The vegetarian (tri)athlete

My partner and I have recently been cutting back on the amount of meat we eat having 2 vegetarian nights a week. We still love the taste of meat so won’t be turning vegetarian, but for a variety of reasons – health, environmental, ethical and quality (buy less but buy top quality) – we’ll be introducing more veggie nights each week.

There are a few myths out there about being an athlete and being vegetarian and it not being good for performance. I have athletes who I coach who are vegetarian and so I thought it might be interesting for readers to go through some of these myths and discuss if they are true or not, and which foods you need to include to ensure your vegetarian diet meets the needs of a training athlete.

…you’ll likely be eating more vitamins and minerals which help boost your immunity. As long as you ensure you refuel with adequate protein and carbohydrate after training you’ll be fine!

The big one – not getting enough protein

With no meat it’s often claimed vegetarians cannot consume enough protein to meet the needs for recovery and muscle growth. However, with a varied diet it’s quite possible to consume enough protein and to consume all the essential amino acids (EAAs) you need.

Meat is a complete protein, that means it contains all nine EAAs that humans need.  Plant-based products are mainly incomplete proteins, so they lack some EAAs, however, there are some plant products that are also complete proteins, such as quinoa. Even without eating a complete protein source, as long as the meal contains a variety of incomplete protein sources you can combine these to obtain all the EAAs e.g. combining 2 incomplete protein sources such as rice and beans in one meal.

Good sources of plant-based protein are:

  • Quinoa – a complete protein and also contains fibre, calcium, magnesium and iron
  • Lentils, beans, peas – also contain fibre, iron and potassium
  • Chickpeas – also contain fibre and antioxidants
  • Peanuts, almonds, walnuts and nut butters – also contain healthy fats, fibre and various vitamins and minerals
  • Chia seeds/Hemp seeds – a complete protein and also contain omega 3 fatty acids
  • Dark leafy greens and veg e.g. broccoli, kale
  • Soya products e.g. Tofu, edamame beans
  • For those that can/will eat dairy products (milk, egg, cheese) then these are especially good in addition to the plant-based proteins as they contain all the EAAs

How much protein do you need?

You want to aim for 1.2-2 g protein/kg bodyweight/day i.e. A 60kg individual will want 72-120g protein/day (depending on activity level, goals, type of training, duration). (Of note this is well above the RDA, but evidence backs the lower range for optimal health outcomes). Taking the lower end, if you split this into 3 servings then:

Sources of 25g of protein (a good serving size):

  • 3-4 eggs, also contain healthy fats
  • 220g cottage cheese – that’s quite a lot so its good to combine some of this with another protein source in a meal
  • 30g whey protein – convenient, if mixed with water its relatively low in carbs and fat
  • 160-170g quinoa – a great vegan source of protein – it contains all the essential amino acids (like animal products do)
  • 1 tin chickpeas (400g)
  • 100g nuts

If you’re training you should add in a protein serving post training to maximise recovery.

Myth 2. You must supplement if you’re a vegetarian

It is commonly thought that vegetarian diets will lead to iron deficiency. All athletes are at increased risk of iron deficiency compared with non athletes, and vegetarians are theoretically at greater risk of deficiency as they are lacking ‘heme iron’ which is the form found in meat and which the body can readily absorb. However, non-heme iron is found in beans, lentils, leafy greens, nuts and seeds and while this form is not absorbed from plant-based sources as readily as heme iron from animal sources, the body can adapt to absorb more from the food we eat. In addition, you can increase your iron absorption if you combine vitamin C rich sources with iron sources within a meal e.g. stir spinach into a lentil dhal, add berries to your morning porridge or have an orange as well! And don’t have a tea or coffee with your meal as tannins in these reduce iron absorption. If your diet is varied with a mix of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds and fruit and veg there is no increased risk of iron deficiency.

Other vitamins and minerals that could be lower in vegetarians are vitamin D, calcium, vitamin B12 and omega 3s.

Vitamin D supplementation is advised for all – whether a meat eater or not, so that should be added as a supplement.  If you don’t eat fish (oily fish like salmon, tuna, mackerel) then an omega 3 fish oil supplement would be good to take. If you eat dairy products and eggs then there is no need to take B12 supplements, but if you don’t then a B12 supplement is advisable or consume fortified milks and cereals.

Finally, try to avoid processed vegetarian meals as these are lower in vitamins and minerals; prepare fresh varied meals and aim to get your micronutrients through your diet and you’ll tick a lot of boxes!

Sources of the above micronutrients are:

  • B12 – dairy, eggs, fortified foods
  • Calcium – dairy
  • Omega 3 – eggs, nuts, soybeans, oily fish like mackeral, salmon, fresh (not tinned) tuna
  • Vitamin D – very few foods naturally provide vitamin D, hence the need for supplementation.

Myth 3. You will be low on energy

As long as calorie intake meets the needs of your training levels, there is no reason why you will be low on energy. Vegetarian diets are rich in beans, lentils, nuts, fruit and veg which provide carbohydrate and are full of fiber so you won’t be lacking in energy or feeling hungry. In addition you’ll likely be eating more vitamins and minerals which help boost your immunity. As long as you ensure you refuel with adequate protein and carbohydrate after training you’ll be fine!

I hope this helps those vegetarian athletes out there, or those who are thinking of simply reducing their meat intake as my partner and I have, but might be concerned about the effect on their ability to train. 

If you have any further queries or questions just send me a message!

Happy training, and eating 😊

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