Many athletes turn to a plant-based diet to decrease their risk of chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart problems. Some professional athletes have found that, when done correctly, a vegetarian diet can actually improve performance. If you decide to turn to a plant-based diet, plan meals that include all the macro and micronutrients commonly found in meat.
Vegetarian sources of protein include nut and peanut butters, eggs, tofu, whole grains, beans and veggie burgers. When you’re on the go, you can also try protein bars and protein powder in smoothies.
Whole-grain carbohydrates high in fiber and low in refined sugar help regulate blood sugars and provide proper fuel. They also contain some protein because the grain is intact. Examples include 100-percent wheat bread and brown rice. Some starches, like quinoa and beans, also provide both carbs and protein.
Plant-based fats are healthy, natural and unsaturated. Sources include olive oil, avocados and peanut butter. Vegetarians benefit by eliminating the saturated fats and cholesterol typically found in meat.
Because vitamin B12 helps with cell division and blood formation, a deficiency can lead to anemia and lack of energy. Vegetarians can get adequate B12 from milk, fortified soy milk, yogurt, eggs and nutritional yeast.
Iron is particularly important for athletes, because it helps transport oxygen in the blood. Unfortunately for vegetarian athletes, a main source of iron is red meat. If you’re following a plant-based diet, get your iron through dark leafy greens, soybeans, kidney beans, chickpeas and enriched cereals. Make sure your diet also includes vitamin C to help your body absorb the iron.
A plant-based diet can improve your performance as long as you take in all the proper nutrients. For best results, meet with a registered dietitian, and take extra time to plan your meals.