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Vegetarian Sports Nutrition

by Janice
(Cherry Hill, NJ)

How do vegetarian triathletes make out with their training?

Thanks.

Intelligent Triathlon Training Replies:

Vegetarian triathletes shouldn’t have any problems with combining this way of eating and training.

In fact in many ways, a well-planned, varied vegetarian diet is excellent sports nutrition!

A vegetarian diet tends to include lots of carbohydrates (ideal for fuelling training), lower fat foods and adequate protein.

There has been a fair bit of research into vegetarian sports nutrition, and the impact of a vegetarian diet on sports performance, and generally no negative affects on training and performance is found.

Having said that, there are some things that vegetarian athletes, and vegetarian triathletes in particular, should take into consideration.

Vegetarians who eat a variety of plant foods, egg and dairy products tend to have fewer nutritional deficiencies than those who don’t eat eggs, egg products and milk.

Energy Intake


Energy intakes amongst vegetarians are typically lower than non-vegetarians.

If a vegetarian diet is very high in fibre, the total energy intake could be low because fibre makes you feel full. So energy dense foods such as nuts, tofu, textured vegetable protein, peanut butter and other nut and seed butters can help, particularly during heavy training phases.

Monitoring your body weight, particularly when in heavy training is a good idea, to ensure your energy needs are being met.

So long as you are consuming enough energy to meet the energy demands of your training, a vegetarian diet is well suited to providing the requirements of a good sports nutrition diet.

Carbohydrates


The majority of energy in a vegetarian diet is consumed in the form of carbohydrates which is ideal for triathletes, who need a lot of carbohydrate for all the endurance training (see our main nutrition pages for more information on the carbohydrate requirement for triathlon training and racing).

Protein


Many vegetarian athletes worry about their diet providing enough protein. However most vegetarians consuming a suitable quantity of a variety of foods will be getting enough protein, particularly those who consume dairy products and eggs.

Having said that, quite often a vegetarian diet can provide less protein than the diet of a meat eater.

So some vegetarian triathletes may need to make sure they consume protein-rich foods.

A variety of protein sources is also recommended to ensure a balance of the different types of amino acids that make up proteins. For example, by eating legumes and grains together, or legumes with nuts or seeds.

Plant proteins are often digested less well than animal proteins and so it is recommended that vegetarian athletes try to consume about 10% more protein than meat-eating athletes. (see our nutrition for training page for more information on protein requirements for triathlon training).

Iron


Iron in the diet is important for the synthesis of haemoglobin and myoglobin(the oxygen carrying parts of the blood).

Iron is one of the key nutrients that can be affected by a vegetarian diet. The type of iron in plant foods (non-haeme iron) is not absorbed as well as iron found in meat (haeme iron). As such, vegetarian diets often contain enough iron, but the absorption of this iron is not as good, often putting athletes, particularly female athletes, at risk of iron-deficiency anaemia.

Vegetarian athletes can increase their total iron intake by incorporating plenty of leafy green vegetables, and including fresh fruits or vegetables rich in Vitamin C to enhance iron absorption.

The recommended intake of iron for vegetarians is therefore higher than for non-vegetarians, at 14mg/day for men and 32mg/day for women.

Zinc


Zinc is important for a healthy immune function, protein synthesis and blood formation.

Total zinc intake is often lower in vegetarian athletes, and as exercise can increase zinc loss, this is another nutrient of which vegetarian athletes should take care to get enough.

Vitamin B12


Vitamin B12 is required for the metabolism of nerve tissue, fat, protein and carbohydrate.

Athletes who consume eggs and dairy products should be getting an adequate supply of Vitamin B12. Long-term low Vitamin B12 levels can lead to macrocytic anaemia, so vegans should consider taking supplements.

Antioxidants


Another benefit of vegetarian sports nutrition is that it is usually high in antioxidants due to the quantity of fruit and vegetables eaten, which may provide better protection against exercise-associated oxidative stress.

Whilst the research is undecided on whether athletes would benefit from an antioxidant-rich diet in terms of sports performance, the health benefits of such a diet are clear!

This table outlines the key macronutrients in a vegetarian diet and the foods from which they can be obtained:

vegetarian sports nutrition





Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Top Tips


  • It is worth monitoring body weight and iron status.

  • Eat a variety of protein and carbohydrate rich foods at each meal.

  • If you don’t use cow’s milk, look for calcium-fortified alternatives (usually at least 100mg of calcium per 100ml of fluid).

  • Aim to include at least 3 servings of calcium rich food per day.

  • Vegans should consider Vitamin B12 supplementation.

  • Combine iron-rich and zinc-rich foods with fruits or vegetables high in vitamin C to enhance absorption of these minerals.

  • Look for breakfast cereals fortified with iron.


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