Have you ever thought about switching to a vegetarian diet, but wondered “how will I get enough protein?” or “can endurance athletes thrive on a plant-based diet?”
This article will review what a vegetarian diet is, why you may want to consider a vegetarian diet, and how to properly transition to the diet as an endurance athlete. Many successful endurance athletes are vegetarian, including Brendan Brazier, Rich Roll, Laura Phillips, and Scott Jurek.
There is no one way to fuel your body for endurance sports, and you do not need to follow a vegetarian diet to be successful. But if you choose vegetarianism, this article can help you be a successful endurance athlete, and also be healthy.
Why a vegetarian diet?
Being vegetarian is a lifestyle, not a diet. It requires knowledge and commitment, and there needs to be a reason why one would want to make this choice. There are many reasons someone may choose to follow this lifestyle, including religion, concerns about animal welfare, and the environment. Some athletes also find that a vegetarian diet has contributed to improved athletic performance and faster recovery.
When switching to a vegetarian diet, especially as an endurance athlete, it is important to pay attention to your overall energy consumption. It is quite common for athletes to inadvertently reduce the number of calories they consume daily, as many meat alternatives tend to be less calorically-dense than their meat counterparts.
A common concern that many athletes have when thinking about a vegetarian diet, is where they will get their protein. Consuming an adequate amount of protein daily is crucial for keeping you satisfied between meals and snacks, helping build muscle, and repairing tissue.
Protein requirements for athletes tend to be higher than non-athletes, and hovers around 1.2-2.0g/kg1 bodyweight daily. Complete proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids, and can be found in many vegetarian sources, including soy, eggs, and dairy. Incomplete protein sources can also be paired together to create a complete protein source, some examples of this include:
- Peanut butter on whole grain bread
- Hummus and pita
- Mixed green salad with beans and sunflower or pumpkin seeds
Combining these protein sources together ensures you are getting all essential amino acids, while also helping to increase food variety in the diet.
Additional ways to boost protein in meals include incorporating skim milk powder, hemp seed, chia seeds, egg whites, and Greek yogurt into your diet. Some examples of meals/snacks are:
- Adding greek yogurt or skim milk powder to smoothies
- Adding chia/hemp seeds or egg whites into oatmeal/cereals
Other nutrients of concern
Consuming an unbalanced diet, eliminating certain food groups, and restricting energy intake, can increase the risk of nutrient deficiencies. This is especially true for endurance athletes, as there is increased metabolic stress on the body, and replenishing lost nutrients is crucial for overall health and recovery between sessions.
Even non-vegetarian athletes can become deficient in iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12, or calcium, as these are common nutrient deficiencies in all athletes. Through a well-planned vegetarian diet, it is possible to maintain appropriate levels of all of these nutrients.
Vitamin B12 is important for optimal energy production, and B vitamins are required for protein synthesis and tissue repair. Vegetarian foods containing high levels of Vitamin B12 include eggs, milk, nutritional yeast, and other fortified foods.
Iron is important in oxygen transport and energy metabolism, and is found in vegetarian foods such as legumes (beans, lentils, tofu), pumpkin, hemp, flax seeds, leafy greens, and potatoes. You can maximize the absorption of iron by consuming it with a source of Vitamin C such as oranges or red peppers.
Vitamin D helps the body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus. It is found in fortified plant beverages, mushrooms, and fortified cereals. However it is mostly obtained by spending time in the sun. Since very few foods contain an adequate source of Vitamin D, and in the winter exposure to the sun is limited, a supplement may be needed to maintain levels over the winter..
The last nutrient is calcium, which is crucial for bone health, stabilizes blood pressure, prevents blood clotting, and helps with muscle contraction. It is found in high amounts in milk or fortified plant beverages, yogurt, soybeans, bok choy, and figs.
How to know if you’re deficient in key nutrients
A simple blood test is also a great way to know if you are staying in the appropriate ranges for each nutrient of concern. It is helpful to know if you need to increase or decrease consumption of certain foods, to make sure levels stay within the target range. If you have a deficiency of a nutrient, supplements may be required to boost your levels, but you’ll also want to optimize your diet to improve your intake and maintain levels.
Maintaining health and performing well as a vegetarian endurance athlete, is definitely possible, with some planning and attention to key nutrients and fuelling strategies. You’ll want to pay attention to ensuring you’re getting enough protein, vitamin B12, iron, vitamin D, and calcium when you plan your meals and snacks. Working with a Registered Dietitian who specializes in sport can help you optimize your vegetarian diet for endurance performance.