If you are vegetarian or vegan and regularly compete in endurance sports events, it’s likely that at least one person you know has questioned whether your diet can possibly give you all the nutrients you need or whether you would perform better if you included meat and fish in your diet. But there is no reason for this to be the case: a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can support a substantial endurance training programme, and the 2000 position paper from the ADA and American College of Sports Medicine explicitly states that “foods of animal origin are not essential to ensure optimal athletic performance.” 1 There are also some very successful athletes out there eating a plant food diet, such as ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek or triathlete Brendon Brazier.
But as a vegetarian or vegan athlete, you do need to ensure that your diet includes adequate amounts of certain nutrients which are more challenging to obtain from plant based foods, and also that you are consuming enough calories to fuel your training needs. If you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian, who eat dairy products and eggs, your job is made a little easier. But it is perfectly possible to construct a suitable diet from plant foods alone if that is what you choose to do.
Here are some of the nutrients that you need to pay particular attention to:
1. Protein: plant sources of protein include beans and lentils (legumes), grains, nuts, seeds and, in small quantities, leafy green vegetables. But with a few exceptions – soya, hemp – most do not provide all eight amino acids that need to be obtained through your diet. The answer is to include some of at least two of the above different food types every day, eg rice and beans, nut butter on wholegrain toast, mixed seeds stirred into porridge. They don’t have to be eaten at the same meal, either, just over the course of the day. You can also use plant-based protein powders to top up your protein needs (generally accepted to be 1.2-1.4g/kg for an endurance athlete, more than for the general population). Soy, hemp, brown rice and pea protein powers are all available. I recommend the range from http://www.pulsin.co.uk/ or brown rice protein http://www.sunwarrior.com/. Both are very good quality if on the expensive side (you get what you pay for!). If you do eat eggs and dairy products, these are excellent sources with a complete amino acid profile, and combined with a selection of plant sources, you should be able to meet your protein requirements without too much difficulty. You can also top up with whey and casein protein powders, which are derived from milk.
2. Iron and Zinc: not eating meat may result in lower intakes of these important minerals. However there is evidence that the body adapts over time by adapting the percentage of minerals that it absorbs from food. 2 But you also need to bear in mind that many plant foods include natural substances called phytates that impede mineral absorption, so it’s important to have several different sources in your diet each day. Good sources of iron for vegetarians and vegans include wholegrains, nuts, seeds, legumes, leafy green vegetables, dried fruit and blackstrap molasses. Eating vitamin C rich foods (ie vegetables and fruit) with plant sources of iron greatly improves iron absorption too. Good sources of zinc for vegans are legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. Vegetarians can use these sources plus eggs and hard cheeses.
3. Vitamin B12: deficiency of vitamin B12 is a particular risk for vegans, as plant sources are limited. Lack of B12 can contribute to anaemia and impact adversely on endurance performance. Sea vegetables and algae like spirulina do contain vitamin B12 but it is not well absorbed. Vegans are recommended to supplement B12. For vegetarians, adequate amounts can be obtained from regular consumption of eggs and dairy products.
4. Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids: the best source of the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA is oily fish, clearly not part of the vegetarian or vegan diet. Certain plant foods do provide some alpha linoleic acid (ALA), which is converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but only at a very limited rate. ALA can be found in flaxseeds and their oil, hemp oil, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts. Try to include at least one of these in your diet each day. If you eat eggs, go for the omega 3 enriched ones.
I hope this helps you to ensure that you can put together a balanced diet as a vegetarian or vegan competing in endurance sports. And do ensure that you are eating enough calories to meet your individual training needs.
If you would like to do some more reading about putting together an optimal vegetarian diet as an athlete, I recommend purchasing a copy of the new book by Anita Bean, The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook, which also gives an excellent range of suitable recipes, both easy to make and delicious.
Jo Scott-Dalgleish is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, who writes and gives talks about nutrition for endurance sport. As a Registered Nutritional Therapist, based in London, she works one to one with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help optimise their health and their performance.
1 ACSM/ADA/DC: Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dieticians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine: nutrition and athletic performance. Med Sci Sports and Ex. 2000. Vol 32 (12): 2130-45
2 Bean, Anita. The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition. 7th Edition (2013), Bloomsbury, London: page 214