Is Your Vegetarian Diet Hurting Your Performance as an Athlete?

Is Your Vegetarian Diet Hurting Your Performance as an Athlete?

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New research from Australia says that a vegetarian diet can be just as nutritious, so long as it’s balanced

Is it more difficult to be successful as an athlete if you’re a vegetarian? Many might assume so. After all, protein critically aids muscle development, and meat is a primary source of protein. So if protein is the crucial to athletic prowess — what about the people who don’t eat meat?

According to research recently presented at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Expo, a balanced and healthy vegetarian diet will provide “the same quality of fuel for athletes as a meat-based diet.”

Dilip Ghosh, director of Nutriconnect in Sydney, Australia, led the research. What he found is that an ideal athletic diet isn’t about getting as much protein as possible, but keeping a certain balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein: respectively 45-65 percent, 20-35 percent, and 10-35 percent.

According to Ghosh, “Vegetarian athletes can meet their dietary needs from predominantly or exclusively plant-based source when a variety of these foods are consumed daily and energy intake is adequate.”

In other words, it’s fine not to eat meat, so long as you’re still getting the nutrients that animal products provide, such as iron, creatine, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and calcium.

Notably vegetarian sources of protein include yogurt, beans, tofu, and almond milk.

Vegetarian Athlete Diet You Should Follow To Meet The Requirements

A vegetarian diet is selected by professional athletes for various reasons such as health, ethics, environmental, religious, etc. But some people assume that such a diet is not right for athletes, which is wrong. Athletes of all levels and fields from young to professionals can meet their nutrients and energy requirements from vegetarian diets easily that contain a vast variety of food. The food may include grain products, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, and other protein-packed plant foods. If you are also in any such field then here is a vegetarian athlete diet that you can implement in your lifestyle.

How to Avoid Vitamin Deficiencies as a Vegetarian Bodybuilder

Since vitamin B-12 is not naturally produced by either plants or animals, it needs to be closely monitored by vegetarians. In addition to B-12, there are several other critical vitamins that must be present in the blood to provide the nutrients your body needs for daily performance.

Athletes who are vegetarian must pay even closer attention to their vitamin intake, since their bodies undergo more stress and exertion than the average person.

Let’s examine a few vitamin deficiencies common among vegetarians and what you can do to maintain sufficient blood levels of these crucial vitamins. When you deprive your body of the vitamins it needs to perform at the gym, you’re putting it at risk of developing more serious health conditions.

Vitamin B-12 Deficiency

People can become vitamin B-12 deficient for a variety of reasons: old age, use of antacids, side effects of prescription medications, bacterial infections, and meatless diets.

According to Dr. Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, bacteria are responsible for producing vitamin B-12, and plants and animals only get vitamin B-12 when contaminated by this strand of bacteria.

Vitamin B-12 is essential to your health for:

  • Proper digestion
  • Nervous system functioning
  • Regulation and formation of red blood cells
  • Immune system functioning
  • Mental clarity and concentration
  • Physical energy
  • Adrenal hormone production

Vitamin B-12 is incredibly important during pregnancy and lactation for infants, as well as for athletes who push their bodies to the limit. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends vitamin B-12 supplement tablets or monthly vitamin B-12 shots to treat severe cases of deficiency.

A lack of vitamin B-12 can lead to a condition known as pernicious anemia, which is characterized by a lack of healthy red blood cells and enlargement of existing cells. According to the National Institutes of Health, this condition occurs when the body destroys cells that make a special protein, intrinsic factor, which is released by cells in the stomach. Red blood cells are essential because they provide oxygen to the body’s tissues.

Although symptoms are often mild or nonexistent, NIH suggests that the following symptoms can be associated with both vitamin B-12 deficiency and pernicious anemia:

  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Fatigue or paleness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath during exercise
  • Swollen red tongue or bleeding gums
  • Confusion or depression
  • Numbness or tingling of the extremities

Vegetarians who spend a great deal of time in the gym may notice a decrease in energy and motivation when their B-12 levels are low. Fortunately, there are healthy ways to boost those levels back up.

Vegetarians, people who have milk allergies, and those who don’t get enough sunlight could be at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is essential in building and repairing strong bones, because it helps the body utilize dietary calcium.

Low levels of the vitamin have been associated with cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment in elderly adults, severe asthma in children, cancer, and diabetes. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the average person needs between 1,000 and 2,000 IU of vitamin D per day from the sun, diet, and supplements.

