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 business directory London 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.