Nutrition: To Eat Meat or Not to Eat Meat

Nutrition: To Eat Meat or Not to Eat Meat

By Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN  | Monday, October 21, 2019

Meat. For many athletes the word “meat” has both positive and negative associations for health and performance.

Meat used to be a prized food for athletes. Rich in protein and vitamins and minerals, there was a day when most pre-event meals include a big, juicy steak. As we learned more about the importance of the timing of food before athletic competitions we moved away from heavy, fat-laden meals and substituted chicken for steak. Fast-forward and today’s athletes are more likely to consume a protein-containing bar in place of eating real food.

What’s best? Should you avoid beef and pork and adopt a vegan lifestyle? This is a personal choice. But two things are clear:

  • No matter what you choose, you still need good nutrition for athletic performance, for repair and recovery after hard exercise, and for young swimmers, for growth and development.
  • When you make a shift in your food choices you often replace one food with another and the food you substitute should also be nutrient-rich.

Case in point, a young swimmer told me she was starting a vegan diet and that after swim practice her friends liked to go to McDonald’s. I asked her what she would do when they went to the fast food place and she said, “I’ll just have fries and a coke.” While her choices qualify as vegan, it is hardly a nutrient-rich recovery meal.

Another example, a swimmer switched from cow’s milk to a plant-based milk because he said dairy was “too processed.”  Yet, let’s compare ingredient lists for the two:

Fat-free milk ingredients: Fat-free milk, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D3.

Almond milk ingredients: Almond milk (filtered water, almonds), evaporated cane sugar, calcium carbonate, sea salt, potassium citrate, carrageenan, sunflower lecithin, vitamin A palmitate, vitamin D2, D-alpha-tocopherol (natural vitamin E).

Besides the ingredient list, a big difference is the nutrition delivered by the two milks: 1 cup of milk contains 8 grams of protein whereas almond milk has only 1 gram. Another nutrient in short supply in most plant-based milks is potassium; 350 milligrams in milk vs. 35 milligrams in most plant-based milks. So clearly, plant-based milks don’t deliver the same nutrition as cow’s milk.

Plant-based milks are good options for those with milk allergies, but if you are looking for a plant-based milk alternative, soy milk provides a better nutritional and protein profile than the others.

If you choose to be vegan, take some time to learn about meeting your nutrition needs. See a registered dietitian and visit websites like the Vegetarian Resource Group or the Plant-Powered Dietitian. Be sure to include plenty of beans, peas, and lentils, and as mentioned before, don’t avoid soy. Soy milk, edamame, soy nuts, or soy-meat alternatives are good choices for vegan athletes.

For those who eat meat, here are some tips for nutrient-rich choices:

If you eat beef, choose lean cuts.  By definition, a lean cut has 10 grams or less of total fat and less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat in one 3.5-ounce serving. A quick way to know if a cut of meat is lean is to look for the word “round” or “loin” in the name. Pork loin, ground round, eye-of-round, or sirloin are all lean cuts. A 3-ounce (size of a deck of cards) lean cut of beef or pork provides about 20 grams of high-quality protein and 10 essential nutrients.

  • Lean pork is also a high-quality meat. Yes, there are fattier cuts of pork (ribs, bacon, sausage) but pork chops or pork loins are lean and contain quality proteins, packed with vitamins and minerals.
  • While there several plant-based burgers on the market today (Impossible, Beyond Meat) they are not nutritionally superior to lean beef burgers. Enjoy them if you want to choose less meat, but don’t think they are healthful options.
  • Consider a beef-plant mixture for a burger. One of my favorite way to make burgers is to mix about 2-ounces of lean ground beef with about ½ cup of finely chopped mushrooms and form patties for the grill. The mushrooms add volume and moistness as well as sneaking in a serving of veggies.

The personal choice to eat meat or not to eat meat is yours to make – just make sure to get the needed carbohydrates, proteins, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals in the foods you choose. Your swimming performance and your health will thank you!

Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist who has provided nutrition information to coaches and athletes for over 30 years. She welcomes questions from swimmers, parents, and coaches at




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