Nutrition & Health   > The Vegetarian Athletes


Adapted from "Diet for a New America" by John Robbins


Numerous studies, published in the most reputable scientific and medical journals, have compared the strength and stamina of people eating different diet-styles. According to these studies, all of them rigorous, the common prejudice that meat gives strength and endurance, though plastered on thousands of billboards, and drummed into us since childhood, has absolutely no foundation in fact.




At Yale, Professor Irving Fisher designed a series of tests to compare the stamina and strength of meat-eaters against that of vegetarians. He selected men from three groups: meat-eating athletes, vegetarian athletes, and vegetarian sedentary subjects. Fisher reported the results of his study in the Yale Medical Journal. His findings do not seem to lend a great deal of credibility to the popular prejudices that hold meat to be a builder of strength.


"Of the three groups compared, the . . . flesh-eaters showed far less endurance than the abstainers (vegetarians), even when the latter were leading a sedentary life."


Overall, the average score of the vegetarians was over double the average score of meat-eaters, even though half of the vegetarians were sedentary people, while all of the meat-eaters tested were athletes. After analyzing all the factors that might have been involved in the results, Fisher concluded that:


". . . the difference in endurance between the flesh-eaters and the abstainers (was due) entirely to the difference in their diet . . . There is strong evidence that a . . . non-flesh . . . diet is conducive to endurance."


A comparable study was done by Dr. J. Ioteyko of the Academie de Medicine of Paris. Dr. Ioteyko compared the endurance of vegetarians and meat-eaters from all walks of life in a variety of tests. The vegetarians averaged two to three times more stamina than the meat-eaters. Even more remarkably, they took only one-fifth the time to recover from exhaustion compared to their meat-eating rivals.


In 1968, a Danish team of researchers tested a group of men on a variety of diets, using a stationary bicycle to measure their strength and endurance. The men were fed a mixed diet of meat and vegetables for a period of time, and then tested on the bicycle. The average time they could pedal before muscle failure was 114 minutes. These same men at a later date were fed a diet high in meat, milk and eggs for a similar period and then re-tested on the bicycles. On the high meat diet, their pedaling time before muscle failure dropped dramatically -- to an average of only 57 minutes. Later, these same men were switched to a strictly vegetarian diet, composed of grains, vegetables and fruits, and then tested on the bicycles. The lack of animal products didn't seem to hurt their performance -- they peddled an average of 167 minutes.


Wherever and whenever tests of this nature have been done, the results have been similar. This does not lend a lot of support to the supposed association of meat with strength and stamina.


Doctors in Belgium systematically compared the number of times vegetarians and meat-eaters could squeeze a grip-meter. The vegetarians won handily with an average of 69, whist the meat-eaters averaged only 38. As in all other studies which have measured muscle recovery time, here, too, the vegetarians bounced back from fatigue far more rapidly than did the meat-eaters.


I know of many other studies in the medical literature which report similar findings. But I know of not a single one that has arrived at different results. As a result, I confess, it has gotten rather difficult for me to listen seriously to the meat industry proudly proclaiming "meat gives strength" in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.




On the athletic field, as in the laboratory, the endurance and accomplishments of vegetarians makes me question whether we need animal products for fitness. The achievements of vegetarian athletes are particularly noteworthy considering the relatively small percentage of vegetarian entrants. Athletes after all, are not immune from the cultural conditioning that meat alone gives the required strength and stamina. Yet some have adopted vegetarian diets and the results invite scrutiny.


Dave Scott, of Davis, California is a scholar-athlete who is well acquainted with the scientific literature on diet and health. He is also universally recognized as the greatest triathlete in the world. He has won Hawaii's legendary Ironman Triathlon a record four times, including three years in a row, while no one else has ever won it more than once. In three consecutive years, Dave has broken his own world's record for the event, which consists, in succession, of a 2.4 mile ocean swim, a 112 mile cycle, and then a 26.2 mile run. Dave's college major was exercise physiology, and he says he keeps up on the latest developments in the field by reading "an incredible amount" of books and journals. He calls the idea that people, and especially athletes, need animal protein a "ridiculous fallacy." There are many people who consider Dave Scott the fittest man who ever lived. Dave Scott is a vegetarian.


