VEGETARIANS WHO EXERCISE
Vegetarian diet is a very popular specialized diet. Many people might choose to convert to a plant-based diet for lots of different reasons. Some people do it for animal rights, some due to finances since meat can be expensive, religious beliefs or just for better health. There are countless studies that show a host of health benefits in consuming plant-based vegetarian diet. Adopting a plant-based diet can lower:
- Heart disease
- Renal disease
These benefits are the only other result of a well-planned balanced vegetarian diet. It is not because you are actually cutting out the meat; it’s mainly because you are getting in more plant-based foods, more micronutrients. Just because you are following a plant-based diet, you are not necessarily going to gain the health benefits if you eating junk foods alongside. The health benefits can only be achieved with a well-planned structured balanced diet. People who exercise should consider vegetarian diet as a healthy alternative to mainstream eating. The biggest mistake athletes make when switching to a plant-based vegetarian diet is the exclusion of food from the protein or dairy group without introducing any plant-based alternative. We shouldn’t be cutting out any food group; we only replace them with alternatives. We need them all for a reason.
COMMON TYPES OF VEGETARIAN DIETS
The table bellows shows a list of different types of vegetarians to avoid confusion with people because there are lots of different types of vegetarians.
The demi, pesco, lacto, lacto-ovo and ovo vegetarians’ diets can provide adequate intake of protein, vitamins, and minerals without major concern for deficiencies if you eat a balanced diet.
A vegan diet excludes all animal products, and so presents a special dietary challenge for those who exercise.
Animal products are complete protein sources, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids our body cannot produce. Amino acids are crucial for muscle repair and rebuilding, bone health and immunity.
A vegan diet is limited to plant-based protein sources, of which only a few – soy and quinoa – are complete sources of protein.
Vegan athletes also require slightly more protein in their diet since the higher fiber from the plant-based protein intake slightly inhibits protein absorption.
Athletes who follow a vegan diet or are considering a vegan diet should pay close attention to what they eat.
Make sure to choose nutrient-dense foods that provide adequate fuel from carbohydrate, protein, and fat, plus the necessary vitamins and minerals to support oxygen transport, recovery and immunity.
If your athlete is vegan, or any form of vegetarian, you will need to pay attention to some critical nutrients. Often those who exercise ignore this aspect of being vegetarian, but given their age and the nutritional demands of sport, these nutrients are a top priority:
- Protein – Protein needs are similar in vegan and non-vegan athletes. Vegans can get protein from grains, vegetables, tofu, beans, nuts, and seeds, but they may have to eat more of these foods to glean the amounts of protein that animal sources can supply. As long as vegan protein sources are varied throughout the day, protein needs, particularly amino acids, should be easy to meet. Occasionally, vegans may use isolated protein powders like pea or soy protein to bump up their overall intake of protein, especially if their whole-food sources are marginal as in the young athlete who won’t eat beans, or the teen athlete who drinks low protein milk substitutes. Whole-food sources of protein are ideal. Larger athletes with higher protein needs, may need a protein powder supplement to meet their daily protein needs while they are on a vegan diet.
- Calcium-Calcium is found in certain vegetables, such as bok choy, kale, spinach, watercress, and arugula, as well as in nuts, especially almonds, and seeds such as sesame and chia. Children aged 9 to 18 years need more calcium than at any other time in their life for bone development (1,300 mg per day), seeking out calcium sources and including them routinely in the diet is critical. Other top plant sources of calcium include collard greens, spinach, kidney beans, tofu, calcium-fortified orange juice, calcium–fortified cereals, and alternative milks such as soymilk that are calcium-fortified.
- Iron- As you know, cutting out meat, vegetarians are susceptible to iron deficiency – especially girls, due to iron losses associated with exercise and menstruation. For any athlete, iron deficits can diminish athletic performance. Iron from plant foods is harder to absorb than iron from animal flesh. However, iron absorption can be improved by consuming a vitamin C source, such as citrus juice, along with plant sources of iron. Include quality iron and vitamin C sources daily, such as spinach tossed into a strawberry smoothie, or citrus vinaigrette drizzled atop a kale salad. Top plant sources of iron include spinach, asparagus, chard, broccoli rabe, bok choy, firm or soft tofu, lentils, soybeans, other beans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, raisins, and iron-fortified breakfast cereals. Beans and grains, while a good source of iron, also contain phytates, which are antioxidant compounds that inhibit the absorption of iron in the body. The best way around them is to eat a vitamin C source when eating beans or grains, which will enhance iron absorption and reduce their inhibitory effects. For example, a pasta meal with white beans and tomatoes promotes iron absorption due to the presence of tomatoes (a vitamin C source) in the meal.
