The Vegetarian Athlete

The vegetarian diet is acknowledged as a healthy alternative eating plan with numerous purported benefits. A few of these benefits include; increased energy/vitality, reduced risk for heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, and the potential to provide aid in weight management. Many individuals engage in a vegan diet after exploring the potential benefits. Motivation may also result from a personal desire to preserve animal life and/or resources, economic hardship, or respect for cultural or spiritual values. The vegetarian must make prudent choices when selecting foods to make sure all essential macronutrients are consumed. This process must be even more accurate within the athletic population. This is due to the elevated energy and nutrient requirements among athletes.

The food choices a vegan makes can affect their health in a positive or negative manner. A vegan who follows a well-balanced diet will get more than enough carbohydrates, see long term health benefits pertaining to disease prevention, and find it easier to maintain a healthy weight; while experiencing no detrimental effects on performance. A vegan who eliminates all meat and dairy products without choosing appropriate nutrient-equivalent alternatives however; will increase their potential for health issues and performance declines. A vegan athlete must realize that they will end up spending more time and effort planning appropriate meals; particularly during in-season (i.e. when the team is on the road). Some key aspects to observe in the vegan diet are; the consumption of enough calories, incorporating quality protein sources, and attaining adequate amounts of key nutrients/minerals.

Consuming enough calories is not currently a challenge for most individuals. Conversely, obesity is seen in epidemic proportions within most modernized countries. A vegan athlete however, faces the challenge to consume adequate calories from multiple issues. First, a vegetarian diet often provides a large amount of fiber and a low level of fat. This equates to lower calories than the average diet consisting of meat and plant sources (fiber provides only 2-3 cal/gram, while fat provides approximately 9 cal/gram). Additionally, the athletic population as a whole needs more total daily calories when compared to sedentary individuals. The vegan athlete must understand that the amount of calories consumed needs to maintain their basal metabolism, activities of daily living, training, and growth. This has the potential to be quite a demanding task. When one encounters additional variables such as enhanced metabolism (seen in younger athletes), extensive training regimens (i.e. two-a-days), and/or abnormally high energy requirements as seen with long distance endurance training; the challenge increases exponentially.

With inadequate caloric consumption, the body will end up metabolizing lean mass for energy requirements and normal hormonal function can be disrupted. The bodily systems will aggressively attempt to preserve diminished carbohydrate stores resulting from inadequate calories by utilizing proteins from muscle mass due to the need to maintain baseline carbohydrates for nervous system and brain function. Hormonal dysfunction can cause many issues including menstrual cycle irregularities. Ultimately, these effects lead to decrements in performance.

The question then arises – how can a vegan athlete make sure they eat so that metabolism, training, and growth needs are met? There are some basic pointers that can certainly head the athlete in the correct direction.

  1. Make sure to eat a variety of foods every day: whole grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and soy products
  2. Try to get various sources of protein: dairy, eggs, and soy
  3. Eat consistently throughout the day; try to get 3 whole meals and 2-3 snacks 
  4. Make sure your snacks are healthy, i.e. contain at least two food groups (ex: cottage cheese and sliced peaches)
  5. Become acquainted with energy dense foods such as: fruit juices, dried fruit, nuts and peanut butter, avocado, low fat cheese, olives, hummus, smoothies, etc.

Attaining adequate protein is one of the largest challenges to the vegan athlete. Protein is necessary as it is involved in muscle repair and recovery, insulin mediation post-exercise, and a healthy immune system. Modern literature on the subject of protein needs for athletic individuals points toward a healthy range of 1.2 – 1.8g (protein)/kg (of body weight) dependent on the dynamics of the sport. Endurance athletes need around 1.4-1.5 g/kg, while strength athletes needs are higher ranging from 1.5-1.8g/kg. This is why making sure healthy doses of dairy, egg, or soy products are included in the diet is necessary. Attaining iron requirements is another large concern as it plays a vital role in oxygen transfer and immune function. Daily needs for iron are 8mg and 18mg for adult males and females respectively. Females need larger amounts due to loss during the menstrual cycle. Inadequate iron can result in fatigue, short attention span, irritability, and lack of concentration. The issue with attaining adequate iron with a vegan diet stems from the fact that iron is best absorbed by the body in meat sources. These sources are referred to as heme iron sources, while vegetables contain non-heme iron. Non-heme iron can be absorbed to a greater degree however, with the infusion of Vitamin C during the same meal. Outstanding sources of heme iron include lean red meat, pork, tuna, and dark poultry; while exceptional sources of non-heme iron include fortified cereals, molasses, legumes, lentils, baked potato with the skin, and tofu.

To summarize, vegetarian diets can be healthy and conductive to athletic performance as long as they are well balanced. The athlete must make sure to focus on meeting energy needs and getting adequate amounts of nutrients that are commonly lacking in a vegetable-based diet such as; protein, iron, calcium, zinc, and Vitamin B12.