I don't know how you might determine the world's fittest man. But if it isn't Dave Scott it might well be Sixto Linares. This remarkable fellow tells of the time:


". . . when I became a vegetarian in high school, my parents were very very upset that I wouldn't eat meat . . . After fourteen years, they are finally accepting that it's good for me. They know it's not going to kill me."


During the fourteen years that Sixto's parents begrudgingly came to accept that his diet wasn't killing him, they watched their son set the world's record for the longest single day triathlon, and display his astounding endurance, speed and strength in benefits for the American Heart Association, United Way, the Special Children's Charity, the Leukemia Society of America, and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. So deeply ingrained, however, is the prejudice against vegetarianism that even as their son was showing himself possibly to be the fittest human being alive, his parents only reluctantly came to accept his diet. Sixto says he experimented for awhile with a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (no meat, but some dairy products and eggs), but now eats no eggs or dairy products and feels better for it.


It doesn't seem to be weakening him too much. In June, 1985, at a benefit for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Sixto broke the world record for the one day triathlon by swimming 4.8 miles, cycling 185 miles, and then running 52.4 miles.


Robert Sweetgall, of Newark, Delaware, is another fellow who doesn't just sit around all day. He is world's premier ultra-distance walker. In the last three years, Robert has walked a distance greater than the 24,900 mile equatorial circumference of the earth. He says he is a:

". . . vegetarian for moral reasons; there's enough food on earth for us not to have to kill animals to eat."


Though not chosen for its health value alone, Sweetgall's vegetarian diet doesn't seem to put him at too much of a disadvantage. After walking a 10,600 mile perimeter around the United States, he set out on a loop that would take him, via about 20 million footsteps, through parts of all 50 states within a year.


Then there is Edwin Moses. No man in sports history has ever dominated an event as Edwin Moses has dominated the 400 meter hurdles. The Olympic Gold Medalist went eight years without losing a race, and when Sports Illustrated gave him their 1984 "Sportsman of the Year" award, the magazine said:


"No athlete in any sport is so respected by his peers as Moses is in track and field."


Edwin Moses is a vegetarian.


Paavo Nurmi, the "Flying Finn," set twenty world records in distance running, and won nine Olympic medals. He was a vegetarian.


Bill Pickering of Great Britain set the world record for swimming the English channel, but that performance of his pales beside the fact that at the age of 48 he set a new world record for swimming the Bristol Channel. Bill Pickering is a vegetarian.


Murray Rose was only 17 when he won three gold medals in the 1956 Olympic games in Melbourne, Australia. Four years later, at the 1960 Olympiad, he became the first man in history to retain his 400 meter freestyle title, and later he broke both his 400 meter and 1500 meter freestyle world records. Considered by many to be the greatest swimmer of all time, Rose has been a vegetarian since he was two.


You might not expect to find a vegetarian in world championship body-building competitions. But Andreas Cahling, the Swedish body builder who won the 1980 Mr. International title, is a vegetarian, and has been for over ten years of highest level international competition. One magazine reported that Cahling's:


"...showings at the 'Mr. Universe' competitions, and at the professional body-building world championships, give insiders the feeling he may be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger."


Another fellow who is not exactly a weakling is Stan Price. He holds the world record for the bench press in his weight class. Stan Price is a vegetarian. Roy Hilligan is another gentlemen in whose face you probably wouldn't want to kick sand. Among his many titles is the coveted "Mr. America" crown. Roy Hilligan is a vegetarian.


Pierreo Verot holds the world's record for downhill endurance skiing. He is a vegetarian.


