Much has been made out of Prince Fielder's vegetarianism, and whether or not it actually affects his performance on the field. Reporter Pete Croatto investigated the story.
Moved after reading about how chicken and cattle are treated, Prince Fielder became a vegetarian before this baseball season, a decision that became national news.
The attention was somewhat puzzling. It's not as if Fielder went on an all-mayonnaise diet or began celebrating wins by eating a sheet cake. Vegetarianism is endorsed by the American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada. It has numerous health benefits; vegetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indices than meat eaters. It's enjoyed by millions, including athletes past (Martina Navratilova) and present.
The Atlanta Hawks' Salim Stoudamire and ultimate fighter Mac Danzig are vegans, which bans eating anything (milk, eggs, honey) from an animal. Tight end extraordinaire Tony Gonzalez went vegan last year, but with a laughable compromise initiated by the Kansas City Chiefs team's nutritionist, Mitzi Dulan, a former vegetarian athlete.
According to the Wall Street Journal, she convinced Gonzalez to have a few servings of chicken and seafood a week.
Fielder, however, is in some foreign territory. The Baseball Hall of Fame has no record of vegetarian home run leaders, and Fielder isn't on pace to get anywhere near last year's total of 50 home runs: he's hit 11 so far this season. Granted, he could go on a tear, but those are the numbers.
Keeping track of Fielder's home run total this season is going to be fun, and not as the evolution of a young slugger or as part of some sport-reviving home run chase with Brewers teammate Ryan Braun. The 24-year-old can establish if there can be a vegetarian home run king while maybe becoming the poster boy for the vegetarian athlete.
"I think that would be a big boost in the mainstream for vegetarianism," says Elizabeth Turner, editor-in-chief of Vegetarian Times. "That is like the last bastion of red meat-eating America—football players and baseball players."
If Fielder gets close to last year's production, he could lend further clarity to the issue of vegetarians and athletics, especially when it comes to strength. A long-held belief is that by eschewing meat, a vegetarian (especially an athlete) misses protein, a lack of which can cause a decrease in muscle mass.
Turner offered several vegetarian replacements that are protein-rich, including meat alternatives tempeh (41 grams per cup) and seitan (31 grams in 3 oz.), cottage cheese (31 grams per cup), and lentils (18 grams per cooked cup).
Iron and zinc are also easily available through meat, but can be found in whole grains, leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, says registered dietician Dr. Enette Larson Meyer. Fortified foods and supplements—the right, vegetarian-based ones, not the Barry Bonds ones—can also help.
Before he began his vegetarian journey, Fielder got advice from team nutritionist Dr. Leslie Bonci. It's a good thing he did. According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of “Eat for Health,” the vegetarian diet is "suboptimal" if its focus is on collecting calories and sufficient protein, and not accumulating valuable micronutrients such as zinc and iron.
"I'm critical of almost everyone's diet whether they eat meat or don’t," says Fuhrman, a former world class figure skater. "They almost always have lots of room for improvement."
A properly planned vegetarian diet that fills all of the nutritional gaps should not be cited for a drop in Fielder's numbers or his strength, Fuhrman says. (Keep in mind: Fielder's power draught could be the result of a slump or pitchers getting wise to his long ball tendencies. It’s possible!) Bonci told The New York Times that the body's muscles can't tell the difference between proteins, so whether Fielder gets them from hamburgers or black bean burgers is irrelevant.
The bigger obstacle is adjusting to a new lifestyle, says Larson Meyer, author of “Vegetarian Sports Nutrition” and an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming. It means finding desirable meat substitutes, finding restaurants and food stores that cater to the new diet, and enduring the joking of others.
Larson Meyer says that as long as energy and calorie needs are met and that Fielder eats when he needs to—including a protein and carbohydrate source 30 minutes to an hour after an intense workout to rebuild muscle—he should be able to maintain his performance. But "you have to be dedicated to your cause and purpose," she says.
Others aren't so sure. Dr. Jonny Bowden, a board-certified sports nutritionist and author of the upcoming “The Healthiest Meals on Earth,” says not everyone can handle a vegetarian diet. Vitamin B-12, which Bowden cites as "a big part of energy," comes naturally from meat sources, and the most absorbable form of iron comes from meat. The profiles of soy's amino acids (the building blocks of protein) differ too.
"Soy concentrate may be estrogenic in males and adversely affect testosterone, and hence, strength," explains certified sports nutritionist Rehan Jalali, president of the Supplement Research Foundation and author of “The Six-Pack Diet Plan. “
"I know red meat has been demonized a little, but I think taken in moderation it can really be beneficial to athletes," Jalali adds. "Red meat provides easily absorbed iron, vitamin B-12, zinc, the fat loss nutrient CLA [conjugated linoleic acid], and l-carnitine, which can also support fat loss and muscle energy. It may even have beneficial effects on testosterone levels."
While sympathetic toward animal rights — he doesn't eat pork because of how pigs are treated — Bowden says that "people get so caught up in that, they don't look at the functions. Bodies aren't political."
With that said, that doesn't mean Bowden think there can't be a vegetarian power athlete. "It's possible to have a 5'6" NBA player, but it's probably going to be rare."
There also happens to be a vegan bodybuilder, Kenneth Williams.
In Fuhrman's mind, a vegetarian athlete isn't some exception to the rule. Americans have become so attached to the food pyramid and the benefits of meat that it's become nutritional gospel, but it is not scientific, he says. "Without vegetables there would be no protein on the planet," he notes, as that's how early animals got protein.
Conflicting dietary philosophies aside, Fuhrman points out a larger issue: Fielder can "be a role model for people to eat healthier." And in a nation where more people are shaped like ovals and where cheese is stuffed into every imaginable nook and cranny, Americans need dietary inspiration. Why shouldn't a 270-lb baseball-playing vegetarian lead them?
Some more dingers would help, though.