Today it’s hard to miss stories about winning athletes in nearly all sports who are dedicated vegetarians. But is a vegetarian diet just a feel-good eco-fad or does it offer any advantages over a meat-based diet?
A recent Arizona State study shows that a veggie diet can offer you as much physical strength that a meat-based diet offers, and may give you an advantage in aerobic capacity. Even better, vegetarian diets have been linked to healthier hearts, fewer cancers, and longer lifespans.
Unexpected Protein Potential
One of the surprise findings in the Arizona State study was that you could get enough protein from a vegetarian diet to be as big and strong as someone on a meat diet.
“I expected cardiorespiratory fitness to be about the same since lots of endurance athletes say their performance has improved since going vegetarian,” says lead study author Heidi Lynch. “Now this study backs that. I was more surprised about strength, because people often think they need meat to get big and strong.”
For women in the study, a vegetarian diet actually provided 13 percent greater VO2 max scores than their omnivore counterparts. Part of the explanation for that difference is that vegetarians tend to consume more carbohydrates and may provide better fuel efficiency especially for endurance sports such as running, cycling, and distance swimming.
The big nutrient for building muscle of course is protein. Done right, vegetarianism can provide all the protein you need without the saturated fat and cholesterol found in meat or cheese. Green peas, quinoa, nuts, beans, and tofu are great protein sources and there are nearly limitless recipes on how to enjoy them.
Advantages off the Field, Too
If you’re not already a vegetarian, the benefits beyond athletic capacity are worth considering. Most vegetarian diets are low in or devoid of animal products. They’re also usually lower than non-vegetarian diets in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus, and some forms of cancer.
Starting a vegetarian diet doesn’t have to equate with giving up delicious food or enduring boring, brown meals. However, a vegetarian lifestyle does take some planning and understanding. For some people, a semi-vegetarian or pesco-vegetarian diet is an easy way to start. When starting out, be sure to have enough information to ensure that you are not missing any essential nutrients. You may also want to consult with a dietician or your physician if you have any concerns.
Eliminating meat from your diet won’t automatically make you a better athlete. However, when you make healthy, balanced choices, a veggie diet can give you all of the nutritional needs for performing well in any sport or lifestyle.