A good number of world class athletes and weekend warriors, whether for reasons related to health, concern for the environment, or their own ethical sensibilities, are forgoing meat in exchange for a vegetarian diet. Some are even going vegan. Whether vegan or vegetarian, the question must be asked. Can the serious athlete perform at their best, while adhering to a plant-based diet? The answer to this often-asked question is it all depends.
The Special Needs of Serious Athletes
Everyone needs to take in enough calories to supply energy to the muscles and cells, but those that take their athletics more seriously are burning more energy in their sport so they need to consume more calories to maintain overall energy balance.
Caloric totals depend on size, body composition, gender, and activity level but the most important thing is that the diet supplies a sum total of calories that will allow the body to use the protein consumed to build muscle instead of using it as an energy source. For this reason, a vegetarian diet needs to supply a balanced supply of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat).
Although a vegetarian diet is typically high in carbohydrates, athletes need complex carbohydrates, and for these, they need to turn to a variety of sources including brown rice, legumes, whole grains, and fruit. Such foods will supply them with protein, fiber, vitamins, antioxidants and minerals to protect their bodies from the stress of all the heavy exercise on which their performance depends.
Timing plays a part as well. If athletes are to replenish muscle and glycogen stored in the liver, they need to eat a post workout snack; something light like a piece of fruit, a fluid replacement drink, or even just a glass of fruit juice consumed anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours after exercising. The next full meal should be high in a mix of protein and carbohydrates such as lentils (protein) and pasta (carbs), or tofu (protein) and vegetables and rice (carbs).
All athletes, meat eaters as well as vegetarians, are constantly worried about getting enough protein in their diet. Since protein is composed of chains of amino acids, vegetarians need to be especially careful that their meals are supplying them with individual essential amino acids. One such amino acid is lysine, which they can get in soy foods such as tofu and tempeh, legumes and lentils, or seitan. Other sources of protein include seeds, nuts, nut butters, and whole grains and vegetables.
Since fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient, fats help serious athletes fill their calorie needs. Dietary fats also provide the fat-soluble vitamins K, E, and A, as well as energy and essential fatty acids.
The omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats found in olive, canola, and avocado oils are beneficial, in contrast to saturated fats contained in animal products and tropical oils which have been found to lead to strokes and cardiovascular disease. Incorporating avocados, walnuts, and ground flaxseeds into the diet is another way of insuring optimum energy.
Keep In Mind
The Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition cautions that if a well-planned vegetarian diet is to sustain an athlete it needs to include soy products, nuts, legumes, seeds, and nuts. In addition, athletes should eat small amounts of protein throughout the day to ensure that the valuable macronutrient is available when they need it.