NUTRITION FOR VEGETARIAN ATHLETES

There are a variety of well-balanced plant-based diets, which vary from exclusion of all animal products and byproducts (vegan) to exclusion of select animal products (semivegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, lacto-ovovegetarian). The health and performance benefits of plant-based diets are profound due to a generally higher intake of such cardioprotective nutrients as dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients as well as a lower intake of proinflammatory saturated fat.

Vegetarian Eating Explained

Semivegetarian: Includes some but not all animal-derived products,
including meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy foods.
Lacto-vegetarian: Includes dairy foods but excludes eggs, fish, seafood,
and meat.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: Includes only dairy foods and eggs.
Ovo-vegetarian: Includes only eggs.
Vegan: Excludes all animal products, including eggs, dairy, and foods
that include animal byproducts.

 

Performance Obstacles

A well-balanced diet containing adequate amounts of calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals is a proven component of an athlete’s health and success in sport. Even so, many athletes struggle to strike the right nutritional balance to adequately meet the metabolic demands of training. This holds true especially for those following specialized dietary plans such as vegetarianism, where restriction of various foods can make nutritional planning more challenging and increase the risk for nutritional deficiencies.
Numerous studies have demonstrated vegetarian diets to be deficient in several nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin B12.
The greatest risk for deficiency is with those athletes who restrict intake of animal foods as a way to control weight, a common practice among female athletes and athletes involved in sports such as running, where achievement of a perceived ideal body weight is thought to influence performance, as well as those athletes who simply lack the knowledge to be able to create a menu plan suitable to meet the demands of training and competition. The impact that a poorly implemented vegetarian menu plan can have on athletic performance cannot be overstated. Beyond nutrient deficiency, risks include unfavorable changes in metabolic efficiency, altered hormonal status, and diminished bone health, all of which can significantly compromise the health and performance of an athlete.

Nutritional Recommendations

As the popularity of plant-based diets increases among athletes, the risk for
poorly planned diets and consequent nutritional deficiencies also increases.
A negative energy imbalance not only compromises metabolic efficiency
but also seems to negatively affect hormonal status, bone health, and nutritional intake of protein, calcium, vitamin B12, iron, and zinc. Sub sufficient intakes of these nutrients will have a profound negative effect on health and endurance performance. However, an athlete can reap many benefits, both performance based and health based, from a balanced vegetarian diet. The following tips offer a framework for achieving a healthy vegetarian lifestyle:
  • Achieve energy balance by consuming enough calories to meet training demands.

The average athlete requires anywhere from 16 to 30
calories/lb (16-30 calories/0.45 kg) of body weight to meet the high demands of endurance training; vegetarian endurance athletes may need about 10% more. To meet the demands of endurance training, vegetarian athletes are encouraged to eat 6 or more medium-sized meals or snacks containing such energy-dense plant foods as nuts, avocado, dried fruit, and dairy products.

  • Keep in touch with your hormones. 
Despite popular belief, absence of hormones, specifically loss of a menstrual cycle for female athletes, does  not mean that training is going well. For male athletes, low testosterone  levels also can be problematic for bone density and performance. Listen to your body. If you are feeling tired, training is not going well, and illness  becomes common, your hormones may be out of whack. Try reducing your training load or adding more energy-dense foods to your daily meal plan to
see if normal hormone function returns.
  • Include a variety of protein-containing plant foods throughout the day.
The average athlete requires 0.5-0.8 g of protein/lb (0.5-0.8 g of protein/0.45 kg) of body weight daily to allow for efficient tissue growth and repair. Vegetarian athletes benefit from an estimated 10% greater amount due to the reduced digestibility of plant proteins.
  • Don’t skimp on bone-building nutrients.
Vegetarians should include 3-4 servings of dairy (e.g., 1 cup [.24 L] skim milk, soy milk, almond milk, three-fourths cup [170 g] Greek yogurt, one-half cup [113 g] nonfat cottage cheese) to fulfill daily calcium needs.
  • Pump up the Iron.
Plant sources of iron are absorbed better when taken with vitamin C.
  • Enhance dietary intake of vitamin B12.
While additional amounts of B12 will not enhance oxygenation of blood, B12 is essential for maximal  energy and normal nervous system function. Good vegetarian sources include fortified soy milks, meat analogs, and breakfast cereals.
 
  • Zinc up
Consume a well-balanced vegetarian diet that includes lentils, beans, whole grains, nuts, and soy.