By Paula Marcé, Dietitian-Nutritionist by the University of Barcelona and taking the master’s degree in nutrition in physical activity and sports. Focused on sports research and nutrition.
A vegetarian diet is based on foods of vegetable origin, such as fruits, vegetables, cereals, pulses, nuts, and seeds. There are different types of vegetarian diets, among which egg-lacto-vegetarians and vegans stand out. However, other variations are currently very popular, such as flexitarian, macrobiotic, fruitarian, egg-vegetarians, lacto-vegetarians or pesco-vegetarians diets.
Egg-lacto-vegetarian diets exclude meat and fish but include dairy products and eggs. On the other hand, vegan diets do not have any food that is of animal origin. A large number of studies have shown the benefits of being a vegetarian, including a decrease in the risk of cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, obesity or different types of cancer.
“Vegetarian athletes should keep in
mind That each type or variation of
vegetarian nutrition has its particularities”
However, the simple elimination of the consumption of meat and other products of animal origin does not justify all these benefits on the health of the individual. These contributions are due to the numerous integral foods that a vegetarian diet contains and its richness in complex carbohydrates, fiber, fruit, and vegetables. These nourishments have a high density of nutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals, and a very low content in saturated fatty acids and cholesterol.
However, vegetarian athletes should keep in mind that each type or variation of vegetarian nutrition has its particularities, which is important to keep in mind. For this reason, below is a list of the nutritional considerations that we believe are essential when it comes to following these diets.
1. Consume enough calories when following a vegetarian diet
Due to physical activity and its respective energy expenditure, athletes have higher energy needs. As we stated before, a vegetarian diet is rich in fibre and foods of plant origin, which tend to present a low energy density and promote the sensation of satiety. In other words, foods ingested in a diet of these characteristics make the athlete feel full despite the fact that the energy levels are lower than the ones received by a person with an alternative diet.
For this reason, and in order to increase the intake calories, vegetarian athletes need to increase the frequency of meals, not the amount of food they eat in each intake, as well as the consumption of energy foods such as nuts, oils or seeds. It is also very important to periodically monitor the weight and body composition of the athletes to verify that their energy levels are correct.
2. Adequate and balanced intake of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats
When following a vegetarian diet, the athlete has to ensure an adequate and balanced intake of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats according to the individual and the sports requirements in order to ensure an optimal performance. To take into consideration:
To optimize the input of proteins, the vegetarian athlete should pay special attention to the quantity and quality of these, since vegetable proteins present a low biological value and essential amino acids, and contain less branched-chain amino acids (BCAA).
It is important to consume a large variety of foods rich in vegetable proteins throughout the day, such as pulses, whole grains, nuts or seeds. This is to meet the needs of proteins and amino acids mentioned above and to optimize the training recovery and its adaptations.
Cereals, pulses, beans, tubers, vegetables, and fruits have high carbohydrate content. Even so, it should be taken into account that these foods are rich in fibre and other substances that make it difficult for digestion and absorption while promoting the sensation of satiety, which we talked about previously.
For this reason, in high-volume phases of training, it is appropriate to choose foods rich in carbohydrates, but low in fibre, with a high content of B group vitamins. Foods such as rice, pasta, noodles, and buckwheat present less fibre than oats, lentils, beans, and whole bread. In addition, the elimination of the skin of tubers and root vegetables reduces the fibre content of these foods, thus helping the athlete maintain proper levels of carbohydrates.
Like with the proteins, athletes should give importance to the quantity and quality of the fats they ingest. Vegetarian diets are low in total and saturated fats, low in cholesterol and in omega 3, but they are high in omega 6. However, both omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acids are essential for a favourable health and sports performance. Consuming an adequate amount of both elements allow you to maintain balance and enhance anti-inflammatory effects.
Therefore, it is important to limit the consumption of sunflower oil, corn, and safflower (all rich in omega 6) and enhance the consumption of oilseeds crushed, such as flax and chia (all rich in omega 3). However, athletes who follow a vegetarian diet should supplement it with microalgae oil to cover the requirements of omega 3 on a daily basis.
3. To consume foods with a high nutrient density
In a vegetarian diet, there are micronutrients, such as iron, calcium, zinc, iodine, Omega 3, Vitamin D and Vitamin B12, that are key for athletes who follow this type of alimentation, and it is important to take them into consideration.
Vegetarian athletes should include foods rich in iron in their diet, such as spinach, asparagus, broccoli, radishes, tofu, lentils, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds or soybeans.
To these should be added foods rich in Vitamin C such as fruits and carotenoids, such as carrots, which contribute to iron absorption. Tea, coffee or chocolate make this absorption difficult.
It is important to increase the consumption of foods rich in calcium such as watercress, arugula, col kale, tofu, sesame seeds, chia, white beans, and almonds.
It is important that vegetarian athletes consume foods rich in zinc, such as hemp seeds and pumpkin seeds, other cereals, nuts or legumes. In these cases, it is necessary to adopt methods that facilitate their absorption, such as previously soaking and fermenting these foods. If this can not be achieved, an additional supplement should be considered.
It is necessary to regularly consume small quantities of seaweed and monitor the amount of iodized salt added. If this is not possible, the use of supplements should be taken into account.
This is especially important for athletes because of its role in skeletal muscle. Therefore, on a daily basis, it is important to be exposed to sunlight at least 15 minutes, as well as to increase the consumption of fortified foods and mushrooms that have had sun exposure. In order to have control of the values of this vitamin in the body, it is recommended that athletes conduct blood analyzes on a regular basis, especially indoor and winter sports athletes.
This element is synthesized only by microorganisms and, therefore, it is more abundant in foods of animal origin than in plant foods. Therefore, for vegans it is essential to complement it with a minimum of 6 μg / day is essential for vegans.
A properly planned vegetarian diet is healthy, nutritionally adequate and provides health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases in all stages of life. In addition, a well-cared supply of food covers the energy requirements of macronutrients and micronutrients necessary for an athlete.
“To become an excellent
vegetarian athlete, it is important
to expand the range of foods“
Proper nutrition and optimum nutritional status maximize performance and long-term athletic career. In addition, in a vegetarian diet, the requirements of carbohydrates, protein, and fats are met, as well as the adequate contribution and density of micronutrients (minerals and vitamins) of food.
Therefore, to become an excellent vegetarian athlete, it is important to expand the range of foods, consume a large variety of legumes, vegetables of different colours and shapes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains. It is also of particular importance to follow the dietetic-nutrition advice made by a professional to adapt the food to personal needs and to the athlete’s own sports requirements. With all this, performance is improved, possible deficiencies are avoided (iron, calcium, zinc, iodine, Omega 3, Vitamin D and Vitamin B12), the ability to recover and the resistance are maximized, and there is a prevention for health problems or risks of injuries.