Vegetarian Athletes: What to Eat
It is a proven fact that diet can definitely impact athletic performance, and a vegetarian diet can certainly provide all of the energy and nutrients that individuals need to power themselves through their next workout or competition. However, just like all diets, a vegetarian diet takes some planning. Most vegetarian diets can meet the nutritional needs of athletes by including a wide variety of foods. The following tips can help ensure that you perform at your optimal ability.
- Protein requirement for endurance athletes:
- 1.2-1.4 grams (g)/kilogram (kg)/day
- May need an increase of as much as 1.6-1.7 g/kg/day in times of intense exercise
- Protein in some plants is not completely digested:
- Vegetarians and vegans may need to eat more to ensure that they are getting enough protein.
- Even though most vegetarians easily meet the requirement for protein, vegans, strength-trained athletes, or athletes with very intense training regiments or low-food intake may want to:
- Use nutritional shakes and protein supplements to meet their needs, or
- Focus on improving their protein intake through careful dietary planning
- Carbohydrate requirements:
- 5-7 g of carbohydrate/kg/day for general training (usually)
- 7-10 g of carbohydrate/kg/day (likely)
- Most athletes should aim to have 60-65% of their total caloric intake from carbohydrate, although the total amount can vary depending on body weight.
- Most of the calories that athletes consume should come from complex carbohydrates, such as:
- Brown rice
- Whole-wheat breads
- Whole-wheat cereals
- Whole-wheat pastas
- A diet with too much emphasis on carbohydrates can crowd out necessary fat consumption
- Good sources of fat include:
- Nut butters
- Olive oil
Vitamins and minerals
- Deficiencies: Vegetarian athletes are most likely to become deficient in the following vitamins and minerals (deficiencies more common in females):
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Nonheme iron: Most plant foods contain nonheme iron, which is not as well absorbed as heme iron:
- Iron and vitamin C: Pair iron-rich foods with foods containing vitamin C, such as citrus.
- Iron and calcium: Do not pair foods containing iron and calcium, which interferes with iron absorption.
- Phytic acids: The absorption of zinc from plant foods is hindered by the presence of phytic acids, making the zinc less absorbable than the zinc found in animal-based foods.
- B12: This vitamin is found only in animal foods, making fortified foods necessary for vegetarians and vegans.
- Vitamin D: This vitamin exists naturally in animal products and is synthesized from exposure to sunlight.
- Spinach: Although high in calcium, spinach is not a good source of calcium because of the presence of oxalates, which makes for poor absorption of calcium.
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References and recommended readings
How to keep bones healthy. The Vegan Society website. http://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-health/vitamins-minerals-and-more/team-healthy-bones. Accessed May 26, 2015.
Iron and more. The Vegan Society website. http://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-health/vitamins-minerals-and-more/iron-and-more. Accessed May 26, 2015.
Larson E. Eat better, perform better: sports nutrition guidelines for the vegetarian. The Vegetarian Resource Group website. http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/athletes.htm. Accessed May 26, 2015.
Larson DE. Vegetarian diet for exercise and athletic training and performing: an update. scienzavegetariana.it website. http://www.scienzavegetariana.it/medici/vegathletes.htm. Accessed May 26, 2015.
Mangels R. FAQs about vitamin D. Vegetarian Journal website. http://www.vrg.org/journal/vj2009issue2/2009_issue2_vitamin_d.php. Accessed May 26, 2015.
Spock B. Vegetarian diet for athletes. Toronto Vegetarian Association website. http://veg.ca/content/view/278/113/. Published January 1, 1997. Accessed May 26, 2015.
Vegetarianism: a winning formula for athletes. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals website. http://www.peta.org/features/vegetarian-athletes/. Accessed May 26, 2015.