Vegetarianism as defined by The World Book Dictionary (1989) is "the practice or principle of eating only vegetable foods and refraining from eating meat, fish, or other animal products." This definition, though accurate, seems somewhat limited, as being a vegetarian is so much more: it is a lifestyle choice, a way of thinking, and a way of behaving. Over 12 million Americans and countless others, from all over the world, have turned to the vegetarian diet (Vegetarian Times, 1996). People who have become vegetarians have made a conscious choice to be this and, having studied this practice, no one should entertain becoming a vegetarian lightly. Even though there are many benefits to becoming a vegetarian, the decision could also be harmful.
There are many reasons for people to choose a vegetarian lifestyle. Some people adopt it as a fad, while others profess to do it because of an aversion to eating animals. There are religious reasons for not eating meat and still others follow vegetarianism as a way to lose weight, using it as a diet. In each case it can be a healthy or a harmful way to eat. The benefits or harm of vegetarianism is associated with two factors: education about nutritional needs coupled with food choices. Even groups like athletes can thrive on a vegetarian diet if they are well educated to the bodies' dietary needs! and are well aware of the limit-less choices available on a vegetarian diet.
What follows in this essay, is first: a brief, yet insightful look at the vegetarian diet (the nutritional aspect) and then: an analysis of how this diet may, in fact, be a good choice for an athlete. The first thing people need to realize is that there is more than just one type of vegetarian diet. In fact, there are three basic vegetarian diets to choose from. The first is the lacto-ovo diet. This diet includes the use of eggs and dairy products. The second one is the lacto diet, which also includes the use of dairy products but, unlike the lacto-ovo diet, this diet does not include the use of eggs.
The third diet is the vegan diet. This diet excludes the use of eggs, dairy products, and any food prepared with eggs and dairy products. Many vegans do not use honey either (Giehl, 1979). Changing your diet to one of these three vegetarian diets could be a move in a healthier direction. Vegetarians are, on the average, far healthier than those who consume the typical Western diet (Hulsey, 1997). It is a well-established fact that vegetarians suffer less heart disease than meat-eaters (The European, 1992).
The high quantities of fat and protein and the total lack of fiber in meat are linked to a disturbing array of degenerative diseases such as "cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes, obesity, and many others" (Akers, 1983 p. 23). There is an emerging consensus that a vegetarian diet is actually better than a meat-oriented diet. (Akers, 1983). The American Dietetic Association has often voiced it's support of the "well planned" vegetarian diet (Hulsey, 1997). Good health, however, is not automatically guaranteed just because someone becomes a vegetarian.
Understanding the body's dietary needs, being organized and having a good plan are the keys to a healthy vegetarian diet. The body requires a certain amount of protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals, to sustain a long, healthy existence. Most people believe that the vegetarian diet lacks in the required amounts of each of these. When, in reality, these substances are in abundance in the well-balanced vegetarian diet. In fact, from research, we learn that "it is widely recognized that plant foods are the best sources of many of these nutrients" (Akers, 1983 p. 49).
Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are the primary sources of energy to the body because they supply fuel necessary for body heat and work (Dunne, 1990). Protein seems to be of the greatest concern for people thinking about becoming a vegetarian. Next to water, protein is the most plentiful substance in the body. It is one of the most important elements for the maintenance of good health and vitality. Protein is the primary nutrient involved in the growth and development of all body tissues (Dunne, 1990). Our society has embedded in us the belief that the only way of getting enough protein is to eat large quantities of meat and that people who don't eat meat will suffer from a protein deficiency.
Ironically, protein is the easiest of all the nutrients to get. An entirely random selection of food plants, containing enough calories to sustain life, will almost always provide enough protein to meet your body's needs (Akers, 1983). Nathan Pritikin, states in his book The P! ritikin Program for Diet and Exercise (Grosset and Dunlap, 1979) that "the best food sources for protein are grains, roots, vegetables, and fruits in unrefined, minimally processed form" (Tracy, 1985). Securing carbohydrates and fat in ones' diet is not as much of a concern for the vegetarian. Carbohydrates are found primarily in food of plant origin and essential fatty acids are found widely in food sources from plants. There has been some debate about the essential fatty acid, linoleic acid, and whether or not there was a sufficient amount of it in the vegetarian diet.
The dietary requirement of linoleic acid is, about, 1% to 3% of total calories (Dunne, 1990). A study done on British vegans showed that "they were getting about 13% of their calories from linoleic acid" (Akers, 1983). Clearly this shows that the average vegetarian has little to be concerned about. The dietary requirements of other nutrients, which may be of additional concern to the vegetarian, are calcium and B 12. For the vegetarian, especially the vegan, fear about low levels of these nutrients may be common. Where, on the one hand, milk and other dairy products are a great source of calcium for the lacto and lacto-ovo vegetarians.
