Vegetarian Runner: Embracing the Label

Food for Life distributes food on an internati...
Stuff I eat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I didn’t eat any meat. I didn’t yesterday either. Or the day before. Or the day before that.

You didn’t know I was a vegetarian, did you? That’s okay. I didn’t either. But I am. And have been for a while.

In order to put this story in context, let me give you a a little history and explain why what I eat matters.

At 24 years of age, I weighed approximately 235 pounds (I never weighed myself at my heaviest, so the real number is unknown). Ate everything and lots of it.

At 27, I weighed 107 pounds, ate high volume, low calorie foods that didn’t offer much in the way of nutrient density.

At 28, I discovered vegetarian eating and began to regain my health with an approach to food that was forgiving and focused on putting enough of the right ingredients into my body. As a result of increased nutrition and a focus on quality and quantity, my running started to improve as well. I got injured less, and was able to increase my mileage and intensity.

At 29, I was diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease and literally went gluten-free overnight. It became a huge struggle to find gluten-free, vegetarian food and I found myself obsessing over what I could and could not eat. I discarded the vegetarian label so I didn’t feel so repressed, and regained the weight I needed to (and more) since my diagnosis.

After going omnivorous, I didn’t eat a ton of meat. The idea was that I could if I wanted to, and it somehow mentally helped me to deal with the idea of a gluten-free diet. Everything wasn’t off-limits, and it made the transition easier. However, when I started eating meat again, some of the other habits (high-volume, low calorie foods) have reappeared in my diet as well as fake and processed foods in the form of protein bars and artificial sweeteners. Somehow, being a vegetarian meant that I was also more conscious about what I was putting into my body, and without the label, I was embracing a “eat it all as long as it isn’t full of wheat” approach.

Not ideal.

As a vegetarian, I ran two marathons, including my PR. The last marathon I raced was my slowest. Perhaps not coincidentally it was also during my more recent omnivorous state. I don’t think meat is the sole cause of my decreasing running times and weight gain, but an overall lack of attention to diet quality certainly is a big part of it. Good food gives us the energy we need to train hard and recover better – and I was neglecting a very crucial part of that formula.

Two weeks ago, I realized that I hadn’t eaten meat since Thanksgiving. Not eating meat certainly wasn’t the deprivation I thought it was anymore. In addition, I am and have always been an ethical vegetarian; I strongly believe that a vegetarian diet is the best option for the future of our planet as well as a worldwide solution to world hunger. If I don’t miss meat, my best running was when I was a vegetarian, and it’s something I believe in, why wouldn’t I simply embrace the label again?

Great question. Critics of a vegetarian diet cite concerns about protein needs, anemia, B12 deficiency, and getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids. However, a well-planned vegetarian diet is supported by the US government as well as several prominent physicians and health organizations. The key is a “well-planned” diet. Just like every other serious athlete, vegetarian athletes need to pay attention to their diet to ensure that they are getting the right nutrients and enough of them. For vegetarian runners, that means paying attention to protein intake, iron and taking a B12 supplement.

Brendan Brazier
Fellow endurance athlete and vegetarian, Brendan Brazier

It also doesn’t mean a binge fest on junky “vegan” calories. Well-planned means that meat is replaced with nuts, legumes, seeds and greens – and carbohydrate nutrition is consumed most often in the form of vegetables and fruits. Many health-conscious runners already do that – the only difference for me is I’m not eating meat products. Brendan Brazier does it. Scott Jurek does it (and for 100+ miles)!

I’m embracing the label again. I am a vegetarian. A vegetarian runner.

I’m not going to turn into a vegetarian proselytizer – what we eat is personal, and this is what works for me. Judgement has no place here at Salty Running.

And if I want a hamburger (no bun, of course, gluten-free isn’t optional), you better believe that I’ll eat it.

But here’s what I will tell you. It’s been two weeks since I decided to go vegetarian, and I’ve cooked dinner every night since, which I hadn’t done for almost a year. I bought a juicer. Got all of my vitamins and minerals in on one day without a multivitamin. And I feel great. I ran my fastest 20 miles outside of a race ever. I’m happier, healthier, and faster. Apparently, the vegetarian label is working for me.

I’m going to keep it.

What do you think? Is it possible to eat a vegetarian diet that meets the needs of a runner?

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Ultrarunner, yoga teacher, academic, and feminist. I write about ultrarunning, feminism, and the intersection of running and life.

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  1. I’ve been vegetarian for about two months now and I geniunely love it and haven’t missed meat at all. I do eat dairy, eggs and fish a few times a week, so (as someone else said) I know I wouldn’t be considered vegetarian by the purists. But that’s fine with me. I do also eat meat if I go to someone’s house for dinner…if they’re feeding me, I’ll eat anything they give me! I didn’t want to be one of those annoying guests who need special foods!!

