What do pro-cyclist Christine Vardaros, tennis champion Martina Navratilova, and Olympic Gold Medalist Carl Lewis all have in common? They follow a meat-free diet. And as vegetarians, they were still able to reap the rewards of a successful athletic career.
There are many reasons why people would choose to exclude meat and other animal products from their diets. From the health benefits to ethical concerns and economic reasons to religious beliefs, whatever the motivation, those who exclude meat from their diets should be better prepared to meet their protein needs with a well-balanced diet. Therefore, it is important to have a good understanding of protein sources and how to fuel properly without relying on supplementation.
Generally, a “vegetarian” refers to one who excludes meat, poultry, fish, or other animal-derived product. However, they are often categorized based on their food preferences and not their motivations.
Lacto-vegetarians: followers will include milk and milk products in their diets but, exclude meat, poultry, fish, seafood, and eggs.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: same as above however, they include eggs in their diet.
Vegan: followers who exclude all animal derived foods from their diet. Sometimes referred to as “strict”vegetarians.
As compared to:
Omnivore: those who eat both plants and animals in the menu.
Flexitarian: those who mostly eat plant-based foods but, will on occasion eat meat. (Read: this sounds more like a gymnast to me)
There has been a vast amount of research promoting the health benefits of a vegetarian diet. And it is not only the dietary choices that typically contrast the omnivore from the vegetarian. Research has shown that many vegetarians tend to have lifestyle choices that differ from others such as: they are less likely to smoke or use illicit drugs, typically drink less alcohol, are more likely to use a seat belt, generally report a healthier body weight versus non-vegetarians, and tend to be more physically active.
Athletic performance, no matter what your food beliefs, is greatly affected by improper nutrition. Some of the biggest concerns that I hear from athletes are about food sources of protein when following a vegetarian diet. How can someone be sure that they are meeting their nutrient needs if they have chosen to be vegetarians?
Protein Needs for Athletes
The protein requirements for all non-vegetarians is a large enough topic that it could be an entire article on its own. Heck, I sat through a whole course dedicated to just proteins in graduate school. However, the basic understanding is that most people follow the same rules.
The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight for men and women. And protein intake for a normal, healthy adult is 10%-35% of their total calories. According to the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) 2005 Dietary Reference Intake Guidelines, ”there is not a strong body of evidence documenting that additional dietary protein is needed by healthy adults who undertake endurance or resistance exercise“. However, the IOM is completely aware that it is very common among athletes and highly active people to increase their protein intake.
That’s good news for vegetarians. Why? It means that they don’t have to go above and beyond their normal efforts to create a balanced diet just because they choose to have an active lifestyle. And there are many food options to choose from to fulfill their protein needs such as eggs (for ovo-vegetarians), beans, nuts, nut butters (i.e. peanut butter, almond butter), and soy products (tofu, tempeh, veggie burgers)
Plant based foods are commonly lower in total calories. Therefore, vegetarians would likely have to eat more veggies and other non-meat based foods for their daily energy needs. For many athletes with big appetites that shouldn’t be a problem. However, it’s important to know that not all protein is the same.
Complete vs. Incomplete protein
Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids and nine of them are considered essential. In the nutrition world, when something is termed ”essential” it usually means that our body cannot make it. Therefore, we are going to have to find a way to get it into our diet.
Foods that are a sources of complete protein contain all 9 essential amino acids. Examples would be meat, poultry, eggs, milk, cheese, and fish. On the other hand, there are protein sources that do not contain all 9 essential amino acids. These types of food sources are considered incomplete proteins. Examples would include rice, corn, and beans.
Putting it all together – Complementary proteins
So, what is a person to do if they don’t eat animal products? They can easily join together as complementary proteins. These types of protein combinations consist of two or more incomplete protein sources that when put together they provide adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids. Examples would be combining beans with grains.
Beyond protein needs
As a vegetarian, there are nutrition concerns other than protein that may arise during meal planning. For example, vitamin B12, iron, calcium and zinc can be missed when not eating animal based products. The quick and easy way is to include fortified food products such as breakfast cereals into your diet. Fortified orange juice has become a source of calcium.
Another tip is to avoid loading up on high fat cheeses as a primary protein source. Instead, steer your meals around lower fat options such as beans or lentils and rice.
Lastly, following a vegetarian diet will not guarantee proper nutrition. The key is to focus on well-balanced meals that meet ALL of your nutritional needs – regardless of how one chooses to achieve that.
While a vegetarian diet is not for everyone, it’s certainly a very manageable lifestyle. The advice that I give my students is to make your meals colorful. The more colors, the more nutrients. To clarify, to my knowledge, there is not one particular food available that has all the nutrients that we need for nourishment. However, colorful vegetables (i.e. darky leafy greens, red and orange-colored fruits and veggies) all offer their own unique blend of phytohchemicals and nutrients. Therefore, the more assortment you have to your meals, the more likely you are to have a well-balanced and healthy diet.
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