According to stereotypes, vegetarians are weak and sickly, lacking in the life force that only meat foods can provide. But Olympic athletes who are vegetarian prove that theory wrong, and there are more than a few of them. If vegetarianism were necessarily that bad for the human body, there's just no way that vegetarians could rank among the top performers in their countries, let alone in the entire world.
Now, it's definitely possible to eat an unhealthy vegetarian diet, too. I think we all know a vegetarian who seems to subsist mostly on cheese and fries and cookies. If you put garbage in, you'll get garbage out, so I doubt those vegetarians are going to win any Olympic medals anytime soon. Of course, plenty of omnivorous diets are unhealthy too, and most omnivorous people aren't winning the Olympics, either.
Remember, Olympic athletes of all dietary preferences are usually working with entire teams of support staff who help them to get what they need, physically and mentally, and to help them troubleshoot any problems that may arise. Maybe different diets suit different people, too (after all, we don't all share the exact same evolutionary heritage). I can't promise that if you become vegetarian, you'll start enjoying athletic success, but at least now you have one less excuse to give a more plant-based diet a try.
1. April Ross
American volleyball player April Ross, who took home silver from the London Olympics in 2012 and is returning to Rio this year, cut out meat in 2015. As she told Beyond Meat, an alternative protein company, Ross doesn't miss meat and has never felt stronger.
2. Emil Voigt
Vegetarianism can seem sort of trendy, but millennials (and millennial athletes) definitely didn't invent it. British runner Emil Voigt won the Olympic 5-mile race as a vegetarian, and that was way back in 1908!
3. Lizzie Armistead
Another British vegetarian athlete, Lizzie Armistead, cycled her way to Olympic silver more recently, in London in 2012. Though Armistead missed out on earning a medal this year in Rio, it doesn't seem that her long-time vegetarianism (she first expressed interest in going meat-free at age 10!) had anything to do with it.
4. Chris Campbell
This American wrestler had an unusual career. After first wrestling in his 20s, Campbell made a return to wrestling later in life and won Olympic bronze in Barcelona in 1992. In addition to being old for a wrestler, Campbell was a long-time vegetarian athlete. As he told the New York Times, he first went vegetarian in 1979 for health reasons and later decided to keep it up for moral reasons as well.
5. Debbi Lawrence
Lawrence, an Olympic race walker (yes, race walking is a thing), competed in the Olympics in Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996), and Sydney (2000). Once told she needed to eat meat to compete, this successful vegetarian athlete has proven the haters wrong with a carefully planned diet rich in whey, tofu, and plant-based supplements.
6. Martina Navratilova
Navratilova, a Czech-American tennis star, played her first and last Olympics in Athens in 2004 at the impressive age of 47. She publicly credits an unprocessed, plant-based diet for her continued peak athletic performance.
7. Hannah Teter
Snowboarder Hannah Teter became vegetarian after her first Olympics in 2006, but before her next two Olympics in 2010 and 2014. As she told The Huffington Post, "I have such a love for animals that I can’t justify having their heads cut off for me." It doesn't get any more straightforward than that.
8. Sushil Kumar
Kumar, an Indian Olympic wrestler who won silver in London and bronze in Beijing, manages to grapple his victory without meat or eggs. According to Kumar, the reduced menu presented by "pure" vegetarianism (aka lacto vegetarianism) is actually a benefit, making his life simpler. He eats cereal, yogurt, flatbreads, and vegetables, of course. According to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Olympic organizers do provide enough vegetarian and Indian food.
9. Dylan Wykes
Although marathoner Wykes won't be able to run in Rio due to illness, this Canadian (who participated in the 2012 London Olympics) became a vegetarian for ethical reasons. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Wykes admits that he's not sure that vegetarianism is good for his performance. He balances his ethical convictions with his athletic ambitions by making sure he eats alternative sources of protein (like lentils and quinoa) with each and every meal.
Images: Food for Athletes/YouTube; Giphy (3)