Researchers at Harvard also suggested that the elderly, people with dark skin, and those who are obese can benefit the most from vitamin D supplements. People living in northern latitudes (anyone living north of an imaginary line drawn from San Francisco to Philadelphia in America) can benefit from supplements between the months of October and February. Spending time exercising outdoors in sunlight is one of the best natural ways to boost vitamin D in your body.

Vegetarians who are physically active can also benefit from vitamin D supplements. The best way to measure if you have a vitamin D deficiency is by taking a 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test. Healthy people have levels of 30 ng/mL to 74 ng/ML, and levels below this range indicate a deficiency. Read more about the test at A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia on PubMed Health.

Calcium helps the body maintain strong bones and teeth. The Dietitian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets cites 45 medical studies that have examined the calcium intakes of vegetarians. Although milk and dairy foods are most often associated with calcium, dark green vegetables are great sources of calcium when consumed in high quantities.

Effects Upon Bodybuilders and Athletes

Since bodybuilders, fitness enthusiasts, and athletes work off a higher percentage of the foods they eat, these individuals must pay even closer attention to their daily vitamin intake. If you have a vitamin B-12 deficiency, you may feel fatigue and a lack of physical energy. If you have a vitamin D deficiency, you may experience bone pain and muscle weakness.

Both of these deficiencies have been linked to cardiovascular problems, so your heart could have trouble keeping up with you during strenuous workouts. The Health Science Center at the University of Florida suggests that vegetarians can boost their heart health by planning their diets wisely.

Vegetarian athletes should bulk up their vitamin B-12 intake with fortified cereals and soy, rice, or almond milk for heart health. Vegetarians can also keep their hearts healthy with plant-based omega-3 fatty acid foods like soy, broccoli, and cauliflower.

Vitamin B-12 deficiency is also linked to low bone density, which is needed to support prolonged exercise. According to a “New York Times” health guide, excessive exercise, such as that performed by marathon runners, can lead to iron loss and a specific type of anemia. Although dried beans and green vegetables contain lots of iron, it is often less easily absorbed than the type of iron contained in meat. Therefore, vegetarian athletes need to ensure that they are eating enough iron-rich foods to compensate for their high level of exercise.

After the book of naturopath physician, Peter D’Adamo, Eat Right 4 Your Type, was published in 1996, people began considering the link between blood type and diet. According to his blood type diet recommendations, people with Type A blood (39% of the population) are best suited for vegetarianism. Meanwhile, people with Type O blood (46% of the population) are genetically predisposed to require meat, and people with Type B blood are somewhere in the middle.

Like any nutritional recommendation, the blood type diet has its fair share of critics. However, you may want to consider your blood type when planning out your vegetarian meals. If you have Type O blood in particular, you should look into supplementing your vegetarian diet with the aforementioned crucial vitamins.

Meatless Foods Rich in Vitamin B-12

  • Eggs
  • Soy milk
  • Yogurt brand nutritional yeast
  • Wheat gluten and soybean-based meat substitutes
  • Organically-grown spinach
  • Vitamin B-12 fortified breakfast cereals (vegan)

Meatless Foods Rich in Vitamin D

  • Milk fortified with vitamin D
  • Orange juice fortified with vitamin D
  • Egg yolks
  • White and shiitake mushrooms
  • Tofu
  • Oatmeal

Meatless Foods Rich in Calcium

  • Tempeh
  • Almond butter
  • Kale
  • Soy milk
  • Dried beans
  • Chocolate pudding
  • Broccoli
  • Turnips


Vitamin B-12 and vitamin D are not frequently found in foods, and even less frequently in vegetarian-friendly foods. Therefore, vegetarians are advised to supplement their diets with these two vitamins, at a minimum. The Mayo Clinic suggests that vegetarians pay close attention to these dietary nutrients as well:

  • Iodine
  • Iron
  • Protein
  • Calcium
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Zinc

Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf, MD, who practices in Iowa, refers to vitamin B-12 as “the energy vitamin” because it is critical for so many bodily functions. Vitamin B-12 is necessary for energy production, DNA synthesis, nerve communication, and blood formation. Anemia caused by lack of vitamin B-12 and iron results in lower capacity for exercise, preventing you from reaching your fitness potential.

Fortunately, vitamin deficiencies are preventable and treatable, especially when detected early. Pay close attention to how your body feels when you’re at the gym and during times of rest. And keep in mind: the more variety you bring to your vegetarian diet, the more likely you’ll be able to meet all your nutritional needs.