    I haven’t noticed any change really in how I feel in terms of energy etc, I feel fine. It was never about losing weight but I’ll be honest, I expected to look like a skinny vegetarian and alas, that hasn’t happened. I have to be careful not to just fill up on carbs, which is what I’d always like to do.

    It seems like a load of my favourite running bloggers are vegetarian and run times that I can only dream of. I feel that it’s completely possible to be a vegetarian runner as long as you choose your foods carefully!!!

  2. I have gone back and forth with vegetarian eating for 2 years now. I definitely feel better when I’m eating that way, but I get lazy. After awhile I run out of ideas, and not loving to cook doesn’t help much – I’m all about low effort cooking.

    Reading your post have given me a new determination to try it again. In 4 weeks I’m done teaching for 3 mos., and summer would be a perfect time to perfect my shopping and cooking so that it’s not such a chore when I go back to work. Thanks for writing this, it’s given me the nudge I needed!

    1. A 3 month vacation is a great time to figure out new recipes and get the habit of cooking and prepping meals. They say that it’s also the best time to start a new habit (which is why I went off coffee on vacation)! Good luck and keep us updated! I’ll be posting about some of the tapering, carbo-loading and regular vegetarian eating I do over the next few months!

  3. I’ve been a lacto-ovo vegetarian since 1998, and have never felt like it’s interfered with my running. I was never much into eating meat so it was no hardship to give up. I could possibly be vegan except that I don’t care enough about reading labels and dealing with the added stress of going out to eat. I agree with everyone that says you have to do what works best for you and that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way of eating.

    1. Going vegan does imply a ton of label reading and has clothing-related implications! I don’t think I’m there yet, but I definitely want to be more ethical in all of my choices!

  4. Very cool! I also have Celiacs and have recently given up dairy products and eggs. I feel better than I EVER have! We have to listen to our bodies and do what is best for us. Love your articles! Thank you!

    1. Thank you!

      It’s crazy, but I never though I could give up cheese, but I did, and I can feel a difference (especially when I eat it)! It’s definitely about what makes us feel our best!

      1. Last week Matt Frazier (I may have the spelling wrong) of No Meat Athlete had Leo Babuta on his podcast. Leo is hosting the 7 day Vegan Challenge: When Matt asked Leo what do people worry about when they are considering going from Vegetarian to Vegan he said CHEESE! He said that is basically the last thing that people want to give up. I told my partner that and she agreed but for me it would be dark chocolate m&ms:)

        1. I’ll definitely check that out – I love the vegan challenges, just because they always open up new options for me in my diet!

          I think giving up froyo would be the hardest! I haven’t had any yet, but if I want some, I’ll probably give in!

  5. I totally agree with you that a vegetarian is the healthiest diet and the best for the planet. I was vegan and gluten free for 2 years and I really felt healthy in my diet and was very conscious of what I was eating. However, after awhile it just didn’t work for me. My energy and cholesterol continued to decline and I just felt terrible. I started eating more meat and it really helped improve my energy levels. I think being a vegetarian can absolutely work for some people and some runners, but it just wasn’t for me.

    1. I’m glad you aren’t putting pressure in yourself to eat in a way that didn’t make you feel good. If it works, it’s great, but we have to do what is best for our running and kudos to you for figuring that out and doing it!

  6. Well done! It sounds like you’ve found a plan that works for you. You’re flexible where you need to be and stringent where you need to be (gluten-free).

    I have not eaten beef, chicken, or pork in over 13 years and not eaten turkey in 9 (I left that as my last vestige of meat eating but quit when my first child was born so that I would not be a hypocrite). I do eat Fish and find that I have trouble maintaining my iron level (I’m also a frequent blood and blood platelet donor) without it. My son eats fish (and it is one of the only sources of protein he eats – he is a picky eater) but my daughter has recently stopped eating fish (she is 5). I also eat eggs and milk/milk products.

    I think that there are plenty of vegetarians who would not consider me a vegetarian and most carnivores probably consider me a fanatical vegetarian. To me, I’ve just found a diet that works for me and keeps me feeling healthy, energized, and happy.

    1. You have an excellent point – we have to eat what works for us. It doesn’t matter what label we have or what anyone else says. If its healthy and allows us to accomplish our goals, then we should do it without worrying about what anyone else says! I’m glad you figured out what works for you. I know there are some vegans that would be aghast that I eat egg whites, but it works and that’s when I feel like my eating is the cleanest. As long as its working, I’m going to stick to it!