It is definitely possible for vegetarian athletes to perform well, to be healthy and to have an injury risk no higher than that of omnivorous athletes by following a carefully planned diet containing the necessary nutrients that your body demands.
A vegetarian diet is a diet that does not include meat (including poultry) or seafood or products containing these foods. Several different types of vegetarians exist including vegan, fruitarian, pescetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, macrobiotic, raw and even semi-vegetarian or flexitarian. There are many reasons for adopting this type of eating habit such as to improve one’s health, to boost performance, adherence to spiritual or cultural guidelines, to protect the environment or to abide by a love for animals. Vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the lifecycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and even for athletes.
Health benefits for vegetarians
Vegetarianism is associated with lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. Vegetarians also appear to have a lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol level, lower blood pressure and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than non-vegetarians. The vegetarian diet is also associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians have this reduced risk for chronic diseases as they have lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber and phytochemicals.
Key-nutrients for vegetarians
The key-nutrients for vegetarians include protein, omega 3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium and vitamin D and vitamin B12, as these nutrients are often deficient. These deficiencies are often associated with the avoidance of animal foods and products. Vegetarians that include milk and other dairy products, eggs or fish are less likely to suffer from these nutritional risks than vegans who do not consume any animal products. Vegetarians who consume animal products are still at nutritional risk for these nutrient deficiencies, but through careful dietary planning and the intake of selected nutrients these are more easily overcome.
Risks for vegetarians
Consuming the nutrients and the energy you need to partake in endurance events, becomes more difficult as you eliminate foods and food groups. Creatine has been found to be lower in vegetarian than in non-vegetarian athletes as its synthesis is not sufficient with low meat intakes. This poses some performance based concerns.
The vegan diet is associated with the risk for dysmenorrhea, iron-deficiency anemia, pernicious anemia, vitamin D deficiency and impaired calcium and zinc status.
In vegetarianism the total energy intake is often inadequate and protein gets broken down to satisfy the body’s energy requirement before other anabolic muscle building or muscle recovery processes can occur.
Healthy meal planning.
Meat, fish and poultry contain all nine of the essential amino acids, which makes them complete proteins, whereas veggies, beans, lentils, plant proteins and grains are incomplete proteins. Therefore, athletes consuming vegetarian meals should be careful and plan their meals in ways that optimize essential amino acid availability. Combining legumes and cereals (samp and beans or rice and lentils), legumes with seeds and nuts (hummus), grain and dairy products or nuts and seeds and dairy products (macaroni and cheese or muesli and yoghurt) at the same meal ensures for a good distribution of all the essential amino acids. This will complement the amino acid weakness of one food with the amino acid strength of another.
Some ideas for healthy meal planning include:
- Choosing a variety of foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, dairy products and eggs (if desired)
- Minimizing the intake of foods that are sweetened, high in sodium and fat, especially saturated fat and trans fatty-acids
- Choosing lower-fat dairy products and using both eggs and dairy products in moderation (when choosing dairy products and eggs)
- Using a regular source of vitamin B12 and, if sunlight exposure is limited, of vitamin D as well
With the availability of new products including convenience foods, fortified foods such as soymilks, meat equivalents, juices and breakfast cereals and dietary supplements it is possible for vegetarian athletes to meet their key-nutrient requirements.
If you need help with a meal plan or specific diet needs give me a call.