Vegetarianism and Athletes
In response to increased levels of
cholesterol and a greater risk of heart disease, many Americans are making the
switch from a diet dominated by hamburgers and hotdogs to one of veggie burgers
But is this type of diet a wise choice
for athletes who need to maintain their strength and stamina?
The answer to that question is a
Whether you are an athlete or
moderately active, you must be aware of the nutritional implications of
vegetarianism, and choose foods that will provide you with enough calories and
nutrients to keep you healthy and strong.
There are four basic types of
vegetarians. The first, lacto-ovo vegetarians, omit meat, fish and poultry from
their diets, but include animal products such as eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese.
The second and third types of
vegetarians are lacto-vegetarians and ovo-vegetarians. Lacto-vegetarians, while
excluding eggs, do include dairy products.
Conversely, ovo-vegetarians do include
eggs, but exclude dairy products from their diets. Both types exclude all forms
of meat. Finally, the restrictive vegan diet excludes all foods derived from
animals in any form.
Regardless of what type of
vegetarianism may be your preference, it is essential to have a good
understanding of basic nutritional principles in order to choose a balanced
Without this knowledge, vegetarians may
find themselves deficient in nutrients generally derived from meat, eggs and/or
dairy products such as protein, iron, calcium and vitamins B12 and D.
Protein deficiency, though generally a
rare occurrence in the Western world, is of concern, especially for vegans.
Individuals who consume eggs or dairy products need not be worried about a
Vegans, however, should include
high-quality proteins such as legumes, nuts and seeds in combination with whole
grain breads and cereals. Soy products and other meat substitutes also are good
sources of protein.
This is particularly important for
endurance and strength athletes, who have slightly higher protein requirements
than the average adult.
For vegetarians who drink milk or eat
dairy products, getting enough calcium and vitamin D should not be a problem.
For others, calcium may be found in vitamin D-fortified soy products, tortillas,
some nuts, sesame seeds and self-rising flour.
Iron, a nutrient abundant in meat, can
be found in eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds and spinach. Two or more servings of
these each day is recommended for the average vegetarian adult.
Getting enough vitamin B12, which is
often found only in animal foods and nutritional supplements, can pose a serious
problem for vegans, especially those who are pregnant. Because this vitamin can
be stored in our bodies for up to four years, a deficiency takes quite some time
Getting what you need
The high-fiber, low-calorie nature of
most vegetarian foods may pose a problem for athletes. Very often the volume of
vegetarian foods required to meet their energy needs is greater than their
stomach's capacity for food.
When energy reserves drop too low, the
body will convert its own muscle or protein to compensate for the deficiency,
leaving little left over for growth. Eating several smaller meals throughout the
day or snacking on foods that contain both carbohydrates and some protein may be
Despite the previously mentioned
concerns, studies have shown that individuals on vegetarian diets have lower
blood cholesterol levels, better digestive function, and lower occurrence of
certain types of cancer.
Before making the switch to
vegetarianism, however, remember that it takes careful planning and nutritional
knowledge to achieve a healthy, well-balanced diet.