It’s possible for vegetarian athletes to perform well, to be healthy and to have an injury risk no higher than that of other athletes. All they need to do is follow a planned diet containing the necessary nutrients that the body demands. – BY ESMÉ MARÉ, R.D. AT CHRISTINE PETERS AND ASSOCIATES
A vegetarian diet is one that does not include meat (including poultry) or seafood, or products containing these foods. And you get all types of ‘veggies’ too, including vegan, fruitarian, pescetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, macrobiotic, raw, and even semi-vegetarian (or flexitarian). There are many reasons for adopting this lifestyle: 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 athletes can also embrace the benefits of a meat-free eating plan.
In terms of benefits, vegetarianism is associated with lower body mass index and lowers overall cancer rates. Vegetarians also appear to have a low-density lipoprotein cholesterol level, lower blood pressure and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than non-vegetarians. Added to that, the diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease, and vegetarians have a reduced risk for chronic diseases because they have lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fibre and phytochemicals.
The key nutrients for vegetarians include protein, omega 3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, 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 easily overcome.
However, consuming the nutrients and the energy you need to participate in endurance events becomes more difficult as you eliminate foods and food groups. Creatine is 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 also associated with the risk for dysmenorrhea, iron-deficiency anemia, pernicious anemia, vitamin D deficiency and impaired calcium and zinc status. Furthermore, 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.
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 optimise 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 essential amino acids. This will compliment the amino acid weakness of one food with the amino acid strength of another.
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. Here are a few recommended eating tips to further ensure you have the energy to perform on the run.
• Choose a variety of foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, dairy products and eggs (if desired).
• Minimise the intake of foods that are sweetened, high in sodium and fat, especially saturated fat and trans-fatty acids.
• Choose lower-fat dairy products and use both eggs and dairy products in moderation.
• Use a regular source of vitamin B12 and, if sunlight exposure is limited, of vitamin D as well.