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Carl Lewis claimed to be a vegetarian.
Whether that’s true or not is not the point of this article. I see, hear, and read more and more people turning vegetarian and vegan. Maybe I’m hanging out with an older crowd. Some of these folks are even considering a raw food diet.
Let me remind you that “healthy eating”, or rather “perceived healthy eating”, and sport performance do not go well together.
My biggest concern about being a vegetarian or vegan is quality protein intake, and if it is sufficient on the demands of a high caliber speed, power and strength athlete.
I asked Lyle McDonald, author of the Protein Book this Q&A:
Question: Lyle, what do you think about vegan diets for sprint/power athletes? How about Vegetarian? Any thoughts on raw foodism?
Lyle McDonald: Ok, I’m going to take these out of order since some of the answers will be faster than others.
The Raw Food Diet Fad
The raw food fad is simply incorrect, unhealthy and will never lead to either optimal health or performance. A great deal of research, and this is discussed in a very readable way in a book called Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham (the researcher who has done much of the work) shows that fire and cooking is part of what allowed humans to evolve past other animals. IT allows us to obtain more calories from less food without having to spend hours per day simply chewing our food. Also, by not having to spend energy developing a massive gut to digest the food, we could put energy into other things: like building a big brain. Studies show that folks who eat a purely raw food diet essentially malnutrition themselves and can’t get enough calories or nutrients; they also have a higher prevalence of things like infertility and other things that usually occur secondary to starvation. Essentially their bodies starve despite a large volume of food; simply because the human body can’t absorb nutrients in raw form. I’d note that teh raw foodists often engage in many involved processes (crushing and grinding) in an attempt to make the foods more digestible. Cooking is faster.
Next up, veganism. Vegans are essentially vegetarians taken to the absolute extreme; they consume no foods of animal origin. That means no flesh (meat, fish, etc.) and they take this to to the extreme of no honey (comes from bees) or butter (from milk), etc. They won’t even consume supplements that have any sort of animal product in them, so an iron supplement derived from animal sources would be off limits. Never mind that I often meet vegans who wear leather but I digress. They also often suffer a variety of nutrient deficiencies (for example B12 only occurs in animal foods and pernicious anemia results as a consequence of deficiency) and have to supplement significantly to avoid this. Iron deficiency is rampant and while vegans will argue that foods like spinach have lots of iron there are two problems with this: 1) the iron in vegetable sources is non-heme iron which is absorbed with about 1/10th the efficiency of the iron found in meat 2) anti-nutrients in the vegetables inhibit absorption.
It’s also almost impossible for vegans to reach any sort of appropriate protein intake to support heavy training; the available sources of protein foods contain too many calories and carbohydrates, to get even 1 g/lb of lean body mass, the individual ends up with such a massive caloric intake that they just get fat. Sure, you can always supplement with vegan protein powders (hemp, pea and rice protein are available) but this seems backwards to me: don’t choose a diet because it’s healthier if you then have to supplement all of the nutrients you aren’t getting. If the diet were healthy or optimal for athletic performance, you wouldn’t need the supplements. Ergo….
And finally vegetarianism. I saved this for last since it’s more complicated, primarily due to the fact that there are many different flavors of vegetarian and people often use the term loosely while eating foods that most of us wouldn’t consider vegetarian. So you have your ovo/lacto vegetarians who will eat eggs and dairy but no animal flesh (no red meat, chicken or fish). You also have pescatarians, ‘vegetarians’ who will allow fish. I’ve known of some who would simply didn’t eat red meat but somehow managed to rationalize that chicken and fish aren’t meat (e.g. cow is meat, chicken and fish are not). In my mind, if it had eyes and a brain, it’s meat. But this is a semantic argument more than a scientific one.
In any case, depending on the specific ‘type’ of vegetarianism being practiced, the issues I described with veganism can occur to a greater or lesser degree. If the vegetarian will eat eggs and dairy, or any sort of animal (chicken or fish), generally meeting protein requirements without eating too many total calories is not an issue. Those provide enough concentrated protein (that is a high protein to caloric content) that makes that a non-issue.
Various nutrient deficiencies can still be an issue. Red meat is a prime source of zinc, B12 and iron and individuals who forego red meat can get into problems. Certainly B12 occurs in other animal foods, true deficiencies are usually only a big issue in pure vegans. Chicken contains iron as well as an iron factor that increases iron absorption; as well, cooking in a cast-iron skillet or consuming Vitamin C with the chicken will improve absorption. Zinc occurs in other animals sources foods as well.
So certainly a vegetarian diet can be made to work but it often takes a bit more work, to ensure that all nutrient levels are being met. Protein intake requirements can be reached without excessive calories and, depending on the ‘flavor’ of the vegetarianism, nutrient deficiencies can occur to a relatively greater or lesser degree.
On a semi-tangential note, I want to finish by making a point that is often missed in the above argument: I do not see the argument over diet as ‘a meat diet’ vs ‘a vegetable diet’ although that’s what tends to happen. Certainly everyone should be consuming a great variety of vegetable based products (vegetables and fruits) as there are numerous nutrients found in those foods that simply don’t occur in animal based foods (e.g. the class of phytonutrients which may have health or performance based benefits). By the same token, animal based foods often contain nutrients that aren’t found in optimal levels (or at all) in non-animal based foods. Humans are meant to eat a diet containing both types of foods and a general truism is this "Any time you eliminate an entire class of foods you potentially eliminate a source of an important nutrients." In my view, sprint/power athletes looking for optimal performance should eat a variety of animal foods (leaner red meats, chicken, fish, eggs, dairy) AND a large amount of plant based foods (fruits and vegetables). It’s not an either-or proposition, both categories of foods are required for optimality.
For the ultimate book on Protein, read the Protein Book.