Vegetarian Athletes

If you’re a vegetarian athlete, here’s how to ensure you have a balanced diet

Many people – athletes and non-athletes – restrict or avoid meat or other animal products for religious, cultural or health-related reasons. The recommendation of a diet rich in carbohydrate may lead many athletes to one form of a vegetarian diet.

There are many ways to be a vegetarian. A strict vegetarian, known as a vegan, eats no animal products at all. Lactovegetarians add milk and other dairy products such as cheese to their all-vegetable diet. Ovolactovegetarians eat both eggs and milk products. A new group, which could be called semi- vegetarian, avoid red meat, such as beef and pork, but eat fish and poultry in addition to their ovolactovegetarian diet. Additionally, emphasis is placed on foods that are ‘organic’ and unprocessed and unrefined.

The major concern about vegetarian diets has always been the question of obtaining a balanced intake of nutrients. While a lactovegetarian and ovovegetarian diet may cover all nutritional needs, there may be a shortage of iron, calcium, iodine, selenium, zinc, riboflavin, vitamin D and vitamin B 12 in a strictly vegetarian diet.

Iron intake may also be low in a lactovegetarian diet because of the lack of haem iron from meat sources, which is more absorbable and improves the absorption of iron from vegetable sources. In addition, a higher dietary content of vitamin C is very useful to enhance iron absorption. Large amounts of tea and coffee may reduce the iron availability. Foods like green vegetables, some legumes and cereals have a relatively high content of non-haem iron.

Food combining for proteins
To receive a balanced distribution of essential amino acids, the vegetarian must eat vegetables that possess ‘mutual supplementation’ of dietary protein. This is a nutritional strategy in which vegetable foods with low contents of amino acids (cereals, for example) are eaten together with a food that is high in that same amino acid (for example, milk and beans). In order to obtain an intake of good-quality proteins in the diet, the following food combinations are recommended:
1 pasta with cheese
2 rice and milk pudding
3 cereals with milk or egg
4 potatoes with egg or cheese
5 rice and beans
6 Ientils and bread
If care is taken to include a wide variety of foods and to combine the right foods, vegetarian diets, except the strict or ‘pure’ vegetarian way of eating, can be nutritionally adequate, and will not harm one’s performance.

Don’t be misled by the books
In the popular books, ‘Fit for Life’ and ‘The Hay Diet’, the authors fail to recognise that our bodies can digest both protein and carbohydrates at the same time. By separating the two nutrient categories, as the diets in these books recommend, you will fail to achieve the benefits of mutual supplementation of dietary protein – for instance, the vegetable protein (from bread) and the animal protein (from cheese). In general, the practical advice given in these books fails to meet recommended servings of calcium-rich dairy products and energy-rich complex carbohydrates from bread, cereals and potatoes. To eat fruits alone before lunch is not advisable for a well-balanced breakfast. The guidelines in ‘Fit for Life’ are therefore confusing and misleading. Remember that the greater the variety of foods we eat, the more we reduce the likelihood that we will develop a deficiency of any single nutrient.

In short, if athletes are to become vegetarians, they simply need a little more knowledge and must put more thought and planning into their diet. It may also be advisable to monitor iron status and blood profile (including serum ferritin) in order to prevent iron-deficiency anaemia.

Female athletes should eat enough milk products, which are the best sources of calcium, in order to prevent osteoporosis.

A well-balanced diet containing all food groups with the majority of vegetables, fruits and cereals in combination with the right amount of animal food is the sound base of nutrition for fitness and sport.

Michael Hamm (Sports Science Update)