While you don’t have to swear off meat forever, making a few of your meals vegetarian is a smart idea, especially for runners and athletes whose focus should be on maximizing nutrition. Whether you want to go vegetarian or just want to cut down, here are some bonuses of choosing more meat-free meals.
1. Bring on the carbs. Though most athletes know they need to eat plenty of carbohydrates, many actually overestimate the amount they take in. With large portions of meat taking up space on your plate, it can be difficult to fit in all the carbs—and the fuel and nutrition they provide. Eliminating meat, even just on occasion, means you’ll have more room for foods that deliver the important carbs that will fuel your training.
2. Variety is the spice of life. Stuck on meat and potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs, or some other go-to dish? When you cut back on meat, you’ll need to come up with things to replace it—you might as well branch out into uncharted, delicious territory. You might find yourself using more quinoa, a grain source of complete protein, trying out foods you’ve never tasted before, or cracking open the can of chickpeas that’s been collecting dust in your pantry. Variety’s not only important in a healthy diet, it also tastes good!
3. Beans are the magical fruit. Cutting out the meat, even if it’s only every once in a while, means you’ll likely include more beans and lentils in your diet. Nutritionally sound and affordable, these foods should be a regular part of our diets, but many people don’t use them. Beans and rice are a starting point, but think of the soups, chilis, salads, pastas, wraps, and other dishes you could get creative with! The beans will deliver a healthy dose of fibre, have a low glycemic index, and provide a great vegetarian protein source along with other nutrients, including iron—an important one for athletes!
4. Fun with fibre. It’s safe to say that most people would be better off if they ate more fibre! Besides keeping you regular, fibre keeps you feeling full and satisfied and has been associated with all kinds of health benefits. When you choose a plant-based diet, you’ll easily increase your fibre intake! Just make sure to drink plenty of water and ease into things so you don’t shock your system.
5. Weight issue. Whether you need to lose weight or struggle to maintain yours, cutting back on meat can be tricky. While some people assume they’ll lose weight if they go on a vegetarian diet—and might adopt one in hopes of shedding a few pounds—this isn’t always the case. It’s easy to add high calorie, though nutritious meat alternatives in place of your normal carnivorous choices—nuts and seeds are great options but are very caloric. Similarly, if you decide to double the cheese on your sandwich to replace lean turkey, you’ll be increasing your fat intake significantly. Weight loss depends on the balance between calories in and calories out—in short, you should aim to burn more than you consume, but in a way that doesn’t shortchange you on nutrition. A registered dietitian can help omnivores and vegetarians alike determine healthy weights and balanced ways to achieve them.
6. Money in your pocket. Beans, lentils, and tofu are some of the cheapest vegetarian options available and including them in your diet’s not only good for you, it’s also good for your wallet. Meat and fish can get pricey, especially if you’re health conscious and seek out expensive healthier options. Consider the cost of a package of skinless, boneless chicken breasts—easily 10 dollars—that might be enough for a meal or two in comparison to the two dollars you might cash out on a can of beans that could stand in for that pricey chicken instead.
7. Sticking to the plan. While it’s true that there are plenty of vegetarian convenience options on the market, choosing to go meatless is usually a conscious decision and you’re more likely to plan your meals at the thought of the alternatives–going back on your plans to eat a vegetarian meal or going hungry. A meal plan cuts down on grocery costs and limits the chances of you wasting money on often not-so-healthy takeout options.
8. You’ll help the environment. Pound for pound, plant sources of protein take a lower toll on the environment. When you start looking into research on the fuel and water required to raise livestock, you’ll be shocked! If climate change has you worried, back away from the steak—the UN estimates that almost a fifth of manmade greenhouse gases worldwide come from the meat industry (more than transportation).
9. Giving thanks. When you adopt a vegetarian diet, you start thinking about your food in a whole new way. Rather than seeing it as a simple source of calories, protein, carbs, or fat, you just might gain an appreciation for all the nutrients it provides.
10. Small talk. Going vegetarian or even admitting that you want to eat less meat will inevitably draw interest—likely praise and criticism alike—from people you train with. You might end up hearing why someone refuses to give up bacon, but talking about why you’re eating less meat often opens up all kinds of talk, many of which could be of help! Your training partner might have ideas for that block of tofu you bought with the best intentions, might have gone meatless too quickly and learned a lesson the hard way, or might have questions for you—you might as well learn from each other.
A Word of Caution: deciding to go vegetarian doesn’t give you an excuse to gorge on pasta, bread, and potatoes. Instead, try to incorporate balanced meals with a source of healthy starchy carbohydrates (think grains—especially whole grains, squash, or potatoes), fruits and vegetables, and a source of protein (beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy products). If you’re hoping to make the transition all the way to vegetarianism, it might be worth it to make an appointment with a registered dietitian who can ensure you’re doing it in a healthy way. Whether you eat meat or not, a balanced approach will leave you healthier and better fueled for your training.
About the Author: Cheryl Madliger is a group fitness instructor at the Western Student Recreation Centre at the University of Western Ontario, where she is working towards her degree in Kinesiology. An avid cyclist, Cheryl has set her sights on completing an Ironman. Not a fan of free time, she also enjoys yoga, baking, and blogging.