Sports Nutrition for Vegetarians and Vegans
However, certain nutrients require more thought and planning as they can be lacking in a vegetarian or vegan diet. Below are the most common ones:
Energy & Protein
Some vegetarians and vegans have difficulty meeting energy needs because of high fiber and/or low energy density of plant-based foods. Although this is favored for the general population, amateur and expert athletes have increased energy needs to compensate for their high level of physical activity. In this case, the individual must consume caloric, yet healthy foods, such as avocado, nuts and seeds, and granola.
Also important to take into account is the increased protein needs in vegetarians and vegans due to the lower digestibility of plant-based proteins. Plant proteins aren’t as well digested or as complete as animal proteins, so choosing a variety of different types of protein foods over the course of the day is essential to ensure you get all of your amino acids. Because of this, it is recommended that vegetarian athletes consume 1.3 to 1.8 grams of protein/kilogram of body weight daily, which is 10% more than recommendations for non-vegetarian athletes. Good plant-based sources of protein include soybeans and soy products, beans, lentils, quinoa, peas, nuts and seeds, and nut butters.
There are 2 types of iron in food; heme iron found in animal foods and non-heme iron in plant foods. Vegetarians need almost twice the iron of non-vegetarians because non-heme iron is poorly absorbed. Plus, training can increase your need for iron. If your iron levels are too low and have a deficiency, you may feel fatigued and have impaired performance. To make sure to get enough iron:
- Eat foods high in iron like beans, lentils, seeds, soy, and whole grain or fortified cereals, breads and pastas every day.
- Include a source of vitamin C at meals and snacks to help your body absorb the iron from plant foods. Foods high in vitamin C include citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, and broccoli.
- Don’t drink tea or coffee during meals because they can reduce iron absorption. Wait at least one hour after a meal to enjoy your tea or coffee.
Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal products. Unfortunately, a B12 deficiency leads to anemia and can cause symptoms like weakness, fatigue, light-headedness, rapid heartbeat, and rapid breathing, all of which will have a negative effect on performance. If you don’t eat eggs or dairy products, include foods fortified with vitamin B12 like soy beverages and meat substitutes, such as tofu dogs or veggie burgers.
Calcium & Vitamin D
Calcium and vitamin D are important for healthy bones, teeth, muscles, nerves, and proper hormone function. Although dairy products are the greatest source of calcium and vitamin D, we can also find them in fortified soy beverages, canned salmon or sardines with the bones, and fortified orange juices. Other sources of calcium include almonds, white beans, tahini, tofu set with calcium, and dark leafy greens greens. Vitamin D on the other hand can be obtained from sunlight coming into contact with our skin during the summer months in Canada. If you train indoors most of the time, early in the morning or late in the evening, you may be at risk for low vitamin D status. Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) in supplements or fortified foods (e.g. milk) is usually from an animal source. If you want a plant source of vitamin D choose products made with vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol).
Zinc is needed for growth and development, helps strengthen the immune system and heal wounds. For this reason, including foods rich in zinc like soy and soy products, pumpkin seeds, and legumes can be beneficial to athletes.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Although omega-3 fatty acids are not crucial for sports performance, having a good omega-3 status is important for overall health. Including them in your diet can decrease the risk of heart disease and keep your eyes, nerves and brain healthy. Choose at least 2 of the following per day: oils like canola, flaxseed, walnut and soybean, ground flaxseeds, soybeans, tofu and walnuts.
Following a vegetarian or vegan diet doesn’t mean you need to compromise on performance. It is still very possible to meet all your requirements on a vegetarian or vegan diet as long as your diet is varied and contains a source of protein and vegetable at lunch and dinner.
Note: The information included is based on the best available evidence at the time and may not be applicable for all athletes. Please consult your local dietitian to get personalized advice.
Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. (2016).
Rosenbloom, C. (2012). Sports nutrition a practice manual for professionals. (5th ed.). Chicago, Ill.: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Shulman, L. (2008). Vitamin D Status Predicts Physical Performance and Its Decline in Older Persons. Yearbook of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women's Health, 2008, 11-12. doi:10.1016/s1090-798x(08)79128-8
Zeina is a registered dietitian-nutritionist and is part of l’Ordre professionnel des diététistes du Québec and Dietitians of Canada. She currently works at Le Fitness Loft Kinesiology Clinic in Dorval where she consults an active clientele that desires to change their lifestyle habits, whether it is to lose weight, increase muscle mass, improve performance or simply live healthier. Zeina has a passion for teaching and conveying her knowledge about overall healthy eating habits and makes sure every client receives personalized recommendations based on their lifestyle and preferences. For more tips and tricks visit www.TheFoodieRD.com.
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