Body Image Lesson Video Transcript

Hi, I’m Kara Winger, Olympic javelin thrower, and true sport athlete. Today I want to talk to you about body image and I have three things I’d like you to know. First, healthy thoughts often lead to healthier bodies. Second, there are varying body types and no one’s body is exactly like another. And third, true beauty goes deeper than the skin. As a multi-time Olympian, I’ve experienced a lot of variation and progression in my training. My coaches and I adapt to my training frequently, all with the goal of supporting my long-term success and health in the sport of javelin. I’m talking to you about body image today because sometimes even with the best of intentions and a common goal in mind, the changes you make to your training habits can prove to be detrimental if made for the wrong reasons. In the lead up to the 2012 Olympic trials, I was told in order to improve my performance on the field, I should try to become a leaner, skinnier version of myself.

So I changed my diet. I went along with what I was being told to do, even though I’d had great success at a slightly heavier weight and higher body fat percentage, and became much leaner than ever before. It seemed like a successful change at first, but I didn’t have nearly the results I’d had before. And I believe becoming leaner than my body naturally wanted to be was what caused my ACL to tear. In the end, it cost me heavily going into the 2012 London games. The takeaway for me, and hopefully for you, is that it’s important to know what works for you and your body and to not compare yourself to others. You should do your research and experiment with your diet to find what makes you feel the best, rather than focusing on what you look like. Today, if I feel like having a chocolate chip cookie, I have one, just not every day.

I’ve learned what a properly balanced meal for my body looks like and I recognize food as the fuel that keeps me throwing. I hydrate and allow myself time to recover. And I listen to and communicate with my body so that I can be the best version of myself. In the end, you are in control of how you see, treat, and respond to your body. We only get one and it’s amazing to discover how many things our bodies can do. Be a true sport athlete. Love who you are in this moment and get excited for all the places your body will take you.

Do Endurance Athletes Need Meat to Perform Well?

No, but make sure you're getting vitamins, minerals, and protein from other sources.

I am a collegiate runner who is considering switching from a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet to a diet including white meats such as chicken and turkey breast. Fellow runners and trainers have told me doing so would markedly improve my performance, but I am skeptical. I have been a vegetarian my entire life and injury-free in my several years as a competitive runner. However, I am curious. Will the addition of lean meats into my diet have a positive impact on my performance? Or is a well balanced vegetarian diet adequate? &ndashHannah

As an endurance runner who follows a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, it&rsquos likely that you&rsquove run across two schools of thought.

The first comes from individuals who can&rsquot imagine a meal without meat on the plate, can&rsquot understand why you would want to avoid meat, and can&rsquot fathom how you can stay fueled and injury-free without meat protein. These folks will tell you that endurance sports and vegetarian diets just don&rsquot mix.

The second school of thought (which has a much smaller student body) would congratulate you for avoiding most animal products and suggest that your performance might improve if you transitioned from lacto-ovo vegetarianism to a vegan diet. These folks will tell you to purify your running by eliminating all animal products from your diet.

So, to whom should you listen?

Both schools of thought have done their research, but the one that suggests you will get injured on a vegetarian diet is correct ONLY if your vegetarian diet is not well balanced. That&rsquos obviously not the case here since you mentioned that you continue to run injury-free.

Certainly, there are vegetarian runners who would benefit from revamping their seemingly healthy vegetarian diet. I once met a young runner who hated vegetables but continued to eat vegetarian simply because, in her mind, that meant she could eat French fries, cupcakes, and crackers all day long. What.

A well-balanced vegetarian diet must include foods from many of the food groups and must include adequate protein from a variety of sources. The type of vegetarian diet you choose will dictate your options:

- Vegetarian: In general, an individual who doesn&rsquot eat animal products such as meat, poultry, or fish. This definition has evolved over time, often being used more broadly than what was originally intended.
- Lacto-vegetarian: A sub-classification referring to individuals who do not consume animal products such as meat, poultry, or fish but do consume dairy.
- Ovo-vegetarian: A sub-classification referring to individuals who do not consume animal products such as meat, poultry, dairy, or fish but do consume eggs.
- Pesco-vegetarian: A sub-classification referring to individuals who do not consume animal products such as meat, dairy, eggs, or poultry but do consume fish. (These sub-classifications can be combined in various ways such as pesco-ovo or lacto-ovo vegetarian.)
- Vegan: The strictest form of vegetarian, referring to an individual who consumes absolutely no animal products, including those with trace animal ingredients (milk chocolate, whey protein). This diet, in particular, will be covered in a future session.

