Giving up meat doesn't hurt Tiger athletes
According to conventional wisdom, athletes need high-meat, protein-rich diets to fuel their active lifestyles and maintain muscle mass.
Not so fast, sophomore vegetarian lightweight rower Stephanie Hill says.
“First of all, the whole protein thing is overhyped,” Hill said. “Second of all, there are many, many sources of protein, soy being one of them and dairy products being a huge one.”
Hill is part of a growing wave of athletes at Princeton and across the country who are eschewing beef and chicken in favor of salad and tofu. Professional vegetarian athletes include NBA shooting guard Salim Stoudamire, Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams and cage fighter Mac Danzig.
Indeed, new research suggests that vegetarianism is a viable, and some say healthier, alternative to more traditional meat-based diets — even for athletes. The small but increasing movement toward vegetarianism in the sports world comes on the heels of the publication of several influential pro-vegetarian books, including 2001’s best-selling “Fast Food Nation” by journalist Eric Schlosser. The book, which chronicles the American meat industry’s production and distribution practices, helped convert junior long-distance runner Jolee VanLeuven from carnivore to herbivore.
“I read ‘Fast Food Nation’ in seventh grade,” VanLeuven said. “And that’s when I really became concerned with the environment and that eating meat and the production of meat had a really negative effect on the environment.”
Animal rights, however, did not play a role in her decision.
“It wasn’t really connected to a love of animals,” VanLeuven said. “In fact, I think it’s really natural for people to eat meat.”
Hill — a native of Nelson, B.C. — expressed a similar sentiment.
“Basically, the whole industrialized meat industry is incredibly unsustainable,” said Hill, who became convinced of the merits of vegetarianism after taking two introductory environmental science courses her freshman year.
Surprisingly, none of the athletes interviewed cited the dining halls’ limited vegetarian options as a major impediment to their new non-meat lifestyles.
“To be honest, I never found the dining hall’s vegetarian options to be limiting,” junior heavyweight rower Ambrose Carr said. “I think my friends complain about the quality of the meat more than I do about the quality of the food that I eat.”
Hill agreed, though she admitted that she often finds herself waiting in line for salad and soup.
“It’s more of a problem at restaurants, actually,” Hill said. “Don’t go to T.G.I. Friday’s with a vegetarian. You have to make special requests.”
Nevertheless, vegetarians — vegetarian athletes in particular — run the considerable risk of developing mineral deficiencies as a result of their dietary restrictions. Meat is an important source of iron, vitamin D and long-chain fatty acids — like Omega 3, 6 and 9 — as well as protein.
Princeton’s plant-eating athletes, however, emphasize that these problems can be overcome by eating copious amounts of seeds, nuts, beans and soy. The larger problem may be that vegetarian athletes often have to contend with the skepticism of coaches, teammates and family members.
“You get a lot of people who express concern,” Hill said. “But other than that, I didn’t find that there was a big reaction. People usually are vaguely surprised and then tell you how much they like meat, but I didn’t get a big negative reaction.”
Other athletes recounted similar stories about their decision.
“My dad is really skeptical,” VanLeuven said. “He always tries to slip meat into my dinner.”
Hill was rebuked by her high school crew coaches after she first attempted to become a vegetarian five years ago. Their criticisms eventually convinced her to give up vegetarianism until coming to Princeton.
Indeed, it seems that the conventional wisdom, at least in the sports world, remains largely unchanged. Sport nutritionists and the federal government — and, by extension, most coaches — continue to advise that athletes consume roughly five to 10 ounces of meat a day, depending on an individual’s size and build.
Hill, VanLeuven and Carr hope to someday change that conventional wisdom, one salad at a time.