by Lisa Podlecki
Athletes may choose to eat vegetarian or vegan for a variety of reasons, such as environmental considerations, animal welfare, personal preference, and/or religion. While eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet can have a number of positive health outcomes—including lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension—athletes may also believe that becoming vegetarian may be a way to lose weight, improve their performance and help with recovery. As with any diet, cutting out a particular food group can result in insufficient calorie and nutrient intake, which may lead to potential nutritional deficiencies and decreased performance. With the proper guidance, however, vegetarian athletes can be just as strong and healthy!
There is limited data and studies pertaining to the effects of vegetarian diets on sports performance. As with any eating regimen, an athlete needs to ensure he or she is eating enough calories and a variety of nutrients during the day. Otherwise, performance and health will be compromised.
If well planned, a vegetarian or vegan diet that provides enough calories and appropriate levels of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) can help support performance and health in athletes. Athletes consuming vegetarian diets have higher needs for iron, zinc and possibly calcium due to the low bioavailability (amount absorbed) of these nutrients from foods. Here are some important considerations for vegetarian athletes.
Food is fuel! Plant-based foods can be quite filling due to their high fibre content. Any sign of weight loss and/or fatigue may mean that you are not consuming enough calories to fuel everyday training and competition. Athletes involved in endurance training or those wanting to increase muscle mass need to ensure their diets are well planned so that their calorie needs are being met.
Some suggestions to meet your energy needs:
- Snack on nuts, seeds, dried fruit or 100% fruit juice.
- At meals, incorporate healthy fats like avocado, nut butter, seeds, tofu and legumes (lentils, beans, peas). Drizzle salads with healthy oils like olive oil.
- Toss vegetables in canola oil and spices, bake and serve as a side dish.
- If you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian, add nutrient-dense food choices like eggs and dairy to snacks and/or meals.
Protein helps to keep your red blood cells and muscles working efficiently. Athletes need more protein than sedentary individuals, to help build and maintain muscle mass. Vegetarians need about 10% more protein to ensure that they consume all of the essential amino acids (building blocks of protein)
during the day.
Animal sources of protein—such as dairy products, milk and eggs—are considered a high-quality protein source because they are a “complete protein” and contain all the essential amino acids. Plant sources of protein are considered “incomplete proteins” because they do not have all the essential amino acids. However, by choosing a variety of plant-based foods throughout the day and by meeting energy needs, vegetarians can meet their daily requirements.
To ensure you’re meeting your protein needs, eat a variety of plant protein sources, such as legumes (beans, lentils, peas), soy-based foods, nuts, seeds and whole grains throughout the day and post-exercise. At mealtime, try pairing complementary proteins such as toast (grains) and peanut butter (nuts/seeds). You can also put grains and legumes together, resulting in combinations like brown rice stir fry with tofu, a vegetarian burger and bun, whole wheat pita and hummus, quinoa salad with lentils and slivered almonds, or a chickpea salad sandwich.
Iron helps to carry oxygen around the body. Vegetarians need about twice the amount of iron because the body is not able to absorb it as well from plant-based foods. Without enough iron, an athlete can end up feeling fatigued or notice a decrease in performance. Food sources of iron include legumes, quinoa, blackstrap molasses, dark green vegetables, fortified cereals and pasta, tofu, prunes, raisins and apricots. To increase the amount of iron absorbed from food, try having foods rich in vitamin C (i.e. oranges, tomatoes or strawberries) with your meal or snack. Avoid tea and coffee at meals, as this can interfere with iron absorption.
Like iron, the bioavailability of zinc in plant-based foods is lower. Zinc helps boost the immune system and plays a role in wound healing. It is found in whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, eggs and dairy.
Interestingly, the absorption of iron and zinc are increased when foods are processed. Try soaking legumes, roasting nuts and seeds or eating sprouted seeds (i.e. bean sprouts) to increase bioavailability.
Naturally, vitamin B12 is only found in animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs. It is important for a healthy nervous system and red blood cells. While lacto-ovo vegetarians can easily meet their needs, vegans need to be mindful to consume foods fortified with vitamin B12, such as soy milk, fortified breakfast cereals, meat substitutes like soy burgers, and nutritional yeast. A supplement may be needed if intake in not sufficient.
Calcium is needed to help maintain strong bones and teeth. A deficiency in calcium, along with a diet too low in calories can lead to stress fractures and early osteoporosis. Those athletes avoiding all dairy products may need to consume fortified foods or supplements to help meet their daily needs. As with iron and zinc, plant-based sources of calcium have a lower bioavailability. Reliable sources of calcium are calcium-fortified milks and orange juice, calcium-set tofu, cooked beans, kale, broccoli, almonds, dried figs, blackstrap molasses and beans.
Here’s an interesting fact: an inhibitor called oxalate is found in calcium-rich foods like spinach, which causes their low bioavailability. Foods low in oxalates and high in calcium, such as kale, broccoli and bok choy are great alternatives for calcium-rich foods due to their increased bioavailability.
The take-home message here is that a well-balanced and planned vegetarian diet can provide athletes with all the nutrients they require. As with any diet, athletes need to ensure they are meeting their energy (calorie) or nutrient needs. Otherwise, they may experience fatigue and a decrease in overall short-term performance, along with possible long-term health consequences.