To determine if your performance would improve if you added meat to your diet, you have to ask yourself if you are getting enough protein and essential micronutrients from your current diet.

As you are female, an endurance athlete, and vegetarian, I recommend you be certain to take in adequate amounts of (and supplement if you find you are deficient in) minerals such as calcium, zinc, and iron, and vitamins D, riboflavin, and B12 (especially critical for vegan athletes). Deficiencies in any of the above may hurt your performance, and may result in injury, fatigue, or illness. The good news is that by consuming a diet rich in whole grains, fortified foods, and complete proteins, you can avoid deficiencies of these vitamins and most all others.

As for protein, most athletes need to consume more protein than do sedentary individuals. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association), the Dietitians of Canada (DC), and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) issued a position statement suggesting that reasons for possible increased protein needs include exercise-induced muscle breakdown and rebuilding, the use of small amounts of protein for energy, and the need for additional protein to support gains in lean muscle mass.

So how much do you need? Well, the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for the general adult population is approximately 0.4 grams per pound of body weight (0.8 g/kg/day). Protein recommendations for endurance athletes range from 0.55 to 0.64 g/lb/day and increase to 0.73 to 0.77 g/lb/day during times of intense training.

Hannah, if you find that you are getting enough protein and nutrients, then I see no reason for you to change your diet. If you are not taking in adequate amounts, then you need to determine what, exactly, is missing in your diet and see if you need meat to fill the void or if you just need to add some alternate vegetarian-approved foods (such as legumes, soybean, quinoa, and others) to your plate.

Many health professionals agree that vegetarian diets, when nutritionally balanced, do not necessarily negatively affect someone&rsquos athletic performance. After all, your diet is likely high in carbohydrates, and if it meets or exceeds recommendations for nutrients and energy intake, then it matches the ideal training-day diet for an endurance athlete.

Can Athletes Sustain a Meat-Free Diet?

Athletes need more protein than the average person. Follow these tips to make sure you're getting enough in your vegetarian or vegan diet.

Almost everyone who's ever considered a meat-free diet has heard the question, "Where will you get your protein?" Of course, vegetarian diets can be rich in protein, but it takes greater planning and dietary knowledge to achieve optimal nutrition. For those engaged in an intensive training program, getting enough protein can truly be a challenge.

With this in mind, it's worth considering whether a vegetarian, or even a vegan, diet is sustainable for serious athletes. What does it take to create a diet that can fuel your competitive drive?

Almost everyone who's ever considered a meat-free diet has heard the question, "Where will you get your protein?" Of course, vegetarian diets can be rich in protein, but it takes greater planning and dietary knowledge to achieve optimal nutrition. For those engaged in an intensive training program, getting enough protein can truly be a challenge.

With this in mind, it's worth considering whether a vegetarian, or even a vegan, diet is sustainable for serious athletes. What does it take to create a diet that can fuel your competitive drive?

Cook It Up

Whether you choose to go vegetarian and still eat eggs and dairy (which are excellent sources of protein), or opt for a vegan diet that excludes these sources, you'll need to integrate alternative protein sources to round out your diet. Plenty of serious athletes thrive on vegetarian and vegan diets.

One thing that's worth noting is that if you're going to eat a vegetarian diet as an athlete, you'll need to commit to cooking. Yes, it can be hard to fit meal prep into an already packed schedule, but your diet will be much healthier—and taste better—if you spend time developing your culinary skills. Non-vegetarians can grab a quick snack, even a protein-packed one, just about anywhere, but you'll need to be prepared.

Plan your meals in advance to make sure your daily and weekly menus contain everything you need to perform at your best. Take a look at menus developed by experienced vegetarian chefs you'll notice that they have several ingredients and typically feature bean dishes and plenty of fiber to keep you full. Bean soup is a great option for vegetarians, since you can prep large batches in advance and even add a protein-rich grain like quinoa.

Learn the Tricks

Athletes need more protein than the average person, so when they eat a plant-based diet, they need to find creative ways to get enough. One key is to learn what foods contain protein and consider where they fit into your diet. Adding nuts to your diet—they make a great portable snack—can help give you the energy boost you need. Plus the added calcium can prevent muscle cramps.

One surprising source of protein, which has become increasingly popular with vegetarian and vegan athletes in recent years, is peas. Peas are almost a complete protein, and though most meat eaters wouldn't believe it, a cup of raw split peas has 48 grams of protein. That's 10 grams more than you get in a cup of chicken. Clearly, it's time to make some pea soup!

