By: ROXANNA COLDIRON
Edited by: KELSEY CRUZ
Andreas Cahling, Martina Navratilova, Debbie Lawrence, Mike Tyson, and Venus and Serena Williams have more in common than being champions in their respective sports. These athletes – who possess an athletic prowess the Greek gods would envy – don’t eat meat. (Yes, ladies, it’s true.) The belief that athletes need to consume meat to be fierce competitors is a complete fallacy.
Protein needs vary depending on the intensity of your fitness routine and athletic goals. However, web sites like the University of Maryland Medical System provide protein calculators to help you by using your age, height, build, and activity level to analyze how much your daily intake should be. For example, a 28-year-old female who is 5’4” with a small build and a moderate activity level needs a minimum of 72 grams of protein per day while a 25-year-old man who is 6 feet tall with a large build and an intense activity level needs a minimum of 128 grams of protein per day. A common misconception, however, is that meat is the best source of protein and the only source to provide adequate energy.
“The most important thing to remember when you’re a vegetarian, and especially if you’re an athlete, is understanding the different types of proteins,” said Kelley April, a vegetarian runner and jazz dancer. She has been a vegetarian since 2003 and works in the medical field.
“You can’t just eat cheese and guzzle milk,” she said. “Think beans, nuts, legumes, soy, tofu, and vary your sources of protein. As a vegetarian, you’re replacing animal protein with non-animal proteins. You can be perfectly healthy and energetic as a vegetarian, if you do it right.”
Sean O’Meara, a Team Beachbody Coach and P90X certified trainer, agrees, “I usually get my protein from lentils, beans, legumes. The sprouted brown rice in the vegan Shakeology mixes provides high quality protein.”
Aside from protein, what else do athletes need? They need the same things we all need, just more of it: simple and complex carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and nutrients.
O’Meara’s pre-workout meal consists of grains like oatmeal and quinoa for slow-release carbohydrates, fresh fruit for fast-acting carbohydrates, and a vegan Shakeology. After he eats, he waits about an hour and a half before beginning his intense training.
“Right after exercise, your muscles are in a state of micro-trauma,” O’Meara said. “A good rule of thumb is to follow a workout with four grams of carbohydrates to one gram of protein, with very little fat.”
Carbohydrates restore energy while protein rebuilds muscle. But what about fat? The majority of your fat intake should be ‘good fat’ of the monounsaturated variety, found in foods like avocados and nuts.
“Consuming fat immediately after a workout will slow down the nutrient breakdown your muscles need right then and there for recovery,” O’Meara said. “However, getting healthy fats on a regular basis [in appropriate quantities] allows your body to have a regular source of fuel for functioning.”
Health web sites and guides like ones by the Mayo Clinic provide help in determining which type of fat is in your food. For example, while animal products often contain mostly saturated fats and the densest proteins, vegetarians regularly eat foods that contain monounsaturated fat which could explain why many claim to ‘feel better’ after giving up meat.
When April first became a vegetarian, she felt more energized.
“Meat always seemed so heavy,” she said. “I noticed that whenever I did eat meat, I felt much more sluggish, even sick. [Giving up meat] improved my athletic performance because I felt better. I could push myself more and had more energy,”
O’Meara noticed the same energy increase in his own performance after he first became a vegan.
“I also was starting P90X2 at the same time [as going vegan], but was shocked that my body had even more energy,” he explained. “I could hit my workouts harder, and I recovered more quickly from intense workouts.”
Trimming back unnecessary fats, moderating your protein intake, and choosing lean sources of protein will improve your overall athletic performance. If you’re considering the vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, both April and O’Meara advise making changes slowly and educating yourself on nutrition.
“It’s important to really understand why you’re choosing to make these changes so you can measure, track, and celebrate your progress along the way to keep the habit consistently persistent,” O’Meara said.
Vegetarian or vegan lifestyle not quite for you? Whether you’re a florist, homemaker, or athlete, you’ll benefit from more vegetables and leaner protein.