Probing Question: How healthy are vegetarian athletes?

vegetarian vs. meat-eater

Eat your veggies! Get your exercise! These two pillars of health wisdom rise above an often-choppy sea of health advice and endure as fad diets wax and wane.

So wouldn't a vegetarian athlete be about as healthy as a person could get? Perhaps, says Kristine Clark, who as director of sports nutrition advises Penn State coaches and athletes on what to eat.

"There is absolutely no scientific evidence that I am aware of that shows that not eating meat makes you a healthier or unhealthier athlete. The issue is adequacy of nutrients," says Clark.

First things first: Most Americans—whether meat-eaters or vegetarians, athletes or just spectators—would be healthier if they ate more vegetables. American diets are typically heavy in meat and grain-based products, says Clark. People who eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables typically reduce their risk of stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, according to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which recommend 2 1/2 to 6 1/2 cups (5 to 13 servings) of fruits and vegetables daily, depending on an individual's ideal total of daily calories.

The diets of meat-eaters and vegetarians alike range from healthful to harmful. A carnivore who lives on greasy burgers and fries is getting too much fat and not enough nutrients compared to one who eats lean meats, lots of fruits and vegetables and whole grains like oatmeal or brown rice.

Likewise, a vegetarian who lives on glazed doughnuts and sugary cereals is probably short on protein and other nutrients compared to the vegetarian who builds meals around staples such as rice, beans, tofu, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Eating the proper amount of nutrients and overall calories is critical for everyone, especially for athletes who exercise a couple of hours or more each day, training their bodies to excel, says Clark.

"Being a healthy athlete means getting adequate nutrients from a wide variety of foods. Where those foods come from doesn't necessarily matter." To perform, athletes require protein to maintain and build muscle. The key is a balance of nitrogen, a growth nutrient found only in protein, explains Clark. Too little nitrogen and too few overall calories and the athlete's body will burn muscle or protein calories as energy, shortchanging the muscles and the athlete's endurance, strength and agility. Too much protein and too many total calories and the athlete can put on weight, hampering performance.

Clark works with athletes in 29 sports, tailoring their daily calories to their amount of daily exercise and their type of sport. As a starting point, she uses the U.S. dietary guidelines' recommendation of 2,800 calories daily for a physically active male and 2,200 calories daily for a physically active female. Carbohydrates should be about 55 percent of daily calories, she explains; fat should be about 25 percent and protein the remaining 20 percent.

Meat-eating athletes typically get enough protein, and other nutrients like iron, calcium and phosphorous. "A vegetarian athlete has to pay closer attention to getting enough of those nutrients," she says, "and would have to put more of a game plan in place from a food choice standpoint."

There is a wide spectrum of choices among vegetarians: semi-vegetarians eat everything but red meat; lacto-ovo vegetarians eat milk, cheese, yogurt and eggs; and pesco-vegetarians eat fish, eggs and dairy. The strictest vegetarians—vegans—eat no animal products, eliminating eggs and dairy from their diets.

"If you are a vegetarian of whatever ilk, the key issue is adequacy of protein and adequacy of essential amino acids," says Clark.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 21 total, 13 of which are made by the body. The other eight are the "essential" amino acids we must get from food. Some protein sources include all eight; others contain only a few. Animal products contain all eight essential amino acids. All eight are also found in soy and a grain called quinoa, which is also rich in iron.

vegetarian athlete

A vegetarian, especially a vegan, must eat a wider variety of foods containing protein—grains, beans, nuts and soy products—to get all of the essential amino acids, says Clark. Vegetarian athletes face the challenge of hitting a daily target of total protein, in terms of grams, without consuming too many calories, says Clark.

Take, for example, a female athlete who weighs about 135 pounds. She needs about 75 grams of protein per day, explains Clark. She can eat five ounces of roasted chicken breast and get about 43 grams of protein and 231 calories. If she doesn't eat meat, but eats dairy, she can get six grams of protein from a hard-boiled egg, about 78 calories, or 9 grams from 8 oz. of protein-fortified, nonfat milk, about 92 calories. If she is a vegan, she can get 11 grams of protein and 104 calories from six ounces of tofu or 11 grams of protein and 314 calories from three ounces of quinoa.

The calories can pile up faster than the protein does, and the overall calories are important, says Clark.

"It's a myth that athletes can't gain excess weight, because they do all the time," says Clark. "Unfortunately it's usually females for whom it's harder to help maintain optimal body weight. They're the ones in my office to lose weight whereas the males are in my office to gain weight."

Vegetarian athletes are rare, at least at Penn State.

"If a student-athlete came to me and said 'I want to make vegetarianism a priority. Can you help?' I would bend over backwards to make recommendations," says Clark. "But no athlete has ever said that to me in my 20 years of working at Penn State. They say 'Tell me what to eat to achieve my desired results in the shortest period of time.'"

Kristine Clark, Ph.D., R.D., FACSM, is director of sports nutrition and an assistant professor in the nutritional sciences department in the College of Health and Human Development. Her e-mail is klc5@psu.edu.

Last Updated May 22, 2006