Every day, more and more endurance athletes are incorporating a more plant-based diet into their training and competition nutrition plans. This carbohydrate rich style of eating delivers performance and health benefits, including enhanced muscle recovery and optimal heart and bone health. Plant based eating is fantastic for runners, cross country skiers, swimmers and road cyclists, giving extra energy stores to push performance to the limit! Prudent use of fortified foods and supplements will help ensure that you get all the nutrients you need.
Vegetarians need to be as diligent as meat eaters to make sure they get adequate amounts of iron, calcium, zinc and B12. Female athletes are at risk for developing iron deficiency or anemia. Routine monitoring of iron status is recommended for female athletes, especially during periods of rapid growth (i.e., adolescence) and when training volume increases significantly. Anyone following a very low fat diet for weight loss or other health reasons is at risk for a deficiency of essential fatty acids, and may warrant supplementation with marine plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Contrary to popular belief getting enough protein is not an issue, as documented in the recent ADA Position Paper on vegetarian diets (JADA, July 2009, p. 1266) which highlights that vegetarians are, in fact, meeting their protein needs. Protein quality of plant-based diets should be sufficient long as a variety of foods are provided with adequate energy. Because plant proteins are less well digested than animal proteins, an increase of about 10% in the amount of protein consumed may be made. Recommended protein intakes for vegetarian athletes approximate 1.3-1.8 grams/kg of body weight/day.
Here are some nutrition tips to help you out:
1. Eat different types of protein rich plant foods (unrefined grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and vegetables) throughout the day. Choose small pre-workout meals such as baked beans on toast, or a peanut butter and banana sandwich on whole grain breads. Refuel after running with a vegetable based lentil and rice soup. For fast refueling, combine soft tofu or yogurt with fruit and soymilk for a high protein shake.
2. Very low fat diets may lead to a deficiency of essential fatty acids, and may warrant supplementation with marine plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids in addition to other polyunsaturated fatty acids from plant sources (vegetable oils, regular salad dressings, nuts/seeds).
3. Include plenty alternative sources of calcium such as dark leafy green veggies, fortified soy milk, legumes, peanuts, almonds and seeds. These will be your primary source of calcium, important for a normal heart rhythm, strong bones and teeth, and general health.
4. Include iron rich plant foods every day – this is most important for menstruating female runners. Plant sources of iron are not absorbed as well as animal sources but combining foods rich in vitamin C with any iron rich food will improve its’ absorption. Mix legumes, whole grains, and iron-enriched breads and cereals with dark leafy green veggies and dried fruits to maximize iron absorption.
5. Include zinc rich plant foods every day and your immune function gets a boost as well. While red meat and poultry supply the meat eaters amongst us with most of our zinc intake, some seafood, whole grains, dry beans, and nuts also provide zinc.
6. Eat vitamin B-12 fortified foods or supplements to ensure adequate intake. Vitamin B-12 is only found naturally in animal products and fermented foods such as miso and tempeh have small amounts of B-12 but generally not enough.