Vegetarian Athletes

Photo: People Running

It’s a commonly held belief that a vegetarian diet lacks protein and nutrients, that vegetarians are weak and skinny, and that a meat-based diet is a necessity if one wishes to become a successful athlete. This is of course, a complete misconception. In fact, a balanced vegetarian diet is the ideal means for achieving peak performance in any field. It provides all the necessary nutrients and offers a plethora of benefits such as low amounts of fat, high amounts of fiber, plenty of protein, as well as disease -fighting nutrients such as enzymes, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. Following are just a few examples of the many professional athletes who have either adopted a vegetarian or vegan diet, or have been following one since birth. It’s easy to see that these gold-medal winners are thriving as vegetarians.

Bode Miller: USA Olympic Alpine Skier

Bode Miller “has captured the attention of the world with his incredible athletic balance and ability to produce jaw dropping performances on skis.” He has won five medals in the Winter Olympics, the most of any U.S. skier — two silvers (Giant Slalom and Combined) in Salt Lake City 2002, and a gold (Super Combined), a silver (Super G) and a bronze (Downhill) in Vancouver 2010.1 Raised in New Hampshire in a home with no electricity or running water, Miller was raised vegetarian. His family grew organic produce and he now owns an organic farm of his own in Hew Hampshire.2

Hannah Teter: USA Olympic Snowboarder

Hannah Teter’s accomplishments include winning the gold medal in Halfpipe at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino, Italy. She also won bronze at the 2005 FIS World Championships at Whistler, British Columbia, and has six World Cup victories in her career. In 2010 she won the silver medal in women's Halfpipe at the Vancouver Games.3 Huffington Post recently interviewed Teter. When asked if it was difficult being a vegetarian athlete, Teter responded, “I feel stronger than I’ve ever been, mentally, physically, and emotionally. My plant-based diet has opened up more doors to being an athlete. It’s a whole other level that I’m elevating to. I stopped eating animals about a year ago, and it’s a new life. I feel like a new person, a new athlete.”4

Carl Lewis, USA Olympic Track and Field Athlete

Carl Lewis’ career as a track and field athlete spanned from 1979-1996. In that time he won 10 Olympic medals including 9 gold, and 10 World Championship medals, of which 8 were gold.5 In 1990, Lewis began changing the way he ate until he eventually adopted a vegan diet. “I’ve found that a person does not need protein from meat to be a successful athlete. In fact, my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet. Moreover, by continuing to eat a vegan diet, my weight is under control, I like the way I look. (I know that sounds vain, but all of us want to like the way we look.) I enjoy eating more, and I feel great.”6

Pat Neshek, Professional Baseball Player

Pat Neshek is a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins and has been a vegetarian since 2008. According to an article in ESPN, “Neshek had wondered how he'd get the kind of protein, iron, Omega-3 acids and other key nutrients he'd need to survive the long slog of a 162-game season -- let alone excel at his sport. By substituting items such as brown rice and beans, tofu spiced to taste like different meat dishes, and flaxseed oil and various legumes, he found that his body held up even better than expected”.7

Scott Jurek, Ultramarathon Runner

Scott Jurek was selected as UltraRunning Magazine's North American Male Ultrarunner of the Year in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2007, and placed second in 2006.8 In an ultramarathon, a typical race can cover 100 miles or more, often in scorching heat, blistering cold or at dizzying elevation. While training, Jurek consumes 6,000-8,000 calories a day – all on a vegan diet! When asked about what he eats, Jurek explains, "For breakfast it's a dense, caloric smoothie. Then you've got lots of fruits and almonds. People assume it's all carbs. But there's also fat -- avocados, rich monosaturated fats, almonds, olive oil. For protein you've got beans, lentils, combining whole grains, tofu and tempeh. Then for carbs: whole grains, breads, cereals, fruits and veggies, whole foods, unprocessed foods. There are three main meals, then lots of smaller snack foods and mini-meals throughout the day." Jurek’s reasons for going vegetarian echo the ideals of many moving toward a vegetarian diet: "For me, it's about optimizing health. It's about lifestyle and longevity. Then you think about what vegetarian diets can do for the mass population, in terms of lower consumption of resources. When you look at the numbers, it's pretty staggering." Jurek also offers advice to those considering going vegetarian: "It's really not that hard once you get things down," he said. "You just have to be a little creative. Sometimes you may not find a great vegetarian protein source in a restaurant -- no tofu, for instance. So you can do something like add chickpeas to salad. Ethnic foods are good, too. Mexican beans, Asian tofu, Indian lentils. [To] some people it's this weird diet. But most grocery stores have a plethora of foods. Just keep variety in your diet, and you'll be good."