Fueling the vegetarian athlete

Fueling the Vegetarian Athlete – nail the basics

In the current (May) issue of Triathlete Magazine (pg 64), I discuss some of the important considerations in fueling the vegetarian athlete.

This month I am celebrating 24-years of being a vegetarian (lacto-ovo).
In the month of April, when I was 10 years old, I came home from school one day and told my parents that I didn't want to eat animals anymore. I've always loved animals and even at a young age, it was my love for animals that prompted me to be a vegetarian.
I'm pretty sure I didn't call myself a vegetarian in my early years as that word wasn't part of my vocabulary but instead I just told people "I don't eat meat".
My diet has evolved over the past two decades, especially as I learned more about nutrition and sport nutrition.

But in all reality, my diet is no different than yours except for that I don't eat meat or fish.
I'm assuming you eat a lot of plants too, right?

Even though my diet has a name, there's no reason why athletes should shun away from plant-strong eating because the word"plant strong" does not mean "don't eat meat."

Regardless of what you name your diet, all athletes will benefit from a more real food (foods originating from a farm or garden, not made in a factory) diet.

However, for the vegetarian athlete (or the athlete who eats little to no meat or fish), I hope you find my Triathlete article helpful.
A few plant-strong, vegetarian takeaways.
  • Well-planned vegetarian diets can be very healthy and performance-enhancing but going meat-free doesn’t guarantee better health or podium-worthy finishes.
  • Carnivorous or plant-eating, a poorly planned diet can make you feel lethargic, sick and weak, especially if you are not eating enough to meet your energy and nutrient needs.
  • Relying too heavily on meat-free processed food, only eating fruits and veggies, consuming an excessive amount of carbs, consuming an inadequate intake of plant strong protein and consuming too little healthy fats, are reasons why athletes who go "meat free" often fail to meet nutritional requirements (or struggle with constant hunger or poor energy).
  • As for the vegetarian protein debate, if adequate energy and an assortment of plant foods, rich in essential amino acids, are consumed throughout the day, physiologically processes shouldn’t be compromised in a plant-based diet.
  • Vegetarian athletes should make an extra effort to consume nutrients like calcium, iron, zinc, omega-3, vitamin D, B12 and niacin, particularly if the diet is lacking in food variety. Understanding that many essential nutrients are required in the countless metabolic pathways that support a body in motion, a chronic nutrient deficiency (or absorption issue) may result in health and/or performance complications.
  • Although a real-food approach should be prioritized over nutrients found in a pill or powder, supplements and engineered fortified foods are an option to protect against (or to fix) a nutrient deficiency.
  • Considering that plant-strong diets are high in both soluble and insoluble fiber which are beneficial for blood sugar control (among many other health benefits), athletes should be mindful that if the diet is lacking in sufficient fat and protein at meal time, athletes can risk overeating due to constant hunger pains from too much nutrient-dense volume (or too many carbs) but not enough long-lasting energy.
  • Speaking of fiber, athletes will benefit from limiting high fiber foods close to workouts and race day due to possible GI distress and discomforting digestion issues (ex. stomach cramps, diarrhea, bloating, gas) from too much residue in the gut.
  • As for long workout days when calorie expenditure is at its highest (and “reward” carb-heavy junk food is often anticipated), it’s important to be mindful of healthy lower-fiber carbohydrates (ex. rice, potatoes, juice, honey, syrup, watery fruits) which can help with quickly replenishing glycogen stores and meeting energy needs, without promoting uncomfortable fullness, while offering beneficial nutrients to your depleted body.
  • Whereas most American’s have an increasing obsession with meat consumption, there are many countries in this world that thrive off a mostly plant-based diet and live a long, healthy and active life. Therefore, it is inaccurate to view a vegetarian diet as “restrictive” because in America, we don’t really have a traditional American diet as a “healthy” reference.
  • Because athlete lab results may contrast with “normal” population ranges, consider periodic blood testing throughout your season and correlate lab numbers with how you feel and retest every 4-6 months (starting in early season) for a personalized reference range. For plant-based athletes, the following blood tests are recommended:
    CBC, CMP, ferritin, folic acid, homocysteine, iron (total and TIBC), lipid profile, vitamin B12, Vitamin D, 25-Hydroxy.
    Supplementation may be necessary but not without prior testing to confirm a deficiency.