There is a popular trend nowadays that claims a vegetarian diet may be better for athletes and their performance levels.
This article will give you the lowdown, the history and facts, backed by science, that will help answer the question, “Is a vegetarian diet better for athletes?”
For starters, there is a debate that a vegetarian diet may be superior because countless vegetarian athletes have broken world records or have become world champions in their respective sport while on this diet.
For example, Mike Tyson (Boxing Champ), Venus Williams (Tennis Champion), Patrik Baboumian (World Record Holder For Strongest Man, 2011), Scott Jurek (Ultra Marathon Champion – Vegan Athlete) to name a few.
However, how does this possibly answer or support the question, “Is a vegetarian diet better for athletes?”
Someone can turn around and say, “Well, there are 100s, if not 1000s of athletes that have broken world records and became champions, and were not vegetarian.“
Let’s take a closer look at this interesting debate, and maybe we can ultimately answer the question, “Is a vegetarian diet better for athletes?”
Is there any history that may show that a vegetarian diet is better for athletes?
In recent years, it was discovered by scientists that the fierce fighting Roman gladiators were mostly vegetarian.
The Roman Colosseum ( Constructed around 80 AD) is considered the first modern sports stadium. The gladiators were the athletes of their time.
From analyzing their remains, scientists figured out that the gladiators’ diet was a plant-based one consisting mostly of barley, beans, and wheat. They have been given the nickname “Barley Men.”
Could this be the beginning of the answer to, “Is a vegetarian diet better for athletes?” Not entirely, Here’s why.
The Ancient Greek Athletes
Research has shown that the ancient Olympic athletes (around 776 BC) were well aware of how important diet was to their performance, and how essential protein intake was for their power and strength.
Many of them ate a “meat-only diet” to help them win or compete in their respective events.
The Tarahumara Indians are natives of Mexico for over 500 years. They are famous for their extreme long-distance running (this link takes you to a post I wrote on running benefits). When they run, it is a distance of 200 to 400 miles non-stop in about two days. This is astounding endurance.
Their races make a marathon of 26.2 miles look like child’s play. And the best part is that they run this distance barefooted or in thin sandals through mountainous and rocky terrain.
Studies have shown that their diet consists of corn and beans. It has been suggested that they are vegetarians. Are they?
Research done on the Tarahumara diet shows that their protein intake is 94% from vegetables. BUT, the rest comes from fish, meats, eggs, dairy, and poultry. They are not vegetarians, as many believe.
Yes, their diet is made up mostly of plant-based foods, but they do include meat in it.
Jumping to the present and to help answer the question, “Is a vegetarian diet better for athletes?” we will start with a report from September 1999. The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition published an abstract stating that a vegetarian diet per se “does not improve endurance performance.”
A vegetarian or vegan ( vegan means a strict plant-based diet – no eggs, no dairy,etc.) diet may be healthier for a person or athlete, but this does not mean that it makes them a superior athlete or gives them any advantage, mainly when it involves a sport where strength is required.
To support this point is a clinical study that was done on older men between the ages of 51-69. This experiment compared what an omnivorous diet (a diet that includes meat and vegetables) and a lactoovovegetarian diet (a diet that includes milk, eggs, and vegetables) did for the men while they went on a workout/resistance training regimen.
The results showed that the omnivorous diet won hands down. Not only did the men gain more muscle, but they also lost more fat.
But Gorillas Are Vegetarian
Some people try to make the argument that since gorillas are vegetarian and very powerful, it may do the same for humans. However, there is a flaw in this argument, according to sportsci.org.
First, this does not conclude that a vegetarian diet will make a human stronger. You cannot compare a human to a gorilla due to evolutionary reasons.
Gorillas live in the wild, and their survival instincts and methods differ in comparison to those with humans.
Second, gorillas have a different digestive system than humans do and have a way of getting plenty of Vitamin B-12, which lacks in human vegetarians unless they correctly supplement with it.
