A Nutritious Diet for Vegetarian and Vegan Athletes
Lily Bedford provides an insight into the common health and dietary issues associated with the vegetarian and vegan diet.
A common misconception of vegetarians and vegans is that they are pale, weak and wouldn't last five minutes in a sporting arena. A vegetarian diet requires careful monitoring of protein, vitamin B12 and iron levels, which can all be found in non-animal sources of food, but which can sometimes take a bit of forward planning, as many are not so readily available as their meaty counterparts.
Many elite Kenyan athletes eat almost no meat, it being only for special occasions such as weddings. Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis wasn't a vegetarian when he won four golds in Los Angeles in 1984, but he turned vegan after this and felt that it helped his personal bests on the track. He went on to break the world record for the 100m sprint in 1991. Australian swimmer and lifelong vegan Murray Rose won four Olympic gold medals in the 1950s and 1960s. Ultra-marathon champion runner Scott Jurek is a passionate vegan.
Too much protein?
A common myth about vegetarian and vegan diets is that they don't contain enough protein. However, while dairy products such as eggs and yogurt are quick and easy ways to get a protein fix, vegans can turn to grains, nuts and soya. In fact, many Western diets contain too much protein, especially with the recent trend for low-carbohydrate plans. Good plant sources of protein for training include lentils (almost 18g of protein per cup), beans (12-15g per cup) and quinoa (11g per cup). Female athletes need up to 90g of protein per day, and strength-training athletes require even more than this to build muscle mass. However, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that consuming more than 2g of protein per kilogram of body weight has any extra advantage in terms of ability to build muscle and may be harmful to kidney function. If too much protein is taken on board, the kidneys struggle to flush harmful ketones from the body, which can be toxic, thereby causing dehydration and potentially causing problems for the heart.
It's true that vitamin B12 is only found naturally in meat, but with so many foods like breakfast cereals fortified with vitamins and minerals it is easy to find it in other sources. B12 is important for endurance athletes, as it affects the body's production of red blood cells. However, it is essential for vegetarian and vegan athletes to take a supplement, as it is difficult to obtain enough vitamin B12 from fortified foods, as such large quantities would have to be consumed.
Animal products contain heme iron. Plant sources and dairy products do contain iron, but it is the non-heme form of iron, which is not absorbed as well. It is important for vegetarian and vegan athletes to ensure they are also consuming enough vitamin C, which aids the body's absorption of iron. Good plant sources of iron include lentils, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, oats, bananas, berries and green leafy vegetables such as chard, spinach and kale. It is also vital to avoid or at least cut back on things which reduce the body's ability to absorb iron, such as caffeine, tea and cocoa. Female athletes in training are at particular risk for iron-deficient anaemia, which can reduce athletic performance. The body's capacity to transport oxygen to the cells of the muscles is reduced, which has an impact on the ability to produce energy.
Along with iron, zinc is a common deficiency for vegetarian and vegan athletes. This is possibly due to the body sweating out zinc stores during heavy training or could be because plant sources of zinc are not absorbed as well as animal ones. One study of female distance runners (Deuster et al. (1989)) found that 50% of them were not consuming the recommended daily amount of zinc, which could impact upon endurance, athletic performance and general health (zinc is essential for immune function). Good plant sources of zinc include tofu, miso, peanut butter and beans.
Often hailed as a super-food, omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly found in fish oils, but flax is a great alternative for vegetarians and vegans. Walnuts are another good source. While omega-3 fatty acids are good for general cardiovascular health, they also help to reduce inflammation in muscles and joints.
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About the Author
Lily Bedford is a freelance writer.
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