we know that you can still maintain athletic success when switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet.