Vegetarian and vegan athletes, whether professionally trained or intermittently active-must take extra care when planning their diets. It is comforting to know that research demonstrates an appropriately supplemented plant based diet appears to effectively support athletic performance.As a matter of fact some, world class athletes have been vegetarian or vegan!
While a well-planned plant based diet can provide a healthy intake of fiber, vitamins and minerals, vegetarian/vegan athletes diets may be at risk for providing low amounts of energy, inadequate amounts of protein, fat and fat soluble vitamins (A,D, E & K), as well as possible deficiencies in vitamin B12, vitamin B6, riboflavin, iron, vitamin D, calcium and zinc.
Here are some tips for vegetarian and vegan athletes to consider:
• Listen to your body and ask yourself these questions:
How do you feel during your workouts? Do you have more or less stamina? Is your physical performance better or worse? Are you loosing or gaining weight? Chances are, if you are feeling fatigued during your workouts, or have lost weight-you may not be getting enough energy from your diet.
• Include energy dense foods in your diet daily:
Try avocado, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, nut butters, beans and lentils. Remember, it is very important to include adequate amounts of carbohydrates throughout the day. Carbohydrates essentially provide us with glucose, which is mobilized as fuel for our body and brain.
• A word on protein:
Vegetarians and vegans may require additional protein to meet their needs during intensive exercise. Protein is required to build and repair muscle tissue. This becomes exceptionally important for those who are regularly physically active. It is recommended that vegetarian athletes obtain between 1.3-1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. For example-if you weigh 60 kg, you would need between 78-108 grams of protein per day.
• Incredible iron:
When we work out, our body cells require even greater amounts of oxygen to function. Iron is needed for the formation of hemoglobin, an oxygen carrying protein. Iron depletion is common for athletes who are training at high altitudes, or who are undergoing rapid periods of growth. Furthermore, athletes who participate in running sports may constantly be destroying red blood cells from “foot strike” (feet hitting the pavement). Vegetarian and vegan athletes should regularly monitor their iron status through check-ups with their Physicians. Click this link and/or this one, for food sources of iron.
Plant based diets may be low in creatinine and therefore, vegetarian and vegan athletes may have lower concentrations of muscle creatinine. Low levels of creatinine may impair performance in very high intensity exercise. Supplementation may be beneficial in individual cases. This type of supplementation is- of course, important to discuss with a Registered Sports Dietician.
• Calcium-Not just for Bone Health!
Deficiencies in calcium can contribute to the development of stress fractures, or even osteoporosis in vegetarian and vegan athletes. Calcium also plays a very important role in muscle contraction, as well as in cardiac health-both of which are critical for athletes. Good sources of vegetarian calcium include fortified soy drinks or yogurt, soybeans, navy beans, white beans, nuts and nut butters, blackstrap molasses, dark green vegetables and fruits like figs and calcium fortified orange juice.
• The Importance of Hydration
It’s very important to maintain adequate hydration when you are involved in physical activity. If you do not provide your body with fluids to replace the losses that occur during exercise, you may become dehydrated-which can significantly affect your performance, and/or even lead to further complications.
For more information, please consult a Registered Dietician, who can specially formulate an appropriate meal plan for your particular level of physical activity.
Nutrition for Health, Fitness, & Sport. Melvin H. Williams. McGraw Hill Publishing. Ninth Edition. 2010.
Powerful Food-Planning Meals for Maximum Performance. Angela Dufour. MEd. RD. IOC Dip Sports Nutrition. Glen Margaret Publishing. 2013