One of the most common questions vegetarians get asked, especially those who are athletes, is how do you get enough protein? Peter Horn, current NYU Law student and member of Students for Animal Legal Defense Fund answers this and more:
Originally from Boulder, Colorado, Peter Horn started racing at age 12 and raced professionally after graduating from Vassar College in 2008. He was a member of the Johan Bruyneel Cycling Academy and Fuji Test Team, and captained the Geox-Fuji Test Team until starting at NYU Law in fall 2011. Career highlights include: 3rd place, U.S. Elite National Road Race Championships (2009); 3rd place overall, Tour of Antwerp (Belgium, 2010); 4th place overall, Tour de la Manche (France, 2011); 4th place overall, Tour de Liege (Belgium, 2009); and in college, back-to-back victories at the Boston Beanpot Road Race and West Point Hill Climb (2006 & 2007). Horn became vegetarian in 2005.
NYU MM: Why are you vegetarian?
People choose not to eat meat for numerous and overlapping reasons. For some it comes down to health, environmental concerns or simply dietary preferences. Personally, I became vegetarian so as to not contribute to the suffering and poor treatment of animals. It’s one thing to eat animals in order to survive, but quite another to inflict unnecessary suffering. And while free-range and organic farm products sometimes improve the quality of animals’ lives, they do so only marginally and I still could not justify killing another creature when there are so many other foods available to us.
NYU MM: How do you get enough protein?
My trainer for several years was also the team doctor for Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service, Discovery, Astana and Radio Shack Cycling Teams. Dr. Dag, as we called him, was one of the few northern Europeans I knew who was extremely enthusiastic about vegetarianism. He explained that as long as I eat well and a wide variety of foods, I had nothing to worry about. In fact a vegetarian diet would give me healthier blood and keep me leaner than a conventional athletic diet that includes meat.
I tried to eat well and to eat a variety of fresh foods, but I did nothing special. Like any athlete, I used a protein recovery shake after training. I’m not vegan, so eggs, cheese and other dairy products were a staple. I like Indian and Mexican food, so lentils and rice, or beans and rice, are easy ways to get complete proteins. Many athletes are too preoccupied with protein consumption but the reality is that as long as you eat well and get enough to build muscle, there’s nothing to be concerned about.
NYU MM: How do you get enough calories?
Meat is high in calories, and it’s true that you need a lot of calories to be able to compete well. But the reality for cyclists, and many other athletes, is that one needs to eat as few calories as possible while still maintaining your highest level of performance. During the peak of the racing season, I would never eat dessert, drink alcohol or eat any more than I needed to. It is extremely important to be as lean as possible and vegetarianism is a natural way to reduce the amount of calories your body takes in. Taking meat and fish out of my diet and eating different, and fresher foods turned out to be extremely helpful as I tried to keep my weight down during the racing season.
NYU MM: How do you get enough vitamins and minerals?
B vitamins, iron and Omega-3-6-9 fats are the primary concerns here for athletes. Like a protein shake for recovery, most athletes take supplements ranging from multivitamins to flaxseed oil to iron. I was no exception. The crux is that I didn’t take these products to make up for what I may have been missing in my diet. I used supplements just in order to give my body the extra boost it needs when you’re training several hours each day and racing 50 events each year. My teammates did the same regardless of whether they ate meat.
On this sort of regimen there’s no real concern for lack of vitamins or minerals, as long as you take the supplements correctly as prescribed. A more fundamental point, however, is that all the vitamins and minerals one needs are available plant-based foods. I ate plenty of salads (especially with beets and broccoli, for example) and a wide variety of fruits that gave me the full range of nutrients.
NYU MM: But seriously, give me some other examples of athletes who are vegetarian.
In terms of cycling, Erik Zabel is a legendary German sprinter (think big, explosive muscles) who has long been vegetarian. David Zabriskie is a world-class time trialist who became vegan just prior to last year’s Tour de France. The Stetina brothers were some of the best American racers during the 80s and were vegetarian at a time when hardly anyone in cycling could understand the merits of not eating meat. Several of my teammates in recent years were also vegetarian.
A favorite example from other sports is Carl Lewis, who was vegan, and one of the best track and field athletes in history. There’s also Carmelo Anthony, Prince Fielder from baseball, football players Ricky Williams and Tony Gonzales and a few MMA fighters. The list goes on and if you’re really curious, do a few searches on the internet and you’ll be surprised how common it is for athletes to take meat out of their diet – and for their performance to improve as a result.