Kendrick Ferris in 2012 (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Claremont High School

Opinion: Athletes can be vegan, too

“But like… How do you get your protein?” Is a question that most vegan athletes claim to receive daily, along with, “Doesn’t an athlete like you need to eat meat?” and “What about calcium?” These questions are unavoidable. But as athletes both on a professional and high school level consistently prove, while these are valid questions, it seems that athletes are undoubtedly able to successfully adopt a vegan diet, and can sustain as much protein and calcium as they need.  

Contrary to popular belief, foods high in protein and calcium do not translate to animal products alone. In fact, they only constitute a small portion of foods high in these necessary nutrients. In order to receive sufficient amounts of protein, vegan athletes typically consume lentils, dark leafy greens such as spinach, soybeans, and seeds. Twenty to 40 percent of the calories in beans, broccoli, and spinach come from protein, which nearly rivals protein content in animal products, according to Livestrong.

Not only that, but there is an enormous societal misconception surrounding the question of exactly how much protein the average person should be consuming in the first place. The World Health Organization suggests the average person should receive 5 percent of their calories from protein. This is while the average person consumes 16 percent of their calories as protein, usually in the animal form.

While athletes may need slightly more than the 5 percent recommendation, considering cooked beans and legumes are not the only plant-based foods containing up to 30 percent protein content, even the strictest vegans receive over the World Health Organization’s recommendation.  

OK, but what about calcium? Tofu, kale, oats, among other plant-based options, have proven to contain even more calcium than a glass of milk in specific quantities, according to Business Insider.

Veganism not compromising an athlete’s ability proves itself in practice, too, as there is currently a plethora of successful professional athletes that follow a strictly plant-based diet. Tennis player Venus Williams stresses her vegan diet helped reduce the symptoms of her auto-immune disease. Oakland Raider wide receiver Griff Whalen credits his NFL success to veganism. Perhaps most notably, Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Ferris was vegan long before he was the lone male to compete for Team USA’s Olympic weightlifting team in Rio, when Farris broke the 94 kg U.S. record by lifting 377 kg (831.1lb) during the trials in March.

Claremont High School (CHS), too, has exceptionally talented vegan athletes on campus, including 10th grader Angie Gushue. Gushue has been vegan for five years, vegetarian her entire life, and is arguably one of the most accomplished athletic underclassmen at CHS. She has competed on varsity cross-country since freshman year and gone to Nike’s cross-country nationals both years since then. Lily Widrig, also a sophomore, has competed on varsity cross country and CHS’s track team while being a strict vegan for going on a year.  

“The biggest question we always get is, ‘where do you get your protein?’ But this is a big misconception, protein can come from lentils, beans, nuts, vegan cheese, vegan meat, soybeans, almond milk, cashew milk, and nut butter,” Gushue and Widrig said. “Fun fact: soy milk has more calcium than cow’s milk.”

As the animal protein and calcium myth is debunked time and time again, it is evident that athletes can, in fact, successfully adopt a vegan diet, and maybe even better their performance in doing so. They, too, can refuse to support a problematic animal agriculture industry without being put at a competitive disadvantage.