Another way to slip added protein into your diet is by using plant-based protein powders. Though not an ideal source of protein, you can boost their nutritional value by blending them into smoothies or using them in other recipes. When baking, for example, you can leave out some of the flour and replace it with protein powder, or use hemp or almond flour in the recipe, both of which are good sources of protein. This may alter the texture of your final product to some extent, but you can experiment with different flours and powders until you find one that works.

At the end of the day, being a vegetarian or vegan athlete is not that different from getting your protein from meat you still need to make smart choices that provide the fuel you need without a lot of low-quality ingredients. And just like any other athlete, if you focus on building balanced menus, and not just on this one dietary category, you'll find yourself eating a more nutritious diet in all respects.

Special considerations for vegetarian athletes

Despite the apparently healthier lifestyle vegetarian athletes (like anybody) can still become overweight, hungry, bloated and suffering from multiple nutrient deficiencies.

Energy can be low

A vegetarian diet can be very bulky and full of healthy low GI foods and dietary fibre but not necessarily energy-dense. Better performance can be achieved when athletes learn to “count” their carbohydrate portions and learn how to regulate their carbohydrate levels up and down according to their energy needs for baseline, training and competition. This may necessitate the inclusion of higher energy snacks and sports drinks when peak performance is required.

One of the problems with this bulky diet is that some athletes may experience “runners diarrhoea” more often than non vegetarians. Athletes who consume large quantities of fruit, in order to maintain their energy levels, may also experience more problems of bloating and wind (gas) due to excess fructose in their diets. “Irritable bowel” like symptoms can develop, particularly around stressful events and may require specialized dietary help. For more information read Lea’s article on The brain-gut axis.

Protein can be insufficient

The role of protein in the diet in aiding satiety (feeling of fullness) is very important to the sustainability of energy levels. Adding cheese, egg or yoghurt can delay digestion for up to 3-4 hours sustaining appetite and blood sugar levels.

However athletes who rely totally on plant sources for protein (such as soy, lupin beans, hempseed, chia seeds, amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa) may experience hunger and a greater need to snack between means. As these protein rich foods are also a source of carbohydrate (and in order to obtain sufficient protein to sustain appetite more may need to be eaten) weight can be gained.

Special care should be taken with vegetarian athletes also restrict protein because of food allergies or intolerances. For instance vegetarians who also need to restrict gluten as a lack of bread and wheat based cereals can seriously compromise not only protein but also energy intakes.

Fat can be high

Fat is essential to brain and nerve health. Most athletes are very keen to limit their fat intakes and this is often why they become a vegetarian in the first place.

However saturated fat can creep up in a vegetarian diet, particularly if the meat is replaced with high-fat foods, e.g. cheese, carrot cake with cream cheese icing slices chocolate quiches pastry. Oil, sour cream or coconut milk added to recipes can rapidly elevate blood cholesterol levels and body weight.

The best sources of the essential fatty acids Omega 3 polyunsaturated fats (EPA and DHA) are fish and fish oil. However for non- pescetarians plant sources can provide these essential fats in the form of soy, walnuts, canola oil, kiwifruit, chia seeds and flaxseeds. Olives and olive oil are also a good source of essential fats although these oils are still a source of calories so need to be monitored if weight is a concern.

Plant foods are a source of alpha linolenic acid that the body can convert into EPA and DHA however this system is quite slow and inefficient. While most vegans and vegetarians do have low levels of these essential fatty acids it is possible to check intakes by talking with a Dietitian. Supplements can be taken and algae such as spriulina are also a source of these nutrients.

Iron deficiency

Iron is important for carrying oxygen in the blood and at low levels can lead to fatigue and failing performance particularly in menstruating female athletes.

While there are non-haem (non-meat) sources of iron such as eggs, fortified breads and cereals, iron absorption is affected by other nutrients in the diet. Vitamin C found in raw fruit and vegetables can enhance iron absorption. Where as foods high in oxalate (silverbeet, spinach and rhubarb) or phytate (found in whole grains) can inhibit iron uptake.

Zinc depends on iron

Zinc is important for height growth and also cellular functions. Generally, if you look after iron intake, then zinc and trace element intake will be adequate. Zinc absorption is inhibited by an excess of dietary fibre, placing vegetarians at an increased risk of deficiency. Eggs and refined cereals may be the best source of this nutrient.