Estelle Gray and Cheryl Marek hold the world's record for cross-country tandem cycling. They are complete vegetarians, not even consuming eggs or dairy products.


The world's record for distance butterfly stroke swimming is held jointly by James and Jonathan deDonato. They are both vegetarians.

If you wanted to be an evangelist for the "meat gives strength" cult, and were looking for a 97-pound vegetarian weakling to pick on, you'd probably be better off staying away from Ridgely Abele. He recently won the United States Karate Association World Championship, taking both the Master Division Title for fifth degree black belt, and the overall Grand Championship. Abele, who has won eight national championships, is a complete vegetarian, who eats no meat, eggs, or dairy products.


The list goes on and on. Toronto, Canada, is the home of a national fitness institute that tests all the top athletes in that country. For a number of years tennis pro Peter Burwash consistently ranked between 50th and 60th. Then as an experiment, he switched to a vegetarian diet, though he thought at the time that vegetarians were emaciated, unhealthy creatures. Now, however, he knows better. One year after making the switch, Peter Burwash was tested at the institute and found to have the highest fitness index of any athlete in any sport in the entire country of Canada.


Another man you might have a hard time convincing that a meat diet-style yields superior physical performance is Marine Captain Alan Jones of Quantico, Virginia. I would never have believed that one could be a vegetarian Marine, but Jones is managing to do it, and his health doesn't seem to be suffering too much for his efforts.


Although crippled by polio when he was five years old, Jones is another candidate for world's fittest man and has amassed a record of physical accomplishments unmatched by any human being that ever lived. Not only does he hold the world record for continuous situps (17,003), but in one particular 15-month period he accomplished possibly the most remarkably array of physical achievements ever attained by a human being:


September, 1974 -- Lifted a 75-pound barbell over his head 1,600 times in 19 hours


February, 1975 -- Made 3,802 basketball free throws in 12 hours, including 96 out of 100


June, 1975 -- Swam 500 miles in 11 days through the Snake and Columbia Rivers, from Lewiston, Idaho to the Pacific Ocean


September, 1975 -- Skipped rope 43,000 times in five hours


October, 1975 -- Skipped rope 100,00 times in 23 hours


November, 1975 -- Swam over 68 miles in the University of Oregon swimming pool, without a sleeping break


December, 1975 -- Swam one-half mile in 32F (0C) water, without a wet suit, in the Missouri River near Sioux City, Iowa


January, 1976 -- Performed 51,000 situps in 76 hours


Meanwhile, across the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese are every bit as serious and fanatic about baseball as are Americans. So, in October 1981, when Tatsuro Hirooka took over as manager of a professional team who had finished in last place the previous season, he knew some changes had to be made. But the changes he made were not the ones most of us would expect. He told the players on the Siebu Lions that meat and other animal foods increase athletes' susceptibility to injury, and decrease their ability to perform. Therefore, said the new manager, like it or not, they were all going on a vegetarian diet.


The Lions took quite a ribbing during the 1982 season. One rival manager sneered they were "only eating weeds," and made some rather derogatory remarks about their masculinity. But the sneerer had to eat his words when the Lions beat his team for the Pacific League Championship, and then went on to defeat the Chunichi Dragons in the equivalent of our World Series. Lest anyone think this was a fluke, the vegetarian Lions came back the next year, and once again trounced the opposition, winning again both the League and National Championship.


Please note that I have not provided this listing of athletic accomplishments of some vegetarians because I think this in itself proves the vegetarian diet superior. It doesn't. It proves only that for these given individuals, with their specific biochemical individualities, a vegetarian diet worked superbly at a particular time.


But when we couple the experiences of Dave Scott, Edwin Moses, Murray Rose, Alan Jones and all the rest, with the data from systematic laboratory research published in reputable scientific journals, then, perhaps, we might have serious grounds to doubt the widely held prejudice that assumes greater weakness as an inevitable consequence of a vegetarian diet.