Vegetarian Diets and Athletic Performance
Vegetarian diets have been continuously gaining popularity due to numerous studies reporting an assortment of healthy benefits. Naturally, most endurance athletes are health conscious and take notice, but also pose the question – could this improve my performance too?
That question still remains to be known for sure and proven. Theoretically, if a vegetarian maintained proper carbohydrate intake along with meeting or surpassing recommended nutrient amounts while maintaining proper calorie (energy) intake then it would be similar to a typical endurance athlete’s diet. It is known that most vegetarians do consume more carbohydrates vs. non-vegetarians. Typically, vegetarian diets are high in fiber, which tends to lead to low energy intake due to the fact that fiber brings on satiety sooner, limiting total energy ingestion. This is why a vegetarian endurance athlete may want to incorporate some more impactful energy foods such as nuts, tofu, and other vegetable proteins that are available.
Most vegetarians meet the recommendations for total protein intake, but there are those who fall below that recommendation so vegetarian athletes need to be aware of protein’s importance. All amino acids should be consumed by endurance athletes. However, not all plant based proteins contain all amino acids. A mix of different vegetarian/plant based foods will allow for at least low levels of amino acids to be consumed where another food may be lacking. As a general rule of thumb, vegetarian athletes should target about ≥10% more protein for their intake vs. animal based food diet athlete’s recommendations. The reason being is plant based proteins are not digested as well as animal based proteins.
Something to note, vegetarian endurance athletes are at an increased risk of developing anemia (iron deficiency), even more so for female athletes. This is why iron supplementation may be a good idea when choosing a vegetarian diet. Other nutrients that may be low that endurance athletes should be conscious of when choosing a vegetarian diet are vitamin B12, zinc, calcium, and riboflavin. Typically, those vitamins and minerals are consumed in animal based foods, but can also be found in appropriate vegetarian meat alternatives. It is critical for vegetarian athletes to look for alternatives that they are willing to and enjoy consuming to replace those nutrients that are normally provided by meat and other foods that would no longer be chosen.
When considering any supplementation for your diet, consult with a healthcare professional before consuming so you know it is needed and that is the correct one for you.
Nick Suffredin, M.S. Food Science & Human Nutrition, is a guest writer for D3 this month.
Nick previously was a scientist at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute where he worked on testing elite professional athletes to enhance their hydration practices and nutrition intake to improve their performance. He has been part of human performance advisory boards as well as currently provides product formulation and sports nutrition consulting.