Tara Gidus

Running on Plants: Is it healthy?

It seems hard enough as an athlete and runner to get enough nutrients in your diet, but add being vegetarian or vegan on top of that and you might as well diagnose yourself with every nutrient deficiency under the sun. Right? Wrong!

Vegetarians, vegans, and those who don't have access to their usual chicken breast today, read up! Fueling without meat or animal products in general isn't as impossible as one may think.

Myth 1: A vegetarian diet lacks protein.
Protein is packed in plant foods like lentils, tofu, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains such as quinoa and brown rice. In fact a half-cup of beans has the same amount of protein as one ounce of meat. To meet protein needs it's recommended to get 0.8 g/kg (or 1.8g/pound) of body weight per day, and the typical American eats well over this amount. Endurance runners likely need a bit more, about 1-1.2g/kg body weight. Many vegetarians incorporate dairy proteins like eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese, making it even easier to meet protein needs.

Myth 2: A vegetarian diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies.
Vegetarian diets can be very healthy if done correctly. Just like any diet, if you don't eat balanced you set yourself up for nutritional deficiencies. Vitamin B12 and iron are rich in animal sources. Vitamin B12 is important for healthy nerve cells and iron helps produce red blood cells. Vegetarians can get enough B12 by incorporating dairy and seafood into their diet. Nutritional yeast flakes can be added to smoothies, oatmeal, or salads and are also a great source of B12. To meet iron needs in a vegetarian diet, combine iron-rich foods with good sources of vitamin C like oranges, tomatoes, and broccoli. Good iron sources are spinach, lentils, tofu, chickpeas, pinto beans, potatoes, cashews, and fortified cereals.

Myth 3: Vegetarians never eat animal products.
There are many different types of vegetarians. There are some that just avoid animal meat and others that avoid all animal products, and then there are those that don't eat meat but incorporate seafood.

  • Vegan: Eats no animal products including meats, dairy, and eggs
  • Lacto Vegetarian: Eats no animal products except for dairy
  • Ovo Vegetarian: Eats no animal products except for eggs
  • Lacto-ovo Vegetarian: Eats no animal products except for dairy and eggs
  • Pesco-Vegetarian: Eats no animal products except for fish
  • Flexitarian: Eats small amounts of meat occasionally

Myth 4: Vegetarians are healthier than non-vegetarians.
Not all vegetarians are healthy. Vegetarians who eliminate meat, but continue to eat highly processed foods are not getting the benefits of a plant-based diet. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is the best way to maintain a healthy, balanced diet.

Are you fueled by veggies? Tweet me @DietDivaTara!

Known as the "Diet Diva," Tara Gidus is a nationally acclaimed nutrition expert and the official nutritionist of runDisney.