- Zinc –The primary source of zinc in the western diet is animal products. Although there are plant sources of zinc, such as beans, whole grains, and nuts, they may not be well absorbed due to their phytate content. For this reason, a vegan athlete’s need for sources of zinc is about 50 percent higher than a non-vegan athlete’s. Meeting the zinc requirement from food alone can be a challenge for a vegan athlete, so a multivitamin/multi-mineral supplement may be warranted. Top plant sources of zinc include black beans, other beans, tofu, cashews, bean-based veggie burgers, fortified breakfast cereals, peas, pumpkin seeds, and hemp seeds.
- Vitamin B12– Deficiencies of vitamin B12can cause anemia and may even lead to permanent central nervous system damage. Vitamin B12 is found largely in animal foods, so the vegan athlete will need a reliable source—a fortified food such as nutritional yeast, fortified soy products or cereals, soymilk, B12-fortified meat analogues, or a vitamin B12 If you eat dairy and eggs, your vitamin B12 intake may be fine.
- Vitamin D– Most of the fortified food sources of vitamin D are unavailable to vegans who eliminate dairy products and eggs. Of course, athletes who live in a sunny climate year-round and spend time outside without sunscreen may make enough vitamin D in their skin. However, for general health and wellness, a vitamin D supplement is not a bad idea. Aim for at least the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) (600 International Units [IU] per day). Plant food sources of vitamin D include vitamin D–fortified orange juice, mushrooms, soymilk, and some vitamin D–fortified cereals.
- DHA – Fatty fish is the richest food source of DHA, so if you are vegan, they may not be getting enough DHA in your diet. The jury is still out on whether athletes should supplement their dietary intake of DHA, but I support routinely including a source of this fatty acid, whether from eating fish twice weekly or taking an algae-based DHA supplement.
Choose balanced meals and snacks to fuel you before and during exercise, support recovery and do so without any gastrointestinal distress.
If you plan to start a vegetarian or vegan diet, beware that the increased amount of fiber you consume may cause some gas, bloating or diarrhea. Introduce fiber slowly and allow plenty of time for meals to digest before you exercises.
Proper post-exercise meal/snack choice is vital for all athletes, but especially vegans.
After exercise, muscle protein synthesis is enhanced by consuming about 10 grams of a complete protein source. Vegan athletes should consume quinoa or a soy-based food within two hours after a workout.
Examples include: 10 oz. soy milk, 1 cup soy yogurt, a soy protein shake, a stir-fry with ½ cup edamame, or 1 cup quinoa.
TIPS FOR VEGETARIAN DIETS
While the desire to be independent with this diet approach may be strong, most vegetarian athletes don’t have the knowledge of nutrition to eat properly. Here are some simple tips to keep in mind:
- Serve a variety of food each day.Be willing to explore and experiment with different plant foods, especially those that are packed with nutrition. Include hummus, bean dips, and roasted beans. Don’t fear tofu—get creative with stir fry, tofu-enriched smoothies, and breakfast scrambles. Find ways to include dark greens and other colorful fruits and vegetables every day. Make whole grains your go-to, as these are richer in nutrition than their refined or white-wheat counterparts.
- Find a routine dairy source or an alternative.Whether it be cow’s milk, soymilk, hemp milk, or a cheese or yogurt alternative, make sure that each day you get three cups of dairy or a nondairy alternative that is fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Tap into other foods that are good sources of calcium and vitamin D. Your bones depend on it.
- Pop in the protein.Include at least one vegetarian protein source at each meal and with most snacks.
- Eat with structure and routine.Sometimes a vegan diet can be very filling because it is chock-full of fiber. The result? You don’t “have room” for the calories or range of nutrients you need. You can deal with this by having frequent meals and snacks at regular intervals, such as every 3 to 4 hours, which will allow you plenty of opportunity to eat without becoming overly full and meanwhile get the calories and nutrients you need.
- Details, details—they matter.Pay attention to the nutrients of concern I outlined earlier, including vitamin B12, zinc, iron, calcium, vitamin D, and DHA. If you can cover these, you will have a healthy vegan athlete.
If you’re considering a vegetarian/vegan diet, be sure to take the time to assess what you eat to ensure you are choosing properly balanced meals. If you need help, seek guidance from a sports dietitian.
- Eating well for vegetarian athletes. Dietitians of Canada. https://www.dietitians.ca/getattachment/a9d03407-dfe2-4db3-a6e5-1e0f64ac44d1/FACTSHEET-Eating-Well-for-Vegetarian-Athletes.pdf.aspx.
- Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the international society of sports nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5598028/.
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