Low calcium can compromise bone health

Calcium is important for bone and muscle health and development. It is also important for weight control and diabetes prevention. Vegans can obtain sufficient calcium if they drink soy milk or eat soy products such as tofu or soy yoghurt. Calcium is also present in oranges, broccoli and almonds however to reach levels of sufficiency it would be impractical to rely exclusively on these foods. Athletes, particularly post-menopausal women or those with very low body weight are at risk of bone degeneration and should see a Dietitian for assessment.

Vitamin B12 often low

This vitamin is important to athletes for nerve health and blood oxygenation. Ovo-lacto vegetarian can easily get enough vitamin B12 if they consume sufficient milk, cheese and eggs into their diet. ‘Sufficient’ means the equivalent of 600mls of milk per day. Vegans however can obtain sufficient vitamin B12 if they drink soy milk, which has been fortified with B12 (e.g. So Good®).

Niacin, riboflavin and thiamine usually fine

These B group vitamins help athletes nerve and energy systems and are best found in red meat alternative sources for vegetarians would be yeast extracts such as Marmite® and also eggs, nuts and whole grain cereals which are usually plentiful in most vegetarian diets.

Here’s Your Plan to Eat to Less Meat

Why? Because it’s finally time to make it happen.

You see, with the previous lessons on protein, what a normal day’s diet looks like, and how you should eat around your workouts, we’ve been laying the foundation for a change.

But now it’s time to start building the house.

Make no mistake—there are still plenty of important details to consider to make sure your vegetarian diet (or near-vegetarian diet, if that’s more your speed) is healthy: protein-carb-fat ratios, iron, Vitamin B12, and other things you need to pay attention to.

But that’s detail work, and it’s not necessary to know it in order to get started. The way I see it, if you’re already in the process of transitioning while you learn that stuff, we’ll save some time and your experience on a lower-meat diet will make that information much more meaningful to you.

So are you game?

Great. Then let me share with you a little secret.

Cutting the meat out of your diet doesn’t have to be some big, sudden event. No need for a final night of excessive animal-eating, or a big, emotional goodbye to wing-night or whatever ritual you might have around food. (If you’re the cook in the house and you really want to be sneaky, you probably don’t even need to tell your family.)

When I first tried giving up meat, I tried to do it cold turkey. I know, awful choice of words.

Guess what? It didn’t work. I couldn’t deal with the idea of “I’ll never be able to eat [insert favorite animal] during [insert event] again.” You know, important pairings like “buffalo wings during Monday Night Football,” and less-significant ones like “turkey on Thanksgiving.”

But when I finally made the change last, it was because I went about a different way. And that’s what I want to share with you now.

Your Plan to Eat Less Meat

Step 1: Commit to one week (or if you’re an overachiever, two weeks) of eating meat with fewer legs.

What do I mean by fewer legs?

(i) If you currently eat beef, pork, and other four-legged animals, then that’s what you cut out for a week. Eat chicken instead of steak, buy turkey bacon instead of regular bacon, and if you want to go really crazy with it, try a vegetarian recipe or two during the week. From four legs to two legs.

(ii) If you currently don’t eat red meat or pork but still eat poultry, then you go less than two legs. If you can find a one-legged animal, have a field day, but mainly, all that’s left is fish (zero legs). You’ll probably find it weird to eat fish at every meal, and I’m sure with mercury issues that wouldn’t be healthy anyway. So use the opportunity to introduce lots of vegetarian meals.

(iii) If fish is the only type of animal you eat, get rid of it for a week. Use this as an excuse to go fully vegetarian for a week.

Have fun with this, but really commit. Blame it on this weird runner guy you found online, if you’d like. Whatever. Just don’t cheat. Come on, it’s one week. You can do anything for a week, can’t you?

Step 2: When your week (or two) is up, assess how you feel and decide what’s next. When you’re ready to go to the next level, return to Step 1.

Chances are, you’ll be feeling pretty good by the end of the week. And if that’s the case, commit to a month this time. Pretty soon, this level of meat consumption will be your new baseline and it’ll feel like second nature.

In the highly likely event that you’re feeling tremendous and super-motivated, then go to the next level. Cut out the poultry or the fish, whichever it may be, and get back to Step 1. Repeat until you feel amazing, even going so far as to cut out dairy and eggs if you find yourself curious as to how that would make you feel.

That’s it!

That’s all there is to it. You might find that you’re content at a certain level for months before trying to go further, and that’s great. The longer it takes you to get there, the longer it’ll probably last.

Even though this plan seems very flexible, I want to make one thing clear. When I say “commit,” I mean it. When you commit to something for a week or two weeks or a month, that commitment shouldn’t be flexible!

