The number of Americans who have adopted a vegetarian diet runs into million and is still on the rise thanks to the increased awareness on the health benefits of plant-based diets. The increase in healthy options for vegetarians in shops and eateries has also fueled the increase. Of those who have chosen to live on a vegetarian diet are high-level athletes despite the concern of whether a vegetarian diet can support athletes (at any level) during competition and practice.
Authorities’ views on the vegetarian diet
There is no doubt that one can be a vegetarian and an athlete. Some authoritative bodies in sports and nutrition have supported this statement. These include the American College of Sports Medicine and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The federal government’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans also supports the statement.
Looking at the statement deeply, it is correct given that athletes do not require meat to build muscles or perform well in their activities. Furthermore, adopting a vegetarian diet could also offer more health benefits compared to a non-vegetarian diet. The benefits include reduced risks of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and lower inflammation levels.
Demystifying vegetarian diets
When it comes to vegetarian diets, there are several types:
- Include egg and dairy products in their diet but exclude meat, fish, and poultry.
- Consume dairy products but exclude eggs, meat, fish, and poultry.
- Eat eggs and egg products but exclude dairy.
- On the other hand, vegans are a bit different from vegetarians because they exclude all animal products including eggs, meat, and dairy, and at times even honey.
Nutrition tips for vegetarian and vegan athletes
There are two main concerns for vegetarian and vegan athletes:
- Vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be low in calories, but the athletes have higher calorie needs depending on the intensity of their activities, frequency, and duration.
- Vegetarian and vegan diets are likely to restrict essential nutrients supplied by animal sources, and these include protein, zinc, calcium, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fats
Vegetarian athletes who fulfil their calorie needs and consume many different healthy plant-based foods can meet their nutritional needs and have good performance in their activities. To supplement their diet and enhance their performance, they may also consider steroids from reliable sellers like Steroidsfax.
To take care of the above concerns, vegetarian and vegan athletes, especially new ones, should put more emphasis on the following things:
Athletes who have recently adopted a vegetarian or vegan diet may find that they may need to eat more food to fulfil their energy needs. This is because plant-based diets can at times be lower in calories. They should eat more frequently and ensure that besides vegetables, their meals have other good sources of essential nutrients:
High-quality sources include beans or legumes such as lentils, black beans, chickpeas or peas, nuts, seeds, soy protein, and if applicable, eggs and dairy in every meal and snack.
Ø Healthy fats – Avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds, olives, and others.
Ø Whole-grain starches – Brown rice, whole grain bread, pasta, quinoa, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and so on.
Despite the common misconception that vegetarians and vegans cannot meet their protein needs, those who eat high-quality protein as explained earlier can fulfil their protein requirements for the day.
Other essential nutrients:
Athletes may need to look closely at specific nutrients like iron, calcium, and B12. Fortunately, both iron and calcium can be supplied by plant-based sources. However, B12 is only found in animal products like dairy and B12-fortified foods.
Special considerations for vegan athletes
Since a vegan diet excludes all animal products, it presents a unique challenge for athletes. Most of the complete protein sources are in animal products. By complete proteins, we mean those that contain all of the essential amino acids that our body cannot produce. Amino acids play a crucial role in muscle repair and rebuilding and support healthy bones and body immunity.
There are only a few plant-based complete sources of protein, for example, soy and quinoa, so athletes who conform to a vegan diet have to rely on these few plant proteins.
Vegan athletes also have another special need in that they need to have a higher amount of protein in their diet. This is because the excess fibre intake from the plant-based protein tends to slightly hinder protein absorption.
Primary nutrients of concern lacking in vegan and vegetarian diets
Some nutrients are vital for athletes but may be deficient in a vegetarian or vegan diet. Here are such nutrients and how to ensure a sufficient supply of them:
These are highly anti-inflammatory, which is crucial for athletes because exercises increase inflammation levels. The vegan diet only has one type of omega-3 known as ALA, and lacks the other two, EPA and DHA. Supplements for EPA or DHA may be the solution for vegan or vegetarian athletes because of their health benefits.
This mineral is crucial for the functioning of the thyroid. Most plant foods are deficient of iodine due to soil depletion. Vegan athletes with iodine intake concerns can add seaweed to their diet or consider multivitamin supplements that contain iodine.
Without iron, athletes cannot perform their athletic activities as it is used to transport oxygen to the muscles. Iron absorption is very poor and it is even lower for vegan and vegetarian diets at about 5%. Vegan or vegetarian athletes need to ensure that they consume high iron foods frequently like green leafy vegetables, beans, and fortified cereals. The iron foods should be paired with vitamin C foods such as citrus fruits, watermelon, and others. Vitamin C is well-known to help with iron absorption.
It helps in immune function and gene expression, but like iron, it is poorly absorbed from plants. Vegetarian athletes tend to have higher zinc deficiency, so they need to eat lots of high-zinc plant-based foods like pumpkin seeds or hemp. A supplementation is also an option.
Calcium is vital for healthy bones and muscle function. Plant-based sources of calcium include nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables. The low bioavailability of calcium in many plants should be a consideration when coming up with a nutritionally-sufficient diet for vegan athletes.
Humans need vitamin D for healthy bones, muscle function, and calcium absorption. The best sources of vitamin D include fish and fortified milk, though mushrooms contain small amounts as well. Exposure to sunlight could meet our vitamin D requirement, but we spend most of our time indoors. Vegan and vegetarian athletes should be tested for vitamin D deficiency. High-dose supplements may be necessary to enhance these levels.
This vitamin is vital for DNA synthesis and the function of the nervous system, so a deficiency can result in irreversible neurological damage and a higher risk of heart disease. Vitamin B12 is of special concern for vegans because it is only available in animal foods. The best option for most vegans is to use supplements because there are almost no other sources for this critical vitamin in a vegan diet.
Vegetarian diets for athletes are healthy provided that they consume high-quality sources of protein and other essential nutrients and eat frequently to bridge the calorie gap that may be there. Non-vegetarian athletes could also reap more benefits by eating more vegetables and opting to substitutes their animal-based proteins with plant ones a few days of the week.