Let me start by saying that I don’t care what type of diet an athlete follows. If an athlete eats in a particular way and feels healthy while displaying health, then great. What I do care about is basing choices on misinformation and propaganda. So, let’s start by defining exactly what type of eaters humans are meant to be.
There is little ability to refute that humans are omnivores. This is stated clearly and up front on some vegetarian websites as well. Here’s one example: “Humans are classic examples of omnivores in all relevant anatomical traits. There is no basis in anatomy or physiology for the assumption that humans are pre-adapted to the vegetarian diet. For that reason, the best arguments in support of a meat-free diet remain ecological, ethical, and health concerns.”
Omnivores are opportunistic feeders. We adapted to the strategy to eat what we could find in order to survive. Another example of an opportunistic eater is the bear. They will eat whatever they can find – from meat to fish to fresh berries and so on. And they do so without shame. The underpinning here is that, as humans in civilized societies we have infinite food options in front of us, we have the ability to choose how and what we eat. Animals purpose-built as carnivores or as herbivores lack this ability to choose.
One area of confusion is when people start beating a particular type of diet drum without really understanding the distinction between taxonomy (classifying organisms in certain categories) and diet (dietary characteristics). Members of the mammalian Order Carnivora may or may not be exclusive meat eaters. Those which eat only meat are carnivores. Dietary adaptations are not limited by a simple dichotomy between herbivores (strict vegetarians) and carnivores (strict meat-eaters), but include frugivores (predominantly fruit), gramnivores (nuts, seeds, etc.), folivores (leaves), insectivores (carnivore-insects and small vertebrates), and more. It is also important to remember that the relation between the form (anatomy/physiology) and function (behavior) is not always one-to-one. Individual anatomical structures can serve one or more functions and similar functions can be served by several forms. In other words, there do not appear to be many hard-and-fast rules.
One lens into the irresponsibility of how some people justify certain dietary decisions is those who beat the frugivore and vegetarian drums while pointing to our closest relatives and say, “See, primates and great apes don’t eat meat. Look how powerful they are just subsisting on plants. Humans should turn their noses up at meat, too.” Well, what a lot of people seem to either not know or forget is that we are most genetically similar to chimpanzees. And, guess what? Chimps are omnivores. They hunt, kill and eat any animals they can. In other words, they are opportunistic when the chance to eat meat presents itself.
With growing interest, I’ve loosely followed the careers of some athletes in various sports who openly discuss changes to their dietary choices. One notable example is Arian Foster, a stellar NFL running back for the Houston Texans. Foster is arguably the most talented runner in the game, someone who can do it all. A couple years back, in an interview before the 2014 season, he stated he was a newly-converted vegan. While not fat or overweight, he said he had slimmed down a little bit, and felt both faster and quicker on the football field. And it showed as the 2014 football season began. He lit up the field. However, in the latter half of the season, his body started breaking down. But, football players get injured; it’s part of the game. As the 2015 season loomed, Foster tore his groin and required surgery, consequently missing the first few games of the season. Then, after a handful of games, Foster ruptured his Achilles tendon in a non-contact capacity. When the ball was hiked, he took one step, then another and his heel visibly popped and dropped to the turf. Foster collapsed to the ground, first looking like he had simply slipped on the grass. After all, no one had even come close to touching him. When he stayed down, the gravity of the situation started dawning on everyone. He immediately went on IR (injured reserve) for the rest of this season. It is widely wondered if his pro career is indeed over.
This is just one example and, certainly, is not meant to intone that if you don’t eat meat that your body will unequivocally fall apart. However, it does raise this question. If we in fact restrict the types of foods we eat (food allergies aside and, of course, ignoring highly processed junk), are we then robbing the body of important nutrients that it is hard-wired to need in order to function optimally? Protein is not protein, so while plant-based protein is wonderful and does the body good, it’s made of different stuff than meat-based protein. And visa versa. The Paleo diet seems to rely too heavily on proteins and other types of dietary restrictions, thinking of humans more as carnivores than true omnivores.
I’ll admit, we are sentient beings with morals and consciences which can make it more ethically challenging to make certain food choices. Videos of slaughterhouse cruelty tug at our heart strings (mine included) and we wonder “at what cost?” But, how many of us have it in us to hunt what we kill? I know I do not. At the end of the day, I choose to eat various types of meat because I know I feel better when I do and my body is meant to consume and process meat. The operative word is “choose” and it brings us full circle. We humans are omnivores. We are purpose-built to eat anything and everything because from our nomadic roots we had to adapt to nature’s smorgasbord in order to survive. Despite settling down and becoming sedentary civilizations, our hard-wired dietary necessities have not changed.
Please, choose the diet that you feel does your body the most good and that allows you to best sleep at night. But, at the same time, please do not beat your drum loudly as if yours is the only viable option. It’s not. But, if you find yourself breaking down or getting sick or injured, and you are restricting your diet in certain ways, it may make sense to re-think your choices. At the end of the day, food is nothing more than fuel. And, if the body is not receiving the right mix of fuel or enough of it, then like any machine it will break down. If your food choices allow you to sleep at night but your well-being is suffering for it, then you have another type of choice to make, right?
What I’m advocating here is thoughtful choice that leads to fueling your body in the way it needs in order to perform optimally – not just in races, but also day in and day out.