Humans, and especially those who do a lot of physical exertion, need quite a bit of protein to keep their bodies healthy and in optimal shape. While meat is a great source of the essential nutrient, it's certainly not the only one; many athletes have opted out of eating meat in favor of plant-based sources. Some might think it's a disadvantage, but many of these athletes have won countless medals and competitions and have gone down in history as some of the best in their sports. If you're a vegetarian athlete or aspiring to be one, here are some of the greats in sporting history who show you just what can be done with hard work, lots of veggies and some amazing talent.
Bill Walton: Bill Walton was never one to stick to the mainstream when it came to his personal life, but on the court he is remembered as a great player, winning three straight College Player of the Year Awards during his time at UCLA and named an MVP during his time in the NBA. This Hall of Famer didn't do it with the help of animal protein, however. A committed vegetarian, Walton is still active off the court today as an announcer.
John Salley: John Salley isn't just a basketball legend — he's also an outspoken advocate for vegetarianism, often doing work for PETA. The first player in NBA history to play on three different championship-winning franchises, Salley calls vegetarianism "best damn way to eat– period" and one might be inclined to agree with him after seeing his performance on the court.
Edwin Moses: Track and field star Moses won two gold medals in the Olympics and set the world record in his event an amazing four times. His powerful performance on the track was fueled by pure vegetable goodness, as Moses was a longtime vegetarian.
Tony Gonzalez: Atlanta Falcons superstar tight end Tony Gonzalez isn't a strict vegetarian — but it isn't necessarily all his doing. Gonzalez experimented with veganism and vegetarianism, but was talked into having a few servings of chicken or fish a week by the team's nutritionist. The bulk of Gonzalez's diet, however, is veggie-based, and this football star holds the record for most single season receptions and most career reception yards.
Martina Navratilova: Tennis champ Navratilova has 18 Grand Slam singles titles and 31 doubles titles to her name — an all-time record — leading Billie Jean King (another vegetarian) to call her "the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who ever lived." Throughout her career, Navratilova has been committed to vegetarianism and is an active spokeswomen for organizations such as PETA.
Carl Lewis: It's hard not to have heard of this Olympic great, a man who was called, "the greatest athlete to ever set foot on track or field." Lewis has won ten Olympic medals over the course of his career, nine of them gold. Lewis isn't just a vegetarian– he's a vegan– and began this diet before the 1991 World Championships. His new diet didn't seem to hurt his performance as he, and others, felt he ran some of the best races of his career at that meet.
Robert Parish: One of the greatest NBA players in the history of the game, Robert Parish is a Hall of Famer inducted in 2003. While well-known for this jump shot, Parish is also is famous for his vegetarianism– just showing that even a huge, athletic individual doesn't have to eat meat to fuel the body.
Mike Tyson: Mike Tyson is a recent convert to an animal-free diet, committing himself in early 2010 to a fully vegan diet. It seems to have done wonders for the prize-winning fighter, as he's slimmed down and says he's happier now than he has been in years– a turnaround for a man famous for ear biting, crazy tattoos and jail time.
Joe Namath: Anyone who knows football has heard of this legendary player, inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1985. This Super Bowl Champion once said, "It shows you don't need meat to play football," and his success on the field makes that abundantly clear.
Prince Fielder: Prince Fielder decided to be a vegetarian after reading about how chicken and cattle are treated on farms, a decision that made national news and caused many to speculate that it might affect his performance on the field. Yet Fielder is a home run champ, and has hit over 110 home runs in the years since he went veggie.
Tony La Russa: While La Russa might be more famous for his work as a coach than as a baseball player, his accomplishments in the field of athletics are nothing to shrug off. La Russa is a star manager in both the National and American leagues, becoming only the sixth manager in history to win pennants with both and one of only two mangers to win the world series in both leagues. He's also a committed vegetarian stating that he decided to stop eating meat after seeing a PBS program on how veal comes to the table.
Ed Templeton: Those familiar with the skateboarding world will know this skater and artist's name well. Templeton owns and operates a skateboarding company and is a well-known skater in his own right. He's also a vegan and has been since 1990, citing the influence of his friends and readings about the meat and dairy industry as his reasons for making the change.
Scott Jurek: If you've never heard of the sport of ultramarathoning, the name alone should alert you to the fact that it's a pretty intense sport. This hardcore athlete made the change to a vegan diet in 1999 and hasn't looked back, finding new and innovative ways to fuel his body for several marathons and loads of training every year. It seems to have done his body good, as Jurek is one of the sport's leading champions.
David Zabriskie: Cyclist Zabriskie has won the US National Time Trial Championship a whopping five times and has placed well in the Grand Tour, making him an incredibly accomplished road bicycle racer. Along with his love of cycling, Zabriskie also has a passion for veganism and converted to the diet recently after learning about the impact the meat industry has had on the environment. He admits that it was a struggle, but believes that ultimately, it will be the best thing for his body and his training.
Salim Stoudamire: Salim Stoudamire is an imposing man, standing at 6'1'' and weighing in at almost 200 pounds. He's also a vegan. This point guard has stated that he became a vegan simply because he always wanted to and doesn't mind if his teammates tease him over his meal choices, stating that the new diet has improved his endurance and energy on the court.