Being a Vegetarian Athlete

First things first, there should be a little asterisk next to vegetarian. I stopped eating meat – as in, anything with eyes – when I was thirteen years old. Yup, it’s been a whopping eighteen years. My vegetarianism would be graduating high school if it were a person.

But these days, I do incorporate fish from time to time. In Brazil, the amount of vegetarian options available are a fraction of what we have in the United States and I started to feel like I was missing macro, and micro, nutrients. Whether it’s Crossfit or age – or both – adding some fish has helped me, personally. However, it’s all individual. What my body needs is different from others. Diet is never one size fits all.

produce aisle
Photo by Scott Warman on Unsplash

Why vegetarianism?

When I first decided to switch to a vegetarian diet, it was for ethical reasons. It still is.

For me, choosing to eat a primarily plant-based diet is part of my personal values. My compassion for animals translates into my diet, in terms of what I choose to (and have the ability to) buy and eat. I’ve been fortunate to have access to good vegetarian foods for the majority of my life, even when it was much more difficult to find.

However, I don’t think vegetarianism is the best diet for everyone. For some people, it may not work for them nutrition-wise. For others, it may not be economically feasible where they live. For others, still, a more environmentally sustainable diet may include, for example, eating local produce, including meat.

What’s most important is to find what works for you, both physically and philosophically.

cow with tongue sticking out
Photo by Sophie Dale on Unsplash

Plant-based athletes

Does being vegetarian affect my progress as an athlete? Well, I don’t know. I’ve never tested otherwise. With no other comparison to make, I can’t say for sure.

There are times when I wonder if eating meat would help with some of the joint pain I feel. Then there are times when I remember that some meats can act as an inflammatory in some people. It all depends.

For me, the biggest challenges I have as a plant-based athlete are: getting enough protein and getting enough veggies. Two problems that are pretty common to most athletes. How do I fix that?

  • Go-to protein powders, protein bars, and protein-rich foods that are vegetarian. Protein powder for vegetarians is easy: whey. Whey is accessible pretty much everywhere, and generally affordable. While we often think of meat at the end-all, be-all of protein-rich foods, things like egg whites, tofu, seitan, and pea-protein products (Beyond Meat, for example) are extremely rich in protein.
  • Eat the rainbow 🌈with every meal. (Snacks too, ideally, but I’m working on it.) I actually make a checklist with breakfast, lunch, and dinner so I can check off when I’ve eaten my vegetables.
  • When all else fails, I sneak in extra vegetables through supplements. It’s not ideal and not the same as working whole foods into my diet, but sometimes the day is busy and sometimes, quite frankly, I’m not in the mood. My favorite right now is Trader Joe’s Super Green mix.
vegetarian at the barbell
Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

Is it worth it?

Compared to the other athletes I see around me, being vegetarian doesn’t change my training much – if at all. At most, I see myself paying slightly more attention to the food I’m eating to ensure I’m getting enough micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) and the right amount of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats).

When I first started eating vegetarian, there was only one “natural foods” store in my area that offered any options beyond tofu and beans. In those early days, I learned how to adapt my diet and cook with a little more creativity. Those skills came back in full force as I descended in Brazil with my vegetarianism, too. (There’s no way I would have learned how to make my own seitan otherwise!)

Because it pushes me to be a little more mindful of what I’m eating, I attribute my vegetarianism as the reason I’m so sensitive to the food I eat. Not because it makes me sensitive, but because it makes me question what and how I’m preparing the things I’m eating, not to mention how I feel afterwards.

Mindfulness, in all things, is key. Not everything will work for everyone – physically or emotionally – but it’s important to try, try, and try again until you find what works for you.


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