It’s a promise to yourself, and you’d better do everything in your power to keep it. I wrote a post called 7 Steps to Eating Less Meat Now that outlines how to make sure you don’t break that commitment.

Remember: This course is about performance, not labels

The great thing about this plan is that at no point do you have to say, “I’m never eating ____ again.” Go month-to-month and let how you feel and your athletic performance guide you.

Remember, the goal here is to eat less meat to be healthier and to become a better athlete, not to argue over labels and what counts as “vegetarian.”

If you decide that you love how you feel as a vegetarian but that you’ll never give up turkey on Thanksgiving, that’s totally cool by me. You can even call yourself a vegetarian, for all I care.

The point isn’t the label. This course is about eating for athletic performance. And from that perspective, you don’t have to swear off anything for good.

Now, I’d be willing to bet that after you start eating this way, you’ll notice that you start feeling more compassionate, and you may find that you like being a person who DOES NOT eat animals. But that’s personal and for you to decide. My only goal here is to help you get healthier, leaner, stronger, and faster.

Now it’s up to you. Go for it!

Alright, that’s plenty for now. Get started as soon as you’re ready, and in the next few emails I’ll give you some more tools to help you with your transition, like a sample shopping list and some basic meals you can prepare quickly and easily.

Do yourself a favor and take action here. It’s one week. There’s nothing to lose, and so much to gain. Be one of the few who do versus the many who talk. Good luck!

P.S. Have a friend who this could help? Please share this link with them!

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No-Meat Muscle: 4 Rules For Building Lean Mass On A Vegetarian Diet

Fact: Humans need protein to grow and thrive. Falsehood: That protein has to come from dead critters. Meet your new muscle-building diet. No animals were harmed in making it!

If there's one thing that most vegetarians hate, it's having someone talk about their dietary system like it's a problem that needs to be solved. So let's get this out of the way: Vegetarians can build muscle and strength just like meat-eaters. Got that? Good.

There are hundreds of millions of vegetarians in the world, and people choose to embrace this lifestyle for countless reasons—from religious, to nutritional, to simple personal preference. As anyone who has embraced this lifestyle can attest, it's not as simple as "don't eat meat."

Everyone from your grandmother to your favorite whey manufacturer is a potential threat to sneak animal products into your food, meaning you have to be diligent about doing your research in addition to minding your macros.

Need a roadmap? Here are four simple rules that vegetarian athletes should keep in mind in order to maximize their nutrition. Heed them, and you'll have the fuel you need to grow like a weed.

Rule 1: Know Your Whey

Meat-eaters may classify the world in terms of carnivores and herbivores, but vegetarians know it's not so simple. There are several types of vegetarians including:

  • Lacto-vegetarians (dairy is allowed)
  • Pescatarians (fish is allowed)
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians (dairy and eggs are allowed)
  • Vegans (No animal products of any kind are allowed)

Each variation presents its own set of unique challenges, as the people in these respective categories are well aware.

But one thing they all need when they're training is sufficient protein. Without it, they put themselves at serious risk for subpar results and just generally feeling like a wilted piece of celery.

What about whey and casein powders? Both are milk byproducts, so they're clearly off-limits to vegans and to strict pescatarians. But they should be A-OK for lacto- and lacto-ovo vegetarians, right? If only it were so simple. To separate milk into its component parts of curds (where casein and cheese come from) and whey, producers add an enzyme called rennet. There are vegetable and microbial sources for rennet, but the most common source is the stomachs of slaughtered veal calves. In other words, not so veggie-friendly.

One easy way to tell if your protein is vegetarian is if it's kosher, because milk and meat products can't mix in a kosher diet. Unfortunately, most proteins don't include this information on their labels or websites. So if you want to know where a certain company stands, the best bet is to do your homework: search around, or call them up and ask.

Rule 2: Explore Plant Protein

If the rennet dance sounds a little complicated, which is understandable, consider exploring other vegetarian protein sources. Luckily, there are plenty to choose from, most of which line up nicely against their animalistic competitors. Some of the most popular sources include:

  • Egg protein, egg white protein, and liquid egg whites. All three offer a protein punch similar to whey protein, but are far simpler and more predictable when it comes to ingredients.
  • Soy protein. Perhaps the most prominent vegetarian alternative to whey, soy proteins are similarly protein-packed but are incredibly low in fat and cholesterol. Soy generally offers more flavor options than other vegetarian proteins, but read your labels carefully, because some soy proteins contain milk and/or fish products.
  • Pea protein. The lowly pea is riding high these days due to the "Dr. Oz Effect," but the TV doc was only stating what savvy vegetarians already knew. Pea protein is high in protein, easy to digest, cholesterol-free, and has a solid branched-chain amino acid profile.
  • Hemp protein. Hemp seeds are packed with Omega-3s and high in magnesium and iron, to say nothing of their solid protein content. Plus, a serving also contains almost half your daily dose of fiber—remember that stuff?

