Although I have been involved in various sports since I was very young, it is only recently that I have truly considered myself to be an athlete. I’m not sure why this is, but I think that I had a misguided idea of what it meant to be an athlete. I thought that athletes were elite competitors, Olympians, winners. But now I know that athletes are also slow-ish 5k runners and bicyclists that reward themselves with a beer after nearly every ride.
There is one other reason that it took me so long to consider myself an athlete: I’m a vegetarian. Many traditional sports nutritionists tell us that meat and dairy consumption is essential for peak athletic performance, citing the tired protein non-argument that is thrown around so often. But as always, there is no meat (pun intended) to that claim.
So how should vegan and vegetarian athletes fuel themselves? Much like any other athlete would: by eating complete, balanced meals with sufficient carbohydrates, fat and, yes, protein. One expert recommends a ratio of about 65% carbs, 22% fat and 13% protein. Whether those numbers are coming from a vegan or carnivorous diet doesn’t really matter.
Good sources of vegan protein include beans and legumes, whole grains and seeds, hummus, nut butters and vegan protein powders. Good sources of vegan fats include oils, nuts and avocado. Potatoes and sweet potatoes, brown rice and whole-wheat pasta are good carbohydrate options.
There are, however, a few issues that may affect vegan athletes exclusively. One is muscle cramps and stillness caused by depleted sodium levels. Vegans tend to consume less sodium than meat-eaters, so cramping can be more common. To solve this, vegan athletes should add salt to at least one meal per day, especially in advance of a race or event.
Calcium depletion can also cause cramping, so make sure that you’re eating plenty of calcium-rich foods including dark green leafy vegetables, almonds and sunflower seeds, fortified milk replacements and similar foods.
Another common issue is a general lack of energy caused by insufficient levels of iron in the blood. Iron is lost through sweat as well as through compression hemolysis, which occurs when red blood cells are crushed during intense muscle contractions. If you are dealing with a lack of energy, you should see a doctor for a blood test to confirm an iron deficiency. Apricots, green beans, walnuts, lentils and bran are good sources of iron, but a supplement could also help to restore levels in your body.
If you are a vegan athlete, I would love to hear your perspective. Have you dealt with any of the issues I discussed above, or any others? How did you overcome them?
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.