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Fitness Performance: To Meat or Not To Meat

Professional athletes, and generally those who work out a lot, need to consume an omnivorous diet in order to build muscle and stay physically fit – this is the traditional opinion that has settled down in the minds of most people.

However, as vegetarianism and veganism have become widely accepted and even promoted for a while now, debates have risen whether a plant-based diet is equal, or even more beneficial to athletes.

Amidst all the information and conflicting arguments, what could be the right answer? Let’s lay out some facts to compare.

Vegetarian vs vegan

A very important factor to consider when examining the effect of diet on fitness performance is the type of vegetarianism. The term “vegetarian” is more precisely defined as lacto-ovo vegetarian and it entails a diet based predominantly on plant foods with eggs and dairy products as the only foods of animal origin, whereas a vegan diet exclusively adheres to foods of plant origin.

A comparative study suggests that there are actually more similarities between a vegetarian and non-vegetarian (omnivorous) diet when it comes to nutrient intake than there are between a completely vegan and vegetarian diet. In most cases, it’s just about eating balanced, diverse meals, hence the vegetarian diets having an approximately equivalent intake of nutrients as omnivorous ones.

A completely vegan diet is significantly different and there have been debates as to whether it’s possible to get all the necessary nutrients with such a limited choice. Concerns were typically focused on getting enough protein and calcium through a diet that doesn’t allow eggs and dairy products.

Nutrient intake

As veganism has become widely embraced and demystified, particularly in the last couple of years, we are seeing many more options and diversified plant-based diets. Even the aforementioned study states that there is no substantial difference in protein intake between a vegan and vegetarian diet.

However, this same study has found that the calcium intake is much lower for vegans, presenting a hazard to bone health. There is a huge twist to this, which reflects very strongly on fitness performance: keeping your bones strong depends more on preventing calcium loss than on increasing its intake. Calcium is lost mostly through urine, and protein from animal products causes much more calcium loss than protein from plants. In the end, it evens out, as meat eaters consume more calcium but also lose more of it. Vegans actually have a smaller need for calcium intake, and have no problem consuming enough of it from green vegetables and beans.

There have been other concerns for nutrient intake of vegetarians and vegans specifically when it comes to strength sports, so we will now look into that as well.

Strength athletes and eating meat

Most strength athletes adhere to an omnivorous diet. One of the main arguments is that the disadvantages of a vegetarian diet are its high carbohydrate content and a smaller availability of protein, crucial to building and repairing tissue. “The fat and protein derived from meat are essential for bulking up” is another conventional opinion when it comes to strength training.

There is, however, a noticeable flaw in this argument, because there is no scientific evidence that the nutrients found in meat cannot be replaced. People who are extensively physically active do need a much higher calorie and nutrient intake, but in overall balanced proportions. Variety is key.

Vegetarian and vegan athletes also have a wide variety of options: legumes, tofu, quinoa, tasty protein shakes, various seeds and nuts (such as almonds, which are a favorite for non-vegetarians as well), rice, tempeh, etc. And let’s not forget the magical avocado, which is a great source of dietary fat and many other nutrients.

When it comes to the intake of iron and zinc, there are concerns related to its absorption in plant-based diets. This issue has been overcome by the way the food is prepared, such as soaking beans and legumes thoroughly before cooking.

When it comes to strength athletes,  a great example is Derek Tresize a successful bodybuilder, who actually became a natural bodybuilding competitor two years after switching to a strictly plant-based diet. Always the only vegan at competitions, he has entered seven of them since 2011 and won 1st place twice.

As for endurance training, studies have shown that a vegetarian diet presents no difference whatsoever to performance, just that vegetarian athletes need to consume plant-based foods of high nutrient density to meet the nutritional requirements, and all groups equally need to pay attention to how the nutrients are absorbed.

So, what can we conclude from all of this? Simply, as many studies have synthesized, not eating meat is “neither beneficial nor detrimental to physical performance capacity“. As it’s been proven over and over when it comes to nutrition, the most important thing is to be knowledgeable about the properties of the foods eaten, the way they are absorbed, and to have a balanced, diverse diet. In essence, anything can be compensated and applied to your specific dietary needs. We can all agree that this is great news for both those who wish to give up meat and those who don’t.