Article contributed by reader Melissa Grant
By virtue of the extensive study and discovery of vegetarian and vegan diets and their various nutritional attributes, more and more people, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, are turning to these diets as a healthy alternative as well as for ethical animal welfare reasons. While for some, the vegan diet is instrumental in a particular and religious social setting, for others it is very much an individual choice, and while gaining popular ground in North America and Western Europe, it still faces numerous challenges and to some degree stigmatisation. Is cutting out red meat and especially fish, renowned for its wealth of nutrients and attributed to the good health of so many societies really a wise choice? Yet asking such a question, while valid in one sense seems redundant in another, and not just because studies have debated for and against the potentially harmful consequences of eating red meat.
Not only have several cultures survived on such diets for thousands of years, but some of the world’s top performing individuals who require an above average fitness level have turned to a vegan diet as an instrumental part of their regime. They have grown up in Western society and their genetic code is not, one may argue, optimised to diets which are commonly practiced elsewhere, yet for some vegan athletes, it is part of their key to success, proving that a vegan diet, when practiced effectively and conscientiously, not only leads to a good quality of life but gives the human body the sustenance it needs to be a high performer.
Of course, this means that in several areas, some additional compensation has to be done where the required intake of protein, iron, and vitamin B12 can be challenging to come by outside of meat. But as several athletes are able to attest, it definitely isn’t impossible.
Due an impressive performance in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Britain has seen an immense renewed interest in professional and amateur sport as more and more people are inspired to get out and get active, in part thanks to the athletes who helmed the nation’s impressive 65-medal tally. The first to begin this tally was silver-medallist Lizzie Armistead, a long-time vegetarian (since the age of 10, basing her choice on not eating animals) who championed a demanding 87-mile road cycling race. Though Lizzie is not entirely vegan, her example suffices because she gains the majority of her nutrients from the very stuff which grows out of the soil, and is yet another athlete from a long-line of Olympians to make this decision. Australian swimmer Murray Rose, an avid vegan aptly nicknamed “Seaweed Streak” won four golds in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, and American sprinter Carl Lewis improved his already substantial tally (four gold in 1984) with his 1991 victory at the 100m World Championships which he hailed as “his greatest race”, completed after turning vegan.
Muesli Equates to Muscle?
Yet veganism is perhaps an unsurprising lifestyle for Olympians participating in endurance sports, more open-minded in the sense that athletes, while muscular, do not carry around a lot of brawn. What of the bulkier types, participating in sports such as American football and wrestling? Meet Jim Morris, winner of the 1967 “Most Muscular Award” in New York.[i] While Jim did eat meat during this time, he made the decision years later to improve his health by changing diet. “It was only after I retired from competition in 1985 that I started considering my health and eliminated what I had over the years identified as the cause of my digestive, respiratory and joint problems, namely all animal sources,(beef, fowl, dairy, pork and fish). I continued having fish on rare occasions as my “treat”.” Jim continues to body-build, and has been named as PETA’s “most senior pin-up” advocating not only the rights of animals but several studies into the nutritional values of vegan diets, proving that meat isn’t necessarily instrumental in physical well-being.
Another popular athletic legend is the recently-retired NFL football player Tony Gonzalez, former tight end for the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs. Gonzalez is esteemed for his impressive record for most single season receptions and most touchdowns by a tight end, and most career receptions and reception yards by a tight end. Though Tony’s diet would eventually revert back to eating chicken and fish, he owes much of his career-fitness to trying alternative diets.
Strongman Patrick Baboumian, marathon champion Brendan Brazier and fighter Mac Danzig are also high-performing athletes who have switched to veganism, and credit much of their success to the diet. Attributing nutrition not only to fuelling training but aiding in recovery, it turns out that plant-based meals are the way forward and are substantial enough to allow the body to build up a healthy mass, even reporting that after switching to these diets, they felt better overall. This goes against the grain of popular public belief that such diets are unsustainable for an athlete, but recent studies in this field are providing more and evidence that this isn’t necessarily the case, and having real-life examples can only help as well.
In 2012, Gretchen Reynolds of the New York Times “Well” blog consulted with experts David C. Nieman, a professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University, D. Enette Larson-Meyer, an associate professor of human nutrition at the University of Wyoming, and Nancy Clark; all three are very active individuals, participating in marathons and other competitive sports. All three concluded that yes, vegan and vegetarian diets are possible, using the example of vegan distance runner Scott Jurek as a case in point. Most specifically, they addressed what has been a long-time question for athletes regarding getting enough intake of vitamin B12 which is plentiful in red meat, stating that now, many cereals and snacks are supplemented with the crucial mineral.[ii]
As more and more people are learning about the benefits of vegan diets and discovering that not only can they enjoy a greater quality of life, but also achieve some of their most ambitious goals with the aid of high-profile public figures who have embraced the lifestyle and found their own lives more fulfilling because of it, veganism is becoming an accessible and healthy option for aspiring athletes and will continue to do so for years to come.
[i] Greatveganathletes.com “Jim Morris, vegan body builder.” Accessed 3 April, 2014.
[ii] Well.blogs.nytimes.com “Can Athletes Perform Well on a Vegan Diet?” Accessed 3 April, 2014.
Photo of Jim Morris © PETA. PETA.org