Some manufacturers like Vega Sport, Garden of Life, and MRM also offer their own designer veggie protein blends that mix various plant and grain proteins. There are plenty to choose from, so a little research can go a long way.

Rule 3: Eat Well

I know it seems obvious, but most of us know at least one vegetarian who seems to magically survive on ramen noodles, fries, and sweets. Men's Health recently coined a term for these people: obesatarians.

Your vegetarian allies are begging you not to become one of these. Aside from the damage you do to yourself, you give the whole plant kingdom a bad name.

What's the alternative? Strive for balance! Include a barrage of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet. These form the cornerstone of a healthy diet for herbivores and omnivores alike, and they offer incredible health benefits. Don't always fill up veggies and fruits (which is hard to do, by the way) most of your calories should come from dense foods—especially if you're trying to build muscle.

Hearty vegetarian protein sources that mix well with veggies:

  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Tempeh
  • Tofu
  • Soybeans
  • Seitan

If you're the type of vegetarian who gets full on things like brown rice, quinoa, potatoes, legumes, beans and lentils, nuts, seeds, nut butters, and avocados, you've given yourself a good chance to build some muscle. On the other hand, if you're a vegetarian who feasts mostly on salad, stir-fry, fresh fruit, and other vegetable-based dishes, you're likely falling short on your macro needs. For every vegetable you eat, pair it with a healthy fat and protein-packed side. This provides the balance of nutrition you need!

Rule 4: Watch Out For Deficiencies

If you've been a vegetarian for a long time, then someone has doubtlessly already tried to warn you that an iron deficiency is likely to kill you in a matter of minutes. Is this a reason to give up and attack the nearest cow? Definitely not. But don't underestimate the degree to which micronutrient deficiencies can impact your health and well-being. Here are the four biggest threats to watch out for:

1. Iron

Iron can be subdivided into two types, heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is commonly found in red meat and absorbs easiest into the body, making it the variety most vegetarians fall short in. Non-heme iron is found in many vegetable-based foods including:

  • Dark, leafy greens like spinach, kale, and collard greens
  • Dried peas
  • Beans and lentils
  • Artichokes
  • Dried fruit: raisins, prunes, and black currents

Females are more likely than males to experience iron-deficiency anemia because they lose iron during their menstrual cycle. Alone, non-heme iron alone usually can't overcome iron-deficiency anemia, so consider supplementation.

2. Calcium

Calcium is vital in maintaining strong bones and plays a crucial role in muscular contractions. Low calcium intake causes cramping during workouts, hindering performance and ability. In the long-term, it can also lead to thinning of the bones and osteoporosis.

Dietary calcium is typically found in dairy-rich foods, so it's easy to find for lacto-vegetarians. Alternate sources of calcium fit for a vegan diet include:

Absorption rate varies in each of these, so if you have any doubts, consider supplementing with calcium to meet your nutritional requirements.

3. Zinc

Zinc is an essential trace element that promotes proper growth and development across the body, and yet it's a mineral that many vegetarians neglect. Deficiencies can impact everything from appetite, to cognitive power and motor skills, to testosterone levels in men. The best zinc sources are generally animal products, so vegetarians need to prioritize this mineral.

To combat zinc depletion, vegetarians should supplement with zinc products or consume natural sources like:

  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Almonds, walnuts, or macadamia nuts
  • Fortified oatmeal or cereals

4. Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 deficiencies can turn serious if not resolved immediately, creating a real area of concern for vegetarians.

The type of B12 found in plant-based foods is not absorbed by the body as efficiently as vitamin B12 found in animal-based foods, so this is an area where even healthy vegetarians often miss the boat.

Your best bet to overcome vitamin B12 deficiencies is to seek out foods fortified with adequate amounts, or supplement with vitamin B12 products.

No matter what some meathead on a message board says, "vegetarian" does not have to equal "weak"—unless you let it! Meet your essential mineral and vitamin needs so you can feel strong and make the most of your healthy lifestyle.

About the Author

Shannon Clark

Shannon Clark is a freelance health and fitness writer located in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

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