A vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry, and fish; some people also omit eggs and dairy products, while vegans exclude animal products altogether.
You can take it a step further by going on a raw or gluten-free diet. Besides the obvious, which is that any diet built on exclusions is emotionally hard, a vegetarian diet can be a challenge when it comes to your nutrient intake and energy levels.
On the plus side, however, a vegetarian diet usually involves a higher intake of antioxidants and phytonutrients which reduce free radical damage during intense exercise.
Protein also acts as a complement to carbs. They help regulate the rate at which carbs enter your bloodstream and prevent sugar spikes and crashes. In addition, strength athletes need protein to build muscle mass. A plant-based diet is also usually high in fibre which further inhibits protein absorption.
Vegetarian diets are also generally low in B12, iron, and calcium. These are particularly important for endurance athletes as B12 helps produce red blood cells and prevents you from becoming anaemic. It’s also important for nerve and mental health – long-term deficiency can lead to cognitive impairment, while lack of iron and calcium can affect your immunity and bone health respectively.
Salt and fats seem like bad things to want to put into your body as an athlete, but they are essential to your overall wellbeing. Poorly planned vegetarian diets lack both. Fats help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K and regulate carb absorption so that your sugar levels stay consistent.
KFit Asia head of operations Shakira Shanaz, who is currently on a vegetarian diet as part of her yoga teacher training course, agrees. “My body craved more sugar, so I’d make myself Milo when I would usually just have water.” Low sodium levels, on the other hand, can lead to muscle cramps, especially if you are sweating a lot.
So, can you still be athletic and a vegetarian?
Supplementing A Vegetarian Diet
Adequate protein intake on a plant-based diet is difficult but possible with proper planning. Opt for protein rich foods like beans, lentils, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Quinoa and soy are great protein solutions too, as they are complete sources of protein―tempeh is a firm favourite.
It is important to remember that you will need to eat larger portions for the same amount of protein you would get from meat, and a handful of nuts in your salad is not going to cut it.
Increase iron absorption with the aid of vitamin C rich fruits and vegetables. B12 is not readily available in non-meat items but you can opt for fortified cereals or supplements. Give your body the good fats it needs with avocado, olive oil, or flaxseed oil.
Avoid fibre-heavy meals right before a workout so that you have plenty of time to digest. You should also include a post-workout protein meal to help with muscle synthesis. Protein shakes are useful here too.
Meals don’t need to be boring! You can also substitute your usual flour with soy protein powder or bean flour. Peanut butter is a great source of nutrients for vegetarians as well.
Don’t forget to salt your food (within reason)!
Yes or No?
There are marginal benefits to being an athlete on a vegetarian diet. Over time you tend to feel less bloated and have a quicker recovery time, plus you will probably have a lower intake of bad fats and cholesterol.
However, D. Enette Larson-Meyer, associate professor of human nutrition at the University of Wyoming, has a different opinion.
Many people tell me after they start a vegetarian diet that they feel better, but then again many of them… were eating a pretty poor diet, so of course they feel better. They could have switched to a healthier meat-based diet and they would have probably felt better.
Shakira concurs. “I mostly self-prepare my food as eating out while vegetarian is expensive. I also avoid greasy food since I’m already making an effort to be healthy. I feel like this, more than the vegetarian diet, contributed to my feeling lighter and less lethargic.
“Would I continue to be a vegetarian once my course is over? Probably not. I will eat cleaner and healthier, but I don’t think being a vegetarian is necessary for health.”
Still, there is no harm being an athlete on a vegetarian diet if you choose to do so. It requires greater care and planning than a meat-based diet to ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need, but it’s not impossible.