You cannot compare gorillas’ diets to humans’ way of eating.
So, Is A Vegetarian Diet Better For Athletes?
As per history and studies, it appears that there is no advantage to be gained in athletic performance if you eat a vegetarian diet.
More recent control studies have shown that a vegetarian diet does not give any performance advantage in either stamina, endurance, strength, or power. (See the video above)
Studies were conducted to determine if a vegetarian diet would have a more performance-enhancing effect on athletes over an omnivorous diet.
In one instance, two groups of athletes ran a 1,000-kilometer race. The results for endurance power showed that neither diet was superior. Note that both of the groups were given an equal amount of carbohydrates before the race began.
A study on sprinting power was measured. Again, the results showed that neither was superior in enhancing power output.
However, please note that if you look at the video at 2:53, you will read that the vegetarian diet group was given one gram of creatine as a supplement to prevent creatine deficiency.
A known weakness in a vegetarian diet is its lack of creatine content. In this particular sprinting power study, would the vegetarian group have kept pace with the omnivorous group if they had not been given creatine supplements?
Studies have shown that creatine is a potent ergogenic (athletic performance-enhancer), especially during short, high-intensity sports such as sprinting. Creatine supplementation is highly recommended because it lacks in a vegetarian diet.
In the strength training test, both diet groups were tested for maximum voluntary contraction for their biceps and quadriceps. The results again showed no difference in either for strength superiority.
Overall, the studies in the above video clearly show and state that a “vegetarian-based diet did not improve performance, nor did it hinder it.” See video at 3:23
In a more recent study published on May 20, 2019, it showed that neither the vegetarian group nor the omnivorous group was superior when it came to exercise performance.
Can Vegan Athletes Equal Their Omnivore Counterparts Without Dietary Supplementation
It has been shown that athletes that follow a vegan diet are lacking essential nutrients. The only way to replace them is through supplementation.
For example, a scientific report published by the Journal Of International Society Of Sports Nutrition in September 2017 stated that without supplementation, vegan athletes would lack in quality protein intake.
Quality protein intake is a vital requirement for both strength and endurance athletes.
The report also states that it is imperative that vegans supplement with Vitamin B12, which is essential for red blood cell production. Deficiency in this vitamin can cause severe health problems.
As you can see from the report, a vegan diet lacks many nutrients, such as Omega-3 Fatty Acids, iron, calcium, zinc, etc. and especially creatine. Creatine’s powerful performing-enhancing effects have been well proven.
It is doubtful that without the careful and proper supplementation of essential nutrients needed for better sports performance that a vegan athlete can match an omnivore athlete.
There are always exceptions to the rule, but overall, without supplementation, a vegan is at a disadvantage.
Here is an example. Tony Gonzales, who was a tight end in the NFL, and is a future Hall Of Famer, was on the verge of breaking the record for most receptions at his position when he decided to become a vegan.
Due to this change in his diet, he began to lose strength and weight and was very concerned about the rest of his NFL career. He attempted to add more plant protein to his diet, but that did not work.
Finally, he was told to cheat. That is, to add more chicken and fish to his diet. Gonzalez did just that and immediately regained his strength, and went on the break the reception record held to NFL tight ends.
The question, “Is a vegetarian diet better for athletes?” can be quickly answered if you look at the evidence objectively and impartially.
The focus of this article was not to determine if a vegetarian diet is compatible with an omnivorous diet when athletic performance is involved.
The question was, “Is a vegetarian diet better for athletes?” in the sense of enhancing athletic performance.
The studies and evidence that has been provided throughout this article do not show that consuming a vegetarian diet will make you superior in athletic performance, be it in endurance, strength, power, etc.
There is no clear evidence to suggest that going vegetarian will make you a superior athlete; however, it can make you compatible with omnivorous dieting athletes if you adhere to proper dietary and carefully monitored supplementation.
And even with supplementation, you need to be careful.