The Vegetarian Athlete

With the increasing proof of the many benefits that can be obtained from this type of diet, it is not hard to see why an increasing number of athletes are opting for the vegetarian alternative.

Despite common misconceptions, the word "vegetarian" has nothing to do with consuming vast amounts of vegetables. Although vegetables do play a large role in the vegetarian diet, the word itself actually comes from the Latin word "vegetus" meaning full of vitality, vigorous and cheerful.

There are and have been many successful vegetarian athletes and these days, more than ever, you don't have too look too hard to find them (just check out this site! With the increasing proof of the many benefits that can be obtained from this type of diet, it is not hard to see why an increasing number of athletes are opting for the vegetarian alternative.

The list of reasons why people switch to a vegetarian diet is as varied as the people themselves and include issues pertaining to ecology, economy, religion, ethics, emotions and of course health. Not only can a vegetarian diet meet the nutritional needs for any high performance sport, studies are beginning to show that it may also play a major role in disease prevention.

Unfortunately some people assume that the simple act of eliminating meat from their diet will automatically make them healthier. Many have tried this approach to vegetarianism unsuccessfully and returned to their old ways blaming the diet for leaving them feeling run down, sick and tired.

The main concept to understand is that simply taking meat off your plate is not enough to guarantee health. If one aspect of your diet is taken out and not replaced with healthy alternatives an imbalance can occur which can lead to a variety of problems: a bowl of fries, ketchup and white bread contain no meat but it hardly classifies as a nutritious meal.

In planning a vegetarian diet, it is essential to make sure it contains all the necessary nutrients you need for health and training. When healthy balanced choices are made the vegetarian diet can easily meet the nutritional needs for any sport or lifestyle.

It is also important to note that vegetarianism goes beyond diet. It is a lifestyle, a state of mind, a set of inherent beliefs and values that are unique and important to each individual.

Keeping that in mind, it is important to note that there are many different variations on the vegetarian theme. Each person chooses a path on this road that they feel most comfortable with, either as a transition phase or as a final destination.

Types Of Vegetarians

Lacto-Ovo Veggie: The most common type of vegetarian diet in which one omits all flesh from the diet but does include dairy products and eggs.

Ovo Veggie: The term used to describe a vegetarian diet with the addition of eggs only (no flesh and no dairy.)

Vegan: Excludes all foods and products of animal origin including honey, wool and leather.

Raw Vegan: Same as above but consumes raw or 'living' food only.

Semi Veggie: Also referred to as a 'part time vegetarian.' Red meat is eliminated from the diet but fish and chicken are still consumed on occasion.

Pesco Veggie: Eliminates most animal flesh but allows the consumption of fish, seafood, eggs and dairy products.

Pudding Veggie: A vegetarian of any sort who lives on a "meatless" junk food diet.

Social Veggie: A 'pick the meat of the pizza and it will be ok' kind of vegetarian.

Note: Semi vegetarian and pesco vegetarian are a bit of an oxy moron but you will come across people who use these terms to describe their eating habits.

Vegetarian Athlete Myths

There are many myths surrounding this type of diet, I will address two of the main ones of concern here.

Myth 1 /// Vegetarians Don't Get Enough Protein

This is the most common myth and unfortunately it is the easiest to buy into because our society associates protein almost exclusively with meat. The thing that people fail to realize is that many foods other than meat are an excellent source of protein.

With a bit of research it is easy to supply the body with more than enough quality protein to build and maintain muscle on a vegetarian diet. As a bonus you will also supply the body with an abundance of vitamins, minerals and other compounds such as fiber that you will not find in foods of animal origin.

Myth 2 /// A Vegetarian Diet Will Lack Vitamin B12

B12 deficiencies are more likely to occur as a result of inadequate absorption rather than a lack of consumption; so meat eaters may be just as susceptible to B12 deficiencies as vegetarians.

Many people believe that meat is the only real source of vitamin B12 but the truth is that B12 is manufactured in the body by healthful bacteria that reside in the intestines. So keeping your intestinal flora healthy is a much better measure than consuming excess meat to ensure adequate supplies of this vital mineral.

The bodies need for B12 is very minimal and it can take up to three years for a true deficiency to set in, however it is still important to make sure you include some of it in your diet. As with protein, there are several vegetarian foods that will supply the body with B12 (brewers yeast, tempeh, seaweed and miso to name a few).

Due to increased hygiene standards over recent years however, naturally occurring B12 in many foods gets washed away in processing. Therefore it is important to make sure your food source of B12 is reliable. If in doubt you can take supplemental B12 a few times a week for peace of mind and consider having a yearly blood test.


All of the athletes I interviewed for this article made mention of an improved recovery time, an abundance of vitality and compassion, and displayed a sense of pride in their chosen lifestyle.

First hand examples are always better than a long list of studies, so hopefully you will be inspired and informed by reading the following interviews of athletes excelling in their chosen fields and are 'Doing it the Veggie Way.'

This information is not presented to try to convert you, or tell you that your way is wrong. It is merely to show you that there are always other ways of doing things and that it is possible to take a path other than 'the norm' to achieve results. Do what you will, but just make sure you do it 'your' way, a way that feels right for you.


  1. Becoming Vegetarian Vesanto Melina, R.D. Brenda Davis, M.D. Victoria Harrison, R.D; Book Publishing Company, 1995.
  2. Why Do Vegetarians Eat Like That? David A. Gabbe; Prime Imprints, Ltd, 1994.