Vegetarian athletes excel despite common stigmas

February 8, 2018 — by Karen Chow and Jeffrey Xu

When Maheshwar was part of the San Jose Express Water Polo Club in his freshman year, he was the only vegetarian on the team.

When senior volleyball player Daria Gousseva plays the sport, teammates and spectators alike often marvel at her form and stamina on the court.

Off the court, Gousseva is making a choice that is  increasingly common for athletes: She is vegetarian and thinks her diet had a positive impact on her play this past season.

Gousseva became a vegetarian right before starting girls’ varsity volleyball in the fall.

“I wanted to make the change in order to decrease my environmental footprint because meat releases a lot of carbon into the atmosphere,” Gousseva said. “I don’t want to hurt animals, and it would be hypocritical of me to eat them.”

For a while, though, she found it difficult to get enough protein on a daily basis.

Without a doubt, one of the key components of an athlete’s diet is protein. Protein is necessary for building muscle mass, keeping energy levels high and maintaining their immune systems, and  typical teenage athletes need 52 grams of protein a day to fuel their exercises and games, according to National Academies.

Despite having a meatless diet, Gousseva, who was the captain of the varsity volleyball team, said she felt better on the court during the season since there was “nothing weighing her down” despite weighing the same before her vegetarian diet. Gousseva was the team’s lead setter, which meant she ran the most throughout the games. She is glad she became vegetarian and attributes her increased stamina to the fact that meat is harder to digest.

Indeed, studies done by One Green Planet have shown that a vegetarian diet can result in less internal body clog-up and greater overall endurance. It reduces additional fat, allowing muscle in form more easily. Becoming vegetarian also has many health benefits such as a lowered risks of heart disease, diabetes and certain kinds of cancer.

In order to make up for the loss of protein from her previous diet, Gousseva is consuming proteins such as nuts, beans, grains, quinoa and tofu. She always makes sure to eat meals before and after playing games in order to get enough protein throughout the day.

Unlike Gousseva, sophomore water polo player Ashvin Maheshwar has been a vegetarian since birth because of religious reasons. He has noticed that his diet has negatively impacted his gameplay, where physical contact occurs constantly.

Maheshwar believes that his meat-deficient diet has contributed to making him weaker than some other players.

When Maheshwar was part of the San Jose Express Water Polo Club in his freshman year, he was the only vegetarian on the team. Maheshwar still does his best to include protein in his diet, eating tofu and protein bars. But he believes that if he consumed meat, he would be able to grow muscle more easily.

On the other hand, Maheshwar said that his comparative lack of muscle has strengthened him mentally.

“Although there was no way I could muscle them out, I got better at anticipating plays and fastbreaks,” Maheshwar said.

This was what he thinks led him to become the leading scorer of the JV water polo team, scoring 27 goals this past season.

Ultimately, Maheshwar views being a vegetarian, and consequently, his small muscle mass, as one of his weaknesses that he has been able to convert into a strength.

“I obviously still get muscled out a lot,” Maheshwar said. “But I’ve been able to show them [other players] that they can never count me out for just being small.”

Gousseva does not see meat as key to athletic performance and recommends people to take small steps into alternative ways to get protein.

In fact, Gousseva uses professional tennis player Venus Williams as her example and role model. Williams was diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune diseases that causes dry eyes and joint fatigue. But after switching to a vegan diet, along with other medications, Williams was able to step back onto the court and is currently ranked fifth in the world and first in the U.S.

“For the people who argue that vegetarians can’t be pro athletes, I would say Venus Williams is a vegan and she competed in the Olympics,” Gousseva said. “So it's totally possible for an amazing athlete to be vegetarian or vegan.”

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