Eleanor Harvey’s 12th year was a big one — it was the year she started fencing, and it was the year she decided to go vegan.
The fifth-year in psychology finished first in the 2016 NCAA Fencing Championships and competed in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, all while maintaining a plant-based diet.
“I feel like if anything [a vegan diet] helps me because you have to be super aware all the time of what you’re eating, you can’t just like pig out on a random thing placed in front of you,” Harvey said. “I think that’s a good thing if you’re vegan or not.”
Many athletes need to pay special attention to their diets to remain physically fit, which can result in scrutiny when choosing to eliminate protein from animal sources.
When Harvey began fencing, she said her coach required her to submit blood work to prove she was getting the nutrients necessary to train and compete. Once she proved to him that she was in good health, he dropped the subject.
“It just shows that you don’t need meat to be a successful athlete,” Harvey said. “When I’m at a competition I’m never the one that’s more tired, it’s usually the other person.”
Harvey isn’t alone in noticing that she has more energy on a vegan diet.
Stepfanie Romine, who once resided in Columbus and is a health coach and co-author of “The No-Meat Athlete Cookbook,” said plant-based diets often result in higher energy levels for athletes of any caliber.
“If your goal is just to get overall stronger, improve your endurance, become more flexible, whatever your general fitness goal is, you’re going to be fine on a vegan diet and you’re going to find that not only are you fine, but you’re feeling better because you’re helping your recovery and you have more energy,” Romine said.
While vegan athletes receive pushback for not getting enough protein, Romine said the claim isn’t true unless a person has a medical issue that prevents them from breaking down proteins properly.
Conversely, Romine also said people who do eat meat might not be getting enough fiber, which is more readily available in diets that rely solely on plants, and helps with regularity, digestion and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.
“You’re going to get really high amounts of [fiber], or at least the daily recommended amount with a plant-based diet, because fiber is only found in plants,” Romine said.
The basic protein recommendation for the average person in a day is eight-tenths grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, Romine said. The upper limit, which is what endurance athletes would need, is 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Romine said since she and Matt Frazier, co-author of “The No-Meat Athlete Cookbook,” write specifically for athletes, they occupy a niche space in the vegan community.
However, except for people who need very specific diets for sports like bodybuilding or endurance races, she said most vegan cookbooks will work for athletes looking for vegan recipes.
“Any plant-based cookbook, as long as it’s not the type that sets out to simply replicate comfort food and junk food, is going to be suitable for a vegan athlete,” she said.
Ohio State gymnast Samuel DeWitt, a fourth-year in environmental policy, isn’t vegan but has been a vegetarian for six months, requiring him to derive many of his
nutrients from plant-based sources.
DeWitt has yet to compete while on his new diet. However, he isn’t concerned about his potential performance because, like Harvey, he has felt more energetic since making the switch.
“I feel lighter. I’ve lost probably like 5-7 pounds, and I feel better,” Dewitt said. “I remember after I would eat a lot of meat in one sitting you kind of just feel really bloated, and I never get that feeling anymore so that’s good.”
DeWitt said he chose to go vegetarian because of the negative impact the meat industry has on the environment and for animal rights, however he hesitated to make the switch.
“What really made me do it is we went as a team to a Brazilian Steakhouse where they go around with all of the different meats on sticks and offer it to you,” DeWitt said. “It just really grossed me out.”
Despite the concerns of coaches, teammates and strangers, which Harvey said she has also faced, DeWitt said ultimately people should not be concerned about his choice to forgo meat.
“It’s not as big of a deal as people make it out to be, and it’s usually makes you feel weird when people question, like when you go over to someone’s place for dinner or you want to go out to dinner or you’re at some event it’s always kind of awkward,” he said. “People freak out over the fact that you don’t eat meat. I’ve found that most people that are vegetarian or vegan typically know how to handle that and it’s not as big of a deal for them as people think it is.”