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Vegetarian diets, when properly planned, provide all the nutrients you need

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Vegetarian diets, when properly planned, provide all the nutrients you need

David C. Nieman

December 19, 2006

Question: I am a vegetarian. Should I add meat to my diet if I want to train hard?

Answer: No, meat is not needed in your diet to support intense training. Misconceptions regarding exercise and the vegetarian diet are widespread, and I will clear these up for you.

A vegetarian diet is defined as one that does not include meat, fish or fowl. A lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet includes dairy products and eggs but no meat. Vegetarian diets, when properly planned, provide all the nutrients you need, and help prevent and treat disease. Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E. Vegetarians tend to be leaner than nonvegetarians, have lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and suffer less from heart disease, type 2 diabetes and prostate and colon cancer.

What food is best for fitness enthusiasts and athletes? Next to training and heredity, nothing is more important to athletic endeavor than diet. And there is no lack of opinions about the best kind of diet. Ancient Greek and Roman athletes and warriors emphasized a diet based on meat to gain the competitive edge. Milo of Crotona, a legendary Greek wrestler who reportedly consumed gargantuan amounts of meat, was never once brought to his knees over five Olympiads (532-516 B.C.). Roman gladiators believed that meat made them better warriors, a belief that persists to this day among many football, basketball and baseball athletes.

Vegetarian athletes fought back during the mid-to-late 1800s. Vegetarian societies formed athletic and cycling clubs, and members often outperformed their carnivorous competitors in long-endurance race events. During modern times, elite athletes such as triathlete Dave Scott, bodybuilder Bill Pearl, long-distance runner Paavo Numi, tennis players Martina Navratilova and Billy Jean King, Olympic wrestler Chris Campbell and Olympic figure skater Surya Bonaly demonstrated that the vegetarian diet was compatible with successful athletic endeavor at the highest level.

Research during the past half-century showed that carbohydrate is the primary fuel of the working muscle for all athletic endeavor, including weightlifting, team sports and endurance activity (e.g., running, swimming and cycling). Since the vegetarian diet is naturally high in carbohydrates, a growing number of athletes have become vegetarians or at least near-vegetarians.

Can the vegetarian obtain enough iron and protein for health and performance? Every major study has shown that healthy vegetarian diets meet or exceed these dietary recommendations for iron and protein without the need for supplementation. The vegetarian athlete can achieve optimal protein intake through an emphasis on protein-rich plant foods such as legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grain products. Fortified breakfast cereals are an important source of iron.

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