As a long-time vegetarian, I have always been aware that there were a fair amount of studies demonstrating health benefits. But did you know that there might also be performance benefits as well? This is particularly interesting to me, for while I believe that training for health is equally or more important than training for performance, it’s a great day when you can have both!
First off, here’s a handy overview of some long-term health benefits of vegetarianism from studies conducted on Seven-Day Adventists in the United States and Canada.1,2,3,4,5 Why Seven-Day Adventists? Because many studies that collect data from large groups often do so from disparate populations. Meaning, the active, athletic vegetarian may end up being compared to a sedentary meat-eater, skewing the results of the study entirely. This study was interesting in that, as far as it is possible, it compared apples to apples—meat eaters and vegetarians from a similar culture and lifestyle.
A table of these bullet points can be found in Plant-Based Sports Nutrition by Dr. Larson-Meyer and Matt Ruscigno6, but here’s the breakdown:
Vegetarians have 8% lower risk for all forms of cancer (16% if vegan)
Vegetarians have 25% lower risk for gastro-intestinal cancers
Non-vegetarians have a 54% greater risk for prostate cancer
Non-vegetarians have an 88% greater risk for colon cancer
Non-vegetarians are more than 2x as likely to develop dementia
Non-vegetarians who have eaten meat for many years are more than 3x as likely to develop dementia.
The rate of type II diabetes in vegetarians is 3.2% and 2.4% in vegans, versus 7.6% in non-vegetarians.
For Heart Disease:
Vegetarian men have a 37% reduced risk of developing ischemic heart disease, and 34% lower mortality rates from ischemic heart disease if it develops.
When adjusted for body weight and “other cofounders” vegetarians are 14% less likely to develop hypertension (vegans are 47% less likely!)
For Metabolic Syndrome:
Metabolic Syndrome is present in vegetarians at a rate of 25.2% versus 39.7% in non-vegetarians.
For Longevity and All-cause Mortality:
Vegetarians have 9% less risk of all-cause mortality over a six-year period (vegans have 15% reduced risk!)
So what about performance enhancements? It’s possible there might be some notable enhancements in endurance performance. One study from the early 1900s conducted on 49 men showed that vegetarian athletes and even untrained, sedentary vegetarians considerably outperformed meat-eating athletes in endurance tests of holding arms out horizontally, deep knee bends, and leg raises.⁷ An experiment a few years later by a Belgian researcher noted similar results in forearm endurance, where participants lifted a weight by squeezing the handle of a pulley. The vegetarians were able to execute 69 reps, while the meat-eaters could only perform 38.⁸ Larson-Meyer and Ruscigno explain that this performance enhancement is likely to do with the fact that a vegetarian diet contains increased carbohydrates, higher phytochemical content, “the potential of these diets to induce slight serum alkalinity, which could be of benefit during intense exercise bouts”, increased magnesium and other dietary nutrients, and funnily enough—the desire for vegetarians to outperform their meat-eating counterparts.⁶
Vegetarians may also recover from workouts faster! Vegetarians have convincingly higher concentrations of antioxidants in their blood stream due to generally a greater intake of phytochemicals.⁶ Those antioxidants can help sequester free radicals that are produced by muscles during strenuous exercise. Some free radicals trigger “various exercise induced adaptations” but an excess of them can contribute to muscle fatigue and soreness.⁹,¹⁰ “To this end, studies have…found that vegetarians experience less damage from free radicals to DNA in the blood and less lipid peroxidation, or damage by free radicals to lipid-containing structures.” ⁶
It is important to point out here that one need not be a “purist” (as Larson-Meyer and Ruscigno put it) to receive some of these benefits, meaning eating more plants and less meat is better than doing nothing at all. It seems likely to me that most of these benefits come from the fact that vegetarians generally eat more plants by volume than meat eaters do, and perhaps because they avoid the negative consequences of eating modern meat (which is often laced with a cocktail of chemicals and antibiotics…a discussion for another time).
