On Being a Vegetarian Athlete

    Despite what you may have heard, vegetarian options abound for athletes and active outdoorsmen and women.

    There are many good reasons to eat: hunger, boredom, wanting to be the world’s fattest man (I stole that joke from the cartoon Futurama). But it’s not often in this country that we choose to eat what we do for its nutritional value, particularly while vacationing, camping, or enjoying the outdoors. So much of what we fill our packs or coolers with for a hike or camping trip is determined by convenience, when in reality it would do us a lot of good to consider what types of energy our bodies will need to keep us going. However ingrained in our minds the foods of hiking and camping are (raisins, peanuts, hot dogs, hamburgers), the truth is that there is a wide variety of healthy alternative food sources out there for any outdoor enthusiast with health, fitness, and environmental sustainability on the mind.

    I’ve been a vegetarian hiker and mountain biker for over a year now. I decided to make the change in diet mostly for environmental reasons, but for health reasons as well. The more I learned how much water, land, and other natural resources it takes to raise a cow or a chicken for my consumption, the less I wanted to sink my teeth in a hamburger (although, believe me, Burger King still knows how to make me look twice at a billboard). The adjustment initially seemed daunting, but I was amazed at how quickly my body adapted as I loaded up on whole grains, beans, soy products, and of course, veggies. I was also apprehensive about how a vegetarian diet would affect my performance as an outdoor athlete, but the more I hiked, camped, and mountain biked, the more I realized how much lighter, healthier, and energetic I felt.

    Loma Linda University's Vegetarian Food Pyramid.

    Loma Linda University’s Vegetarian Food Pyramid.

    Throughout the course of my hiking and camping, I also began to realize how pleasingly simple it was to be a vegetarian on the trail. When you think about it, most of the typical foods hikers take along are already vegetarian: rice, beans, cheese, fruits, GORP, and although most of us have been trained to think that animal products are the only way to get valuable protein and energy, it’s possible to maintain a vegetarian diet rich in protein with the proper foods. Lentils, barley, almonds, protein powders, and nutritional yeasts are all easily packable foods that pack a lot of power, and they can easily be enjoyed both on and off the trail.

    Perhaps one of the biggest initial challenges of adopting a vegetarian diet was enduring the jibes and skepticism of friends and fellow outdoor athletes, particularly as a male. Men who enjoy the woods, grueling climbs, or the thrill of bombing down a rocky slope aren’t typically expected to enjoy a hummus sandwich on a mountain summit or a veggie kabob over a campfire. Luckily, that stereotype seems to be diminishing, though it certainly depends on where you are in the country. To a lot of American men, the idea still stands: the more meat you eat, the more manly you are, particularly if you’re a competitive athlete. The fact is, there are thousands of successful athletes out there who happen to be vegetarian, and despite the typical image of a “manly” outdoorsman, it makes me feel manly and wise to know the nutritional value of what I’m eating, how it affects the planet, and what types of fuel my body truly needs to perform.

    I certainly don’t think that eating meat is wrong. Animals eat animals, and as humans, we’re designed to eat animals, too. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have evolved into the dominant hominid species that we did without eating meat. Aside from that, I also know how delicious a chili dog can be, and I know that soy-based Smart Dogs will never come close to being a remotely suitable replacement. But I also know that meat is not an essential part of my diet, and as an outdoor athlete who cares deeply for his own health and the health of the planet, adopting a vegetarian diet is a choice I am happy to have made.

    Featured image copyright iStockPhoto/rfwil, vegetarian food pyramid image courtesy Loma Linda University

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