Laurie Budgar

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
The vegetarian athlete: winning with dynamic nutrition

At this time of year, you can hear them coming—the thud, thud of mountaineers? hiking boots, the clip-clop of triathletes? cycling shoes and the squeeaak of sneakers on weekend warriors. But do you have the foods to nourish the vegetarians and vegans among the athletes who frequent your store?

According to a position paper published in the December 2000 Journal of the American Dietetic Association, ?There is no doubt that what an athlete eats and drinks can affect health, body weight and composition, substrate availability during exercise, and ultimately, exercise performance.?

Even athletes who eat meat in the off-season may shun it when training or competing. There?s a perception that going meatless can enhance performance. ?I think my vegetarianism has made me the athlete I am today,? says vegetarian nutritionist Lisa Dorfman, author of The Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Guide (Wiley, 1999) and a triathlete who has completed the Ironman Triathlon World Championship as well as 31 marathons.

The vegetarian diet is often high in essential fatty acids, which support the immune system and healthy joints. It?s also typically high in fiber. A small amount of soluble fiber, the kind found in many fruits, eaten just before or during athletic activity, may help prevent blood sugar surges and crashes. ?You can be a superior athlete,? as a vegetarian, Dorfman says, as long as nutrition is emphasized.

Others take the opposite view. It?s not uncommon for coaches to advise their athletes to eat meat to bulk up for competition. ?Among male athletes who eat bowls of chili and tubs of tofu ? they get enough protein,? says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, author of Nancy Clark?s Sports Nutrition Guidebook (Human Kinetics Publishers, 1996). ?For female athletes who just sprinkle two garbanzos on a salad, they may not get enough protein until they?re educated about it.?

Clark is less concerned about dedicated vegetarians and vegans, though, than those who simply don?t eat meat or poultry. ?They can?t just say, ?Oh, I don?t eat meat,? and live on a pile of spaghetti,? she says.

Protein education turns out to be one of the recurring themes when talk turns to nutrition for non-meateaters, and athletes require about 10 percent more protein than their couch-potato counterparts. Vegans will have an even harder time because they can?t rely on eggs and dairy products for nutrition. Plant-based sources of protein often are ?incomplete,? meaning they don?t contain all of the essential amino acids that make up proteins. Amino acids are critical for energy expenditure and muscle recovery during and after exercise. Soybeans, however, are a complete protein, providing all of the essential amino acids, and can replace animal proteins. Dorfman and Clark suggest soy and whey as good substitutes. ?[These] plant protein sources are as powerful as the meat sources,? Clark says, though she acknowledges that it?s more difficult for the body to absorb important minerals like iron and zinc when they come from plant sources.

Dorfman says the vegetarian protein options are much better now than when she first gave up meat, though new vegetarians may still need a sense of adventure. She recalls that when she first saw seitan in the marketplace she pronounced it Satan. ?I?m a religious person, and I thought, Satan food can?t be good for you,? she says. ?But, wow, what a wonderful food.?

But really, the bottom line is overall caloric intake. Because vegetarians, by definition, eat a lot of plant-based, calorie-sparse foods, they may face difficulty consuming enough calories to fuel their athletic routine. Without sufficient caloric intake, ?protein starts to break down to provide energy,? taking it away from its proper roles in building hair, skin, muscle and immune function, Dorfman says. Ideally, energy should come from carbohydrates.

Athletes whose sports involve primarily strength or short-distance activities can probably get away with about 50 percent carbohydrates, Dorfman says, but those who are engaged in endurance sports need to amp up their carb intake so it accounts for 55 percent to 70 percent of their daily calories. Clark also notes that athletes who don?t eat meat are also missing out on creatine, which is important for short bursts of activity.

Both nutritionists debunk the once-popular idea of food combining, in which a person was told to combine specific proteins with specific carbs at a single meal to ensure adequate nutrition. ?That?s passé,? Dorfman pronounces. ?Now, if you get all the blends of amino acids within the period of a day, you?ll be fine.? She notes that most of the blends are natural pairings, anyway: ?Beans and rice, hummus and pita bread, soy cheese on pasta. It?s not weird combinations.?

Another popular idea, one backed by the ADA?s 2000 report, is that because athletes have higher levels of oxygen consumption they need to take supplements of vitamins A, C and E. But, Dorfman says, ?If you?re a good-eating vegetarian, you will certainly get enough of the antioxidants [to] help squelch the excess oxygen we create as a result of exercising.?

It is important, however, for athletes to get sufficient levels of essential fatty acids. ?The omega-3s definitely help in recovery,? Dorfman says. She suggests sprinkling some ground flax on meals and eating walnuts as a healthy snack on a regular basis.

Vegetarians and vegans also need to monitor their levels of vitamins B2, B12, iron, calcium and zinc (see sidebar). ?The difference with the vegetarian athlete,? Dorfman says, ?is probably that they have to be on their best behavior more often than the meateaters. The meateater will get some of the vital minerals and vitamins in a bite. Vegetarians need to take a couple more bites.?

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 5/p. 28, 30

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