"So, What Do You Eat?"
So what do you eat? Being a vegetarian and a competitive athlete, I’m asked this question the most around Thanksgiving In the U.S. it’s difficult for some to imagine “Turkey Day,” without the turkey. I also used to frequently field this question as a college athlete, when I ran cross country and track. It seems as though it was equally perplexing to people that an athlete, who requires so much strength and energy, could thrive without eating meat.
The most common misconception among the sports community is that vegetarian diets are lacking in protein; however, the American Dietetic Association advises that a vegetarian diet can meet all known nutrient needs.(1)
There are many sources of protein that are easier for our bodies to assimilate and build muscle with compared to meat based sources. Meat requires a tremendous amount of energy to break down and can often stay in the human digestive system for over 24 hours, ending up actually rotting in the digestive tract. Every athlete is looking to harness more energy in training and competition and to recover more efficiently. If an athlete reduces the time and energy their body requires to process food, while still consuming all necessary nutrients, it could potentially enable them to perform at a higher level. Excellent sources of protein include beans (lentils in particular), a variety of nuts and seeds, dark leafy greens, chickpeas, whole grains, yams, brocolli and corn. In fact, in terms of protein assimilated by the body's cells, broccoli actually provides more protein to the human body than meat!
Other important nutrients that are just as accessible with a vegetarian diet include iron (found in dried fruits, baked potatoes, mushrooms, cashews, dried beans, spinach, chard, tempeh), calcium (also found in broccoli and in collard greens, kale, mustard greens, low-fat dairy products, and orange juice, vitamin B12 (found in dairy products, fortified foods - such as some brands of cereal, and nutritional yeast), and omega-3 oils (found in flaxseed, flaxseed oil, soybeans, and walnuts).
The USDA Center for Nutrition and Policy also reaffirms that a vegetarian diet can meet all of their recommendations for nutrients. (2)
Essential to any diet is a wide variety of fresh foods including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Each individual (regardless of dietary choice) needs to find what works best for their body and needs. There is no single formula for optimal nutrition, health, and athletic performance. Additionally, many other factors such as sleep and workout preparation and recovery (to name a few) contribute to an athlete’s ability to peak. My experience as a Division I athlete is one example of how a vegetarian diet can successfully fuel a rigorous training and competition lifestyle.
Hari Purkh Kaur Khalsa firstname.lastname@example.org
1. American Dietetic Association, 2010
2. USDA, My Pyramid Nutrition Education Series, 2009