Vegetarian or not, athletes need more protein and calories (on average) than non-athletes. This can be particularly important in competitive sports, where nutrition status has a direct effect on physical performance. So what is the secret to boosting vegetarian athletes’ performance and overall fitness levels, all while keeping them healthy, and keeping their energy levels high?
If you are an athlete subscribed to a vegetarian or vegan diet, you want to incorporate high-energy foods into your meals and snacks. Nuts, heart-healthy oils, and dried fruits are great choices. Also, you want to make sure that you’re eating enough protein-rich foods to aid in muscle repair, such as legumes, whole grains, seeds, and soy. But that’s not all. When you eat is just as important as what you eat. Consuming meals in small quantities, and frequently throughout the day can actually enhance the amount of protein you digest to make sure you are meeting your needs.
Taking dietary supplements such as iron, vitamin B12, and zinc may also be wise. These supplements help increase oxygen flow to working muscles, prevent nerve damage, and aid in protein synthesis (respectively)--all of which are crucial functions to prevent injury and reach optimum performance goals. Calcium and vitamin D may also be necessary for athletes who live in northern latitudes or train indoors.
There is a common misconception that athletes cannot possibly meet their protein needs on a vegetarian or vegan diet. But where adequate calories and a variety of protein-rich plant foods are incorporated, these needs are met with ease.
The truth is that, when a vegetarian has a well-balanced diet, they are capable of optimal performance. Moreover, non-vegetarian athletes hold no advantage! In a recent study, a group of omnivorous athletes were asked to consume a strictly vegetarian diet for a period of two to six weeks. It was noted that their performance levels remained consistent. This demonstrates that the absence of animal proteins in a well-balanced diet does not negatively affect one’s athletic abilities.
In fact, vegetarian athletes’ diets are naturally high in carbohydrates, the primary source of fuel for physical activity. Each athlete’s exact carbohydrate requirements will vary depending on factors including body weight, and the intensity, duration and type of exercise (i.e. endurance or strength training).
So if you’re a vegetarian or vegan athlete (or if you aspire to be one): know that the secrets to your athletic prowess lie in a balanced daily diet. It’s a combination of paying attention to what you eat (enough carbs, proteins, and proper supplementation) and when you eat that provides the ultimate recipe for success.