Athletes’ diets: eating your way to the top

By Erin Shumlich

Alley Lind-Kenny is like any other student-athlete. During the season, she straps on skates every day and focuses on keeping her body in top physical condition, ready to scramble for the puck.

As a hockey player, Lind-Kenny, like her teammates, needs to remain fit and prepared to exert her body to its full potential.

Unlike her teammates, however, Lind-Kenny is a vegetarian, a decision she made when she was 14 and has stuck to since.

“I did it for a month just as a personal thing for myself to show I could set a goal and do it,” said Lind-Kenny before embarking on a cycling trip across Germany for the summer. “At the end of the month I realized, wow, I don’t need to eat meat and haven’t [had it] since.”

She has always been an ovo-lacto vegetarian– her diet still consisting of milk and egg products.

“I tried to go vegan, but I have this overwhelming admiration for all milk products.”

Lind-Kenny’s dietary restriction has not deterred her athleticism, she said her diet fits perfectly with her athletic lifestyle, but does admit she waited until the hockey off-season before taking it to the extreme.

“I deliberately didn’t want to [go vegan] when I was playing hockey because it would be too intense of a restriction to adapt to during the season, milk was a huge part of my diet. It would have been tough on my schedule– I wouldn’t have had time to adapt and come up with a new dietary plan.”

Lind-Kenny, who has been steady on skates since she was three, has been an important part of the McGill Martlets women’s hockey team for the last four years. She said the team has always been supportive, but it hasn’t always been that way on previous teams. Coaches have often questioned her ability as an athlete, but with nutritionists available at McGill, it’s the least of her worries.

“I think especially before I got to McGill it was kind of seen as this weird, awkward burden that people didn’t know how to deal with,” claims Lind-Kenny. “Like when we would go out for team meals people would be like ‘oh my god, what are you going to eat?’ I mean, every restaurant has a vegetarian option so it’s not a big deal, there is no need to stress about it.”

She said it’s the same with any diet, you just need to be aware of how to get the proper nutrients.

Going Vegan

Cyclist Cameron Novak, who has been vegan for five years, said “the proof is in the pudding” and challenges anyone who questions his abilities as an athlete to a race.

“Try racing me and see what a vegan can do– I’ll rock your world and keep you in the dust.”

Novak started Cycle-Bird Courier, a courier company in Montreal, in 2008 and since then has biked over 10,000 kilometres around Montreal.

“When I first started the company, I was alone so I would be riding 100 km or more, sometimes in a day, doing all my deliveries. It has put me in some of the best shape ever. I can maintain a constant speed all day without exhaustion and am only slowed down by traffic or a strong head wind.”

Novak said he was teased about his dietary choice when he first became a courier, but a vegan diet has never affected him in a negative way.

“I work my ass off and I don’t think people even talk about me being vegan anymore. I don’t get sick very often, I feel great almost every day and generally have not had problems. I wonder if one day something will happen, but as of now, no major health issues or problems.”

Novak said he was a vegetarian for one year before cutting out all animal products and has not once regretted the decision.

“I should probably go see my doctor soon for a general check-up, but my iron levels have never been low and I have full, rosy cheeks and good, strong leg muscles.”

Novak has never been to a dietician, counted calories or used vitamins and has, as of yet, never experienced adverse effects.

“I think my philosophy has always been to just constantly eat,” he said. “If I switch up my meals day to day, and eat lots of veggies while throwing in some random stuff here and there, I’ll be fine. I am not an expert by any means and I will never pretend to be.”

Nutritionist’s knowledge

So can athletes really have a proper diet while cutting out a huge source of nutrition? There is nothing that screams protein as much as a huge steak, but more and more individuals are choosing alternative sources. According to a 2008 study by the American Dietetic Association, approximately 0.5 per cent of Americans are vegans and 4 per cent of adults follow a vegetarian-based diet.

Sarah Remmer, a dietitian for Nutrio Consulting, specializes in sports nutrition, among other things. She said it is difficult for vegans to get proper nutrients to begin with, let alone individuals who are vegan and athletes.

“It’s really hard for vegans to get enough nutrients in general, and even more so being an athlete having higher nutrient and energy requirements. I would say that it is definitely possible to do so, but that person would need to be seeing a nutritionist to make sure their meal plans are well-balanced with protein and energy.”

People with dietary restrictions, like vegetarianism or veganism, can lead quite healthy lives if careful, but according to Remmer, most people should be more aware of replacing nutrients with vegetarian sources. Post-workout snacks, carbs to replenish energy, protein for muscle tissue and staying hydrated are important– athletes should eat snacks every three to four hours.

“What we do worry about with vegetarianism is if the person who decides to go vegetarian is not careful about their food choices, they are really just taking out a huge food group,” Remmer said. “[Lack of] protein, iron and vitamin B12 is detrimental, especially if someone is really active, because they are not getting enough protein to sustain repair of muscle tissues and other tissues and sustain their energy levels.”

Athletes need well-balanced diets to begin with and they generally can get the right amount of fibre and protein through vegetarian options including eggs, dairy, beans, lentils, seeds and quinoa.

“Iron is really important, especially for women in sports. You can get all of the nutrients if you are really careful getting the proper vegetarian source of protein, taking a multivitamin and that kind of thing,” said Remmer.

Vegan athletes

Many athletes who have chosen to go vegan claim it improves their performance, including Brendan Brazier, a professional Ironman triathlete and two-time Canadian ultramarathon champion. Georges Laraque, a professional hockey player dubbed the number one enforcer by Sports Illustrated in 2008, and Carl Lewis, who has won 10 Olympic medals, nine gold, are also vegan.

Robert Cheeke is a vegan body builder that defies all stereotypes.

“Though a vegan diet is often a topic of concern when it comes to athletic performance, those concerns are unwarranted,” said Cheeke in a blog post on his website “As a vegan bodybuilder, I compete in a sport dominated by meat eaters, most of whom scoff at the idea that one could get sufficient protein from plants to be competitive.”

As a 2005 INBA Northwestern USA Natural Bodybuilding novice champion, Cheeke shows that a vegan lifestyle can be suitable for anyone.

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