For the vegan, who has eliminated all dairy products from their diet, there is, however, little doubt that they too can get calcium from plant-based sources. Broccoli, kale, turnip greens, and spinach all have considerable amounts of calcium in them. As well, even though grains in the form of breads are relatively low in calcium, they are still a good source because of the high frequency of intake by vegans (Vegetarian Times, 1996). Next to protein, B 12 is probably the second most important issue in vegetarian nutrition. This is because "animal protein is almost the only source in which B 12 occurs naturally in substantial amounts" (Dunne, 1990 p. 31).
However, only incredibly small amounts of this vitamin are thought to be necessary. The average person needs about 3 micrograms per day (Akers, 1983). For the vegan, who is worried about the lack of this vitamin in their diet, they have many options. They can take B 12 supplements or eat a B 12 -fortified cereal a couple of times a week. Another option for them is to add nutritional yeast to their food; one to two teaspoons contains a week's dietary requirement of this vitamin (Vegetarian Times, 1996).
It is clear, then, that the vegetarian diet can be healthy if it is has been instituted properly and with the awareness of the body's nutritional needs. This informed approach to consuming a vegetarian diet is even more important for the vegetarian athlete. They too can flourish on the vegetarian diet if they include, as well, in their education a thorough understanding of what their body will need to perform to it's full potential. There have been several world class athletes who have succeeded in their sports and done it on the vegetarian diet. Six time Ironman winner, Dave Scott, the baseball home run king, Hank Aaron, tennis star, Martina Navratilova and many other top performing athletes have all competed on a vegetarian diet (Thimian, 1997). All these athletes had something else in common.
Besides being vegetarians, they all realized that to train and compete at peek performance they needed to have a well-balanced and complete vegetarian diet. The best vegetarian diet for the athlete is the lacto-ovo diet because it allows them to maintain the increased levels of protein and calcium without having to eat too many of the foods which contains bulk. Although, a balanced vegan diet also supplies far more protein than the required daily allowance and is quite adequate for the training athlete (Doyle, 1979). Having too much protein in the body is not good for non-athlete, but is even worse for the athlete. Too much protein in the body can interfere with the body's ability to absorb calcium, which is extremely important to the athlete, and can hinder performance (Vegetarian Times, 1996; Winter, 1994). Besides all the normal concerns of a vegetarian non-athlete, the vegetarian athlete has additional considerations.
"In addition to high quality protein, vegetarian athletes must pay close attention to getting enough of two essential minerals, iron and zinc" (Winters, 1994 p. 1) Some peak performance athletes suffer from a condition known as sports anemia. Although it is iron related, it is not a true deficiency. "Sports anemia is the body's inability to match the increased plasma volume that occurs at high levels of intense and prolonged training" (Thimian, 1997, p. 3). This condition can be treated easily by taking iron supplements, increasing vitamin C to enhance absorption, and taking a rest from or decreasing the physical stress that caused the condition (Thimian, 1997).
As well as being aware about their nutritional needs and how to adequately meet them, the vegetarian athlete must also follow some basic, general, guidelines for all athletes. Having a pre-game, carbohydrate rich meal. This will ward off hunger pains and help to maintain blood sugar levels during an activity or event. They must drink plenty of water during the activity to replace spent fluids.
After the activity, the athlete must relax. The body needs time to recuperate. Lastly, and most importantly, they must get plenty of rest. The athlete puts their body through rigorous training and therefore needs the sleep to regenerate, more so than sedentary people (Doyle, 1979). Following all of these guidelines will help ensure that the vegetarian athlete always achieves a peak performance while maintaining superb health. Vegetarianism has, for some time, been the scapegoat of those who believe that there is no possible way that a person could exclude meat from their diet and remain healthy for long.
This would apply doubly to those who would dare to reject meat and call themselves athletes. Both the meat industry and the medical community have for some time presented a view that anyone who would attempt to remain vegetarian for any length of time would become poorly nourished and, ultimately, sick. These days, however, members of the medical community have swayed to a saner view. Research has proven repeatedly that, with the proper education, vegetarianism is not only safe, but even healthy. The greater fear, ironically, in the medical community, now, is about the high rate of disease caused by fatty foods, many of which stem from the high consumption of meat and dairy products. Today's doctor is far more likely to be afraid of the high quantities of meat and dairy products that people consume that about the absence of it.
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McGraw-Hill Publishing. New York. Giehl, D. (1979). Vegetarianism: A Way of Life. Harper and Row Publishing.
New York. Hulsey, M. (1997). Questioning Nutritional, Ethical, and, Ecological Arguments About Vegetarianism. The European. (1992).
Doctors say Meat-eaters Face the Chop. Tracy, L. (1985). The Gradual Vegetarian. M.
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