Becoming a Vegetarian Athlete: No Meat Athlete’s Great How To’s

I’m a big fan of Matt Frazier over at No Meat Athlete.  He is guest posting today about becoming a vegetarian athlete.  It’s one of the better posts I’ve read on the topic.  Thanks so much Matt and please check out all his info at the end of the piece. ~ Lisa

Maybe it was Food, Inc. that did it. Maybe it was Oprah’s “vegan week.”

Or perhaps your curiosity about a plant-based diet has nothing at all to do with ethics or the environment, and you’re not even sure if you want to go all the way — you just want to see if it might help your running. After all, if Scott Jurek can run 165 miles in 24 hours as a vegan, who’s to say ditching the steak a few nights a week won’t help you turn your four-hour marathon into a 3:50?

Eating Less Meat Can Make You a Better Athlete

It’s not a popular opinion, and I can’t say I’m all that surprised. Now that fat and carbohydrates have each taken their turn as “the culprit” for our society’s health issues, it’s hard to imagine that a diet lower in protein is going to help anyone — especially someone putting their body through the rigors of athletic training week after week.

But endurance athletes like Scott Jurek, Rich Roll, and Brendan Brazier are showing the world that lean meat and animal products aren’t a requirement for excellence in sports. And it’s not just endurance athletes, either — there are bodybuilders, MMA fighters, and elite-level performers in just about any sport you can imagine who are doing it all without animal products.

Even for a far-from-elite runner like myself, going vegetarian has made a tremendous difference in my level of fitness: Just six months after I gave up meat, I took 10 minutes off my marathon time and qualified for Boston, a goal I’d been chasing for almost eight years prior.

A chilli made with no meat or dairy, this includes chickpeas, pinto beans and red kidney beans, and a sauce made from tomato, garlic, onion, celery, ancho, jalapeno and sun dried tomatoes. It’s served with avocado and Spanish rice.

So Where Do You Get Your Protein?

Ah yes, every vegetarian athlete’s favorite question.

The answer is that protein is in all kinds of foods besides meat, but generally in lower quantities. It takes some effort to make sure you get some protein in every meal, but it’s not that hard. While it is possible to eat a high-protein vegetarian diet, if your goal is to get the amount of protein recommended by many traditional diets for athletes, though, you’ll have a tough time doing it.

Having heard that many endurance athletes thrive on diets with lower amounts of protein than is traditionally recommended, I took a chance on it, and I’ve never felt better than I do now. I’ll never go back to those crazy 1-gram-of-protein-per-pound-of-body-weight rules again.

If your vegetarian diet is pizza and potato chips, then you won’t get enough protein. But if you eat a wide variety of foods and make smart choices to include some protein at every meal and ensure that you’re getting a balanced amino acid profile, chances are you’ll feel better than ever.

Staple Foods

This list represents some common foods that will help you meet the needs of the vegetarian diet for endurance athletes. Certainly there are many more foods one could include; the idea here is to list those that can be found in common grocery stores and whose tastes aren’t too foreign.

  • All kinds of vegetables, cooked and raw
  • Vegetable sprouts
  • All kinds of fruits, usually raw
  • Beans and other legumes: lentils, chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, adzuki beans
  • Starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Brown rice
  • Pasta
  • Whole-wheat bread, pitas, and bagels
  • Other grains and seeds: bulgur wheat, buckwheat, farro, millet, quinoa, flaxseed, hempseed, chia seeds
  • Hummus
  • Nuts, nut milks, nut butters: almonds, cashews, walnuts, almond milk, hazelnut milk, peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter
  • Oils: grapeseed, olive, canola, coconut, flaxseed (unheated), hemp (unheated)
  • Agave nectar (as workout fuel, not an all-purpose sweetener)
  • Protein powder (hemp protein is a minimally-processed type)
  • Soy products (limited): tofu, tempeh
  • Tea and coffee (limited)

Caloric Breakdown

The top plant-based endurance athletes I’ve talked to don’t meticulously count calories, or even carbohydrate-protein-fat ratios, when they eat. They have a general range in mind of where they should be, and trust that by eating a wide variety of whole foods they’ll get what they need.

But if you’re the type that likes to stick closely to a prescribed caloric breakdown, what’s important to realize is that such ratios can be met with a variety of food sources. In other words, you can probably take your favorite endurance diet numbers and make them work without meat. (Endurance diets tend to be high in carbohydrate and healthy fats anyway, making a vegetarian or vegan approach especially well-suited.)

Personally, I try to eyeball my caloric breakdown and stay fairly close to the proportions laid out by Lance Armstrong’s former coach, Chris Carmichael, in his book Food for Fitness. Carmichael’s recommendations, though varying based on training period, are roughly:

  • 65% carbohydrate
  • 13% protein
  • 22% fat

If you aim to hit these numbers with a vegetarian diet, you should be just fine. And you’ll likely find that it’s not all that hard to do.

How Much Should You Eat?

The fact that you’re vegetarian or vegan doesn’t change the fact that as an athlete, you need more calories than a sedentary person. You might find, however, that you don’t need quite as much as before.

The reason is that plant-based foods are more easily digested by the body than animal proteins. Brendan Brazier, former pro Ironman triathlete and author of Thrive, calls this property of plant foods the “high net-gain” principle: Your body gets a lot of nourishment for just a little work.

As you first try out a vegetarian or vegan diet I’d recommend simply shooting for whatever amount of calories you’re currently getting. You’ll find that due to the higher water content and lesser density of non-animal products, you’ll naturally consume slightly fewer overall calories.

Eating Around Workouts

How you eat before, during, and after your workouts is especially important on any diet. For lots of guidelines and recipes for unprocessed, vegetarian workout foods, you can check out the natural running fuel page on my site.

So there you have it. A workable, hopefully not-too-weird-looking diet that’s free of animal products, and will get you everything you need as you give this extremely satisfying diet and lifestyle a try.

And who knows? It might just help you discover the runner that you never knew you had in you.

Matt Frazier is a vegetarian marathoner and ultrarunner, currently training for his first 100-mile ultramarathon. Matt writes the blog No Meat Athlete, where you can sign up to get his free e-course on the essentials of plant-based nutrition for endurance