One time, way back in the mid-1980’s, when I used to keep track of such details, I read in a sports magazine that 9 out of the 10 top men finishers at the Hawaii IronMan triathlon were vegetarians. That little item caught my attention, for certain, as I had been a vegetarian athlete for about 10 years by then, and was sure that I was on to something.
I started hearing about other vegetarian “greats” from a wide variety of sports. There was no way to tell whether these superb athletes, men and women, were outstanding “because of” or “in spite of” their diets, it seemed. But evidence was mounting in favor of the plant-based diet. Study after study supported the concept that it was plants, and not animals, that best nourished us, and these facts were reinforced by our own anatomy, physiology, and even our emotional makeup.
We have the anatomy of a plant eater. We do not have the claws, fangs, intestines of a meat eater. We do not have the blinding speed, the overwhelming explosiveness, or any of the other abilities required to catch and kill prey. Our mouth does not water at the sight of a deer. The vision of men, women, and children sitting around a freshly killed corpse, delighting in the consumption of it blood and guts is anathema. We hire others to do our killing for us at the packing house, abattoirs to dismember the bodies, and butchers to finish the job. By the time we see and purchase our meat, cut into tiny segments and all cleaned of gore, it is no longer recognizable as the proud animal it once was.
Our physiology supports our consumption of plants. We digest fruits and tender vegetables exceptionally well while we struggle to digest meat, which often decomposes before it digests. Our protein and fat requirements are exceptionally low while our need for carbohydrates is equally high, a ratio that best favors plants. Fiber, found aplenty in fruits and vegetables, suits us well, yet meat provides none of this valuable nutrient. Our senses delight in the vision, smell, and taste of fruit, almost all of which are ergonomically designed to fit into our hands, whereas it is the sheer beauty of watching living creatures in action that we seem to enjoy most.
When it comes to athletic performance, which foods best support the athlete in his/her quest for superiority on the field? Many athletes have expressed the opinion that they are even willing to put their own health aside in their quest for stardom. Which diet will best serve the athlete? Is nutrition even a factor worthy of consideration in this regard?
In the Sixties, nutrition for athletes went through a major revolution. Meat, and lots of it, had been the diet of choice for athletes up until that time. A long-distance runner discovered he could improve his performance be eating greater quantities of starchy food than he was used to and a diet revolution for athletes began. The meat-based pre-game meal was replaced by the ill-founded and eventually debunked concept of carbo-loading. Some athletes figured that if a little was good, more must be better, and discovered, to their joy, that performance actually improved when overall carbohydrate consumption rose.
The scientists had all the explanations necessary to justify this advancement. They recommended a low-fat, low-protein (as compared to the Standard Westernized Diet) diet that was predominated by carbohydrates, for the following reasons:
- As protein or fat intake rises, carbohydrate intake must decline. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for athletes, so eating an excess of fats or proteins means eating insufficiently of carbohydrates, the result being reduced fuel accessibility for the athlete.
- Protein intake in the teens or greater, as a function of total calories, has been shown to stress the kidneys and liver, organs that are already under great stress due to the demands of extreme athletic endeavors.
- Fat intake into the teens and higher predictably reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. Uptake, transport, and delivery of this vital nutrient is reduced in inverse proportion to a rise in dietary fat.
- The ability of the body to transport and deliver carbohydrates to fuel the muscles and other cells is also reduced in inverse proportion to a rise in dietary fat.
- Excess protein intake predisposes the athlete to stress fractures due to the high quantity of acid minerals inherent in pertinacious foods, which, in order to be neutralized, leach alkaline minerals from the bones, making the bones weaker.
The carbohydrate craze had begun. Pasta, potatoes, bread, rice, and corn became “all the rage” as the foods of choice for athletes. Carbo-loading became the norm. Unfortunately, physiologists around the world had already demonstrated that the human body has no capacity to store either protein or carbohydrate. “Functional levels” of each of these caloronutrients can be found in the body, of course, and like gas in your car’s tank, the level can rise or fall within predetermined norms, but excess beyond functional limits cannot be stored. All excess calories are stored as fat, whether they come from proteins, fats, or carbohydrates. The concept of carbohydrate loading was shown to be a myth at best, a hoax at worst. All that had really happened was that athletes who had been used to performing with low supplies of carbohydrate demonstrated that they performed better when consuming optimal levels of this important yet often undervalued nutrient. Plants had begun to take hold in the diet of the athlete.
Three changes worthy of noting occurred as a result of athletes increasing their consumption of carbohydrates. First, they were now able to push harder than ever due to just a slight modification in diet that favored plants over animals. This created a need for, and the creation of, much-improved equipment that was capable of handling the increased stresses of higher-level performances. Technology had its day; with fiberglass replacing aluminum, tartan replacing cinder, turf replacing grass, hi-tech materials bursting onto the scene, lightweight materials replacing heavier ones, in all fields of endeavor. Tracks, pools, even fields of “grass” got faster. At the same time, safety equipment also improved dramatically. All of these factors combined to bring us athletes that could perform at higher levels and had the equipment to do so. The third major change was in coaching strategies. Creativity took hold as athletes demonstrated that they could break all existing records and coaches dreamed of more. New methods of bringing out the best in each athlete were developed. Sports psychology, plyometrics, resistance bands, and a wide range of training aids came into use.
By the late 90’s, essentially all serious athletes were being subjected to the recently “raised bar” of expectations in terms of their performance. They all had access to the new technology. The advent of the internet made almost all coaching strategies available to anyone who desired them. There was only one “secret weapon” left, nutrition. Dietary change was again coming into the forefront as the biggest single thing that an athlete could do to set him/her above the wannabe’s. The stage has been set for plants to take the athletic world by storm.
Go out to the Web today and you will have no trouble finding organizations that support vegetarian body builders, vegan weight lifters, and raw-vegan athletes of all types. Do a little homework and you will find that a disproportionately large number of the world’s top athletes are plant eaters as compared to what you would expect to find based on the percentage of vegans in the general population. The days of meat and potatoes are over. As the Director of Nutrition for the US Olympic Teams said in 1998, “Fruit is like magic food for athletes.” The athletes that created the Olympics over 2000 years ago ate a diet that was heavily predominated by fruit. It appears that history is about to repeat itself.