Can Vegetarian Diets Meet the Needs of Athletes?

“PROTEIN!!”they all shout! – “How can a vegetarian athlete be consuming enough protein?”

In the Position Statements of the American and Canadian Dietetic Associations it describes clearly that vegetarian diets can indeed meet the needs of both recreational and competitive athletes.

Vegetarian diets that meet energy needs and contain a variety of plant-based protein foods such as soy products, other legumes, grains, nuts and seeds can provide adequate protein WITHOUT the use of special foods or supplements.

PROTEIN: A reminder of protein sources

PROTEIN SOURCES FOR VEGANS: Legumes (all beans and lentils), especially soya (complete in all essential amino acids); seeds; nuts.

PROTEIN SOURCES FOR LACTO-OVO VEGETARIANS: Legumes, especially soya, seeds, nuts, dairy, eggs

PROTEIN SOURCES FOR LACTO-VEGETARIANS: Legumes, especially soya, seeds, nuts, dairy

Maintaining a healthy balanced diet overall incorporates the following basic principles:

  • Choose a variety of foods including whole-grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and, if desired, dairy products and eggs
  • Minimize intake of foods that are highly sweetened, high in sodium, and high in fat especially saturated fat and trans fatty acids
  • Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables
  • If animal products such as dairy products and eggs are used, choose low fat dairy products, and use both eggs and dairy products in moderation
  • Use a regular source of Vitamin B12, and if sunlight exposure is limited, of Vitamin D.

And of course… part of a healthy lifestyle incorporates being physically active, with many important benefits:

  • Increases your metabolic rate
  • Reduces risk of heart disease; diabetes; high blood pressure; colon cancer; osteoporosis
  • Improves mood, self-esteem and self-image
  • Increases energy levels
  • A wider variety of foods can be eaten when one is active

DISADVANTAGES of NOT exercising 

  • Even when eating correctly, unless one is active, weight-loss is hampered
  • Inactivity aggravates the natural decline in metabolic rate and muscle tone with age
  • Increased risk of lifestyle diseases
  • Inactive people often tend to eat more
  • Being unfit

Plan to do 2½ hours/week (30min/day) of some form of physical activity.

Muscle Health

Exercise is a powerful stimulus for muscle health. Interestingly, ingesting protein shortly after exercise appears to produce an even greater stimulus for our muscles (even better than eating protein before exercise).

Some research does demonstrate a greater ability for dairy protein (primarily in the form of whey protein) to stimulate muscle growth after exercise relative to soy protein. However, many of these studies examine identical amounts of protein for each source (i.e. 20 grams of whey vs 20 grams of soy). We know that dairy proteins such as whey contain greater relative amounts of leucine (an amino acid), which is the primary trigger in protein that stimulates muscle. Thus, whereas consuming 20 grams of whey protein after exercise may promote a maximal muscle response to exercise, it may be necessary to consume 30 grams of soy protein to get proper amounts of leucine.

Alternatively, more recent research indicates that consuming 20 grams of a BLEND of whey, soy and casein protein following exercise may further increase the stimulus on muscle

Extra considerations for athletes

  • Vegetarian athletes may have lower muscle creatine concentration due to low dietary creatine levels.
  • Vegetarian athletes participating in short-term, high intensity exercise and resistance training may benefit from creatine supplementation.
  • Some, but not all research suggests that amenorrhoea may be more common among vegetarian than non-vegetarian athletes.
  • Female vegetarian athletes may benefit from diets that include adequate energy, higher levels of fat and generous amounts of calcium and iron.

Don’t forget about your CARBS!

In all forms of sport and exercise carbohydrate plays as equally important role as protein.

Carbohydrates that have a Low Glycaemic Index (slow-release) – are essential in balanced amounts BEFORE exercise.

In order to supply a slow, but steady ongoing release of “fuel” to the body, choose:

Plenty of (Low GI) energy-sustaining carbohydrates throughout the day, such as:

  • Heavy, high fibre breads (Low GI breads, seed loaf, heavy “health” bread, heavy rye bread etc)
  • Provitas, Digestive Biscuits, bran muffins (low GI, low fat ones!)
  • Starches, e.g. durum wheat pasta / noodles, mealies, baby potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice
  • Cooled, cooked starch, e.g. potatoes (potato salad) / cooled cooked mealie-meal
  • Breakfast cereals such as Soya Life Premium Porridge, Hi-Fibre Bran, raw Oat Bran, heavy low fat muesli, Whole-wheat Original/Apple Bake Pronutro
  • LEGUMES: baked beans, lentils, green beans, butter beans etc
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables – use plenty
  • Low fat milk and yoghurt
  • Snacks, e.g. popcorn, “Balance” bars (Simply Cereal), Low GI Dried Fruit Bars etc
  • Low GI meal replacers such as Soya Life Instant Meal Replacement Drink

Because these are slow-release, they should be consumed 45-60 minutes BEFORE exercise.

In strenuous sport lasting more than 90 minutes, high GI carbs may be consumed directly after exercise in order to stimulate an immediate uptake of muscle glycogen (the muscle’s energy supply).

Examples: high GI energy drinks and bars; wine gums, white bread. NOTE: these foods should generally not be consumed at other times.

All in all:

Recreational sport and exercise should be fun! To enjoy your chosen form of keeping fit, whether it be gym, running, walking, yoga, Pilates, rowing, mountain climbing – and more – ensure that you eat a healthy, balanced vegetarian diet.

When doing a more competitive form of sport, ensure regular intake of vegetarian sources of protein coupled with low GI carbohydrate sources. Consult a Registered Dietician to plan you an individualized, balanced a varied vegetarian / vegan diets to fully meet YOUR specific dietary needs.

ENJOY the health benefits and emotional well-being achieved from being FIT!!


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