The take-away here is that as a martial artist, endurance is critical for success, and improved long-term health is often one of the reasons people undertake martial arts and fitness training in the first place. Therefore, it would be worth considering the possibility of reducing or removing meat from your diet! If you’d like to make the switch entirely, it’s best to have a plan. I went cold-turkey as a teen, but I was highly motivated for reasons beyond the discussion here, and research shows this is often not the best way for most people, so I wouldn’t recommend that method.
Instead, Larson-Meyer and Ruscigno suggest some easy steps toward vegetarianism, which I whole-heartedly support⁶:
List the foods and meals you typically eat and see if any of those are vegetarian, and plan to eat those meals several times a week.
Add more vegetarian meals by revising favorite recipes. (This was a big one for me, particularly starting out—just replace meat with mock meat. It’s easier than ever today, and you’re welcome to ask me for recommendations!).
Find new recipes in vegetarian cookbooks or online to slowly add into your diet.
Make a list of vegetarian meals away from home. (What can you eat at fast food joints and restaurants?)
Eliminate meat at breakfast.
Take stock of your meals again, and repeat.
If you want to complete a full transition versus simply removing some meat from your diet, I’d recommend removing meat from lunch, then finally dinner; or taking it out of certain days of the week until it is all gone. One final consideration worth noting here, is that you should be aware of your protein requirements while training. It is possible to easily achieve them with a vegetarian diet, but you’ll want to take stock of it.
There is a simple equation for athletic protein requirements based on a person’s weight: 1.2-2g of protein per kilogram of weight.¹¹ This arguably should really take into account weight in muscle, not fat or bone mass, but the 1.2-2g range based on your current total weight will get you in the ballpark. (FYI, for conversion, 1 kg is 2.2 lbs—so the formula is: (your weight/2.2) x 1.2-2g = the amount of protein you require per day in grams). Another important element to note, is that vegetarians often require closer to the 2g mark, due to the type of protein you receive, though this also depends on the intensity of your training.
Another general tip is to use a program like Cronometer—https://cronometer.com/—which can help you get an idea of what vitamins/minerals you may need to add to your diet to improve your performance and overall health. (I recommend this regardless of whether you intend to go vegetarian or not—it can greatly improve your well-being and training outcomes).
Follow these steps, and you’ll have a smooth, healthy transition without setbacks! If you’re like me, you’ll never look back.
Fraser GE. Associations between diet and cancer, ischemic heart disease, and all-cause mortality in non-Hispanic with California Seventh-day Adventists. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70(3 Suppl):532S-538S.
Willett WC. Convergence of philosophy and science: the third international congress on vegetarian nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr: 1999;70(3 Suppl);434S-438S.
Snowdon DA, Phillips RL. Does a vegetarian diet reduce the occurrence of diabetes? Am J Public Health. 1985;75(5):507-512.
Giem P, Beeson WL, Fraser GE. The incidence of dementia and intake of animal products: preliminary findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70(3 Suppl):516S-524S.
Key TJ, Fraser GE, Thorogood M, et al. Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70(3 Suppl):516S-524S.
Larson-Meyer E, Ruscigno M. Plant-Based Sports Nutrition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2020.
Fisher I. The influence of flesh eating on endurance. Yale Medical Journal. 1907;XIII:204-221.
Berry E. The effects of a high and low protein diet on physical efficiency. American Physical Education Review. 1090;14:288-297.
Powers S, Nelson WB, Larson-Meyer E. Antioxidant and vitamin D supplements for athletes: sense or nonsense? J sports sci. 2010;28(12):1261-1268.
Powers SK, DeRuisseau KC, Quindry J, Hamilton KL. Dietary antioxidants and exercise. J sports sci. 2004;22(1):30-35.
Coburn JW, Malek M H. NSCA’s Essentials of Personal Training 2nd Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2012.