Whether it’s for health or ideological reasons, more and more people are following a vegetarian diet. A recent study indicated that 7.3 million Americans are vegetarians. What’s more, these same studies—sponsored by the American Heart Association—showed that vegetarians tend to be at lower risk for obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer.
But is a vegetarian diet right for athletes? It’s a misconception to say that vegetarian diets do not provide enough protein or nutrients for training. A balanced, well-planned vegetarian diet can give you all of the nutrition you need to stay in the game – even for athletes who are looking to build muscle. A healthy vegetarian diet consists of whole grains, lean proteins, calcium-rich foods and a variety of fruits and vegetables.
For those of you considering a vegetarian diet (or who may be new to it), there are several types of vegetarians:
- Lacto-vegetarians (dairy is allowed)
- Pescatarians (fish is allowed)
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians (dairy and eggs are allowed)
- Vegans (No animal products of any kind are allowed)
Each type of vegetarian eating protocol has unique challenges, but they all need sufficient protein. Protein powder can be a great protein source—but be careful, not all protein powders are vegetarian. Whey and casein protein powders are made with milk byproducts, so you’d think they’d be fine for vegetarians who eat dairy, right? Not necessarily. To separate milk into components (curds and whey), manufacturers use an enzyme called rennet. Some protein powders get rennet from vegetable sources, but most rennet actually comes from a decidedly un-vegetarian source: slaughtered veal calves. This is not information you’ll find on the label—so do your research to find out which protein powders are truly vegetarian.
There are many plant-based protein sources. Here are some of the most popular:
- Eggs—Always a great, simple high-protein food.
- Soy protein—Incredibly low in fat and cholesterol. Soy generally offers more flavor options than other vegetarian proteins, but read your labels carefully, because some soy proteins contain milk and/or fish products.
- Pea protein—High in protein, easy to digest, cholesterol-free, and has a solid branched-chain amino acid profile.
- Hemp protein—Hemp seeds are packed with Omega-3s and a serving also contains almost half your daily dose of fiber.
- Beans and legumes—For vegetarians looking to build muscle, one of the key sources of protein they need to be looking into are chickpeas and other legumes.
- Nuts and seeds
Also, be sure to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, which will supply you with a high quality source of nutrients as well as antioxidant protection to keep your immune system strong. For every vegetable you eat, pair it with a healthy fat and protein-packed side. This provides the balance of nutrition you need!
Watch out for micronutrient deficiencies—a real area of concern for vegetarian athletes and the source of some health problems. You can circumvent these by focusing on specific nutrient rich foods, or by taking supplements. Most of all, take sure you are getting enough of these four nutrients:
Iron is subdivided into two types: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron absorbs more easily into the body and is found in red meat (creating a deficiency for vegetarians). Non-heme iron is not absorbed as easily, and is found in many vegetable-based foods including spinach, kale, collard greens, dried peas, beans, lentils, artichokes and dried fruit. Women are at greater risk for iron-deficiency anemia because they lose iron during their menstrual cycle, so women should consider iron supplementation.
Calcium is important for bone density and muscle contractions. Dietary calcium is typically found in dairy-rich foods, so it’s easy to find for lacto-vegetarians. Alternate sources of calcium fit for a vegan diet include spinach, collard greens, kale, broccoli and almonds.
Zinc deficiencies can affect cognitive power and motor skills. To combat zinc depletion, vegetarians should supplement with zinc products or consume natural sources like pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts, or macadamia nuts.
Vitamin B12 deficiencies can lead to vitamin B12 deficiency anemia and permanent nerve damage. Your best bet is to seek out foods fortified with adequate amounts, or supplement with vitamin B12 products.
Finally, as with any change to your diet, consult your physician FIRST before making any radical changes.