Athletes find success through vegetarianism

Sami Sparber, Staff Reporter

Like her teammates, she goes to practices, games and works hard to keep her body in good condition. On the outside, she may seem like any other swimmer or badminton player, but what sets Niveda Tennety ’16 apart from most of Stevenson’s student athletes is her diet: she’s a vegetarian.

While Tennety initially became a vegetarian because of religious reasons, she later discovered that a plant-based diet carries several health benefits.

“As I grew up, I found that as long as I’m careful about my protein intake and maintain a healthy lifestyle, I can feel great on a daily basis and always have enough energy,” Tennety said.

During her athletic seasons, Tennety’s meals consist of one boiled egg white and almonds for breakfast, rice and pasta with vegetables for lunch and two snacks throughout the day. Unless it’s the night before a swim meet or badminton match, she doesn’t eat carbohydrates, so for dinner, Tennety usually eats quinoa or cracked wheat with two eggs.

Athletes like Tennety choose to leave meat out of their diets—adopting vegetarianism—for a variety of reasons, athletic trainer Nicole Stephens said.

“If done correctly, vegetarians are at a lower risk for diabetes, heart diseases and cancer,” Stephens said. “As long as someone gets essential proteins and carbs and keeps it all in moderation, they can be just as successful as an athlete who eats meat.”

A plant-based diet can also be especially appealing to high schoolers, Stephens said. She has seen student athletes come into the training room who want to know more about  vegetarian lifestyles.

“For kids who are always in a rush, vegetarian food can be quicker and easier to make,” Stephens said. “It also costs less, which is another plus for students who don’t want to spend a lot on food.”

However, the central issue is whether or not vegetarian athletes can perform at the same level as those who eat meat, said Dr. David C. Nieman, professor at the College of Health Sciences at Appalachian State University. Nieman, a vegetarian who has run 58 marathons, said that studies suggest there is no problem with a vegetarian diet.

“There’s nothing magical about a vegetarian diet,” Nieman said. “Time after time, research shows that if you take one group that eats meat and another that doesn’t and keep their carb intake the same, there’s no effect on performance. It’s really all about the carbs.”

That being said, Nieman has found many advantages to vegetarian diets. Plant-based foods are rich in polyphenols. These chemicals—which give fruits and vegetables their purple, red, yellow and orange colors—help protect the body’s tissues from common health problems.

Additionally, many vegetarian athletes experience higher levels of endurance, according to Nieman. However, he pointed out that this can also occur as the result of most healthy, balanced diets—with or without meat. Nieman said that a diet containing essential carbs and proteins can help level the playing field between meat-eaters and vegetarians.

“Any athletic endeavor is compatible with a vegetarian diet,” Nieman said. “Smart and healthy eaters can still perform just as well.”

No matter their reason for doing so, those pursuing vegetarianism should have no problem finding athletic success, according to Nieman and Stephens. Both in the pool and on the badminton court, Tennety is proof of this.

“I feel healthier,” Tennety said. “My performance definitely reflects that.”