The term "vegetarian" means different things to different athletes. To some, it means excluding red meat from their diet; to others, it means excluding all animal products. Common categories of vegetarian diets include:
Lacto-vegetarianNo animal foods except milk and milk products (e.g., yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese).
Lacto-ovo-vegetarianNo animal foods except eggs, milk and milk products.
VeganNo animal foods at all.
Whatever category you fall into, you must understand how vegetarian eating can affect your health and performance. Following is a look at some specific concerns and how you can tackle them.
Most vegetarian diets are high in fiber and carbohydrate-rich foods like fruits, vegetables and grains. Maintaining a diet of these foods alone can result in insufficient calories to support training and competition. To increase your caloric intake, try eating nuts, peanut butter, soy products and meat substitutes.
If you eat no meat or dairy, your protein intake will be low. And since protein is crucial for growth, you must make sure to incorporate it in your diet. Good sources of non-meat protein include nuts, tofu, soy milk and cereals such as Kashi.
Vegetarian athletes, especially females, are at greater risk for low iron stores. Iron helps oxygen travel to your muscles, and low amounts of it can cause fatigue, resulting in poor performance. Good non-animal sources of iron include spinach, broccoli, almonds, oatmeal and iron-fortified cereals.
Since you're in the prime of your bone-building life, getting enough calcium is critical to having healthy bones in the future. Fortified cereals, tofu, soy milk and green leafy vegetables are alternate sources of calcium-rich foods.
Vitamin B12 is required for the conversion of foods to energy, and no active form of it is available in any plant food. Low amounts can be detrimental to your performance, and vegan athletes specifically are at risk for developing anemia, which can lead to fatigue. Fortified foods such as cereals and soy products are top B12 choices.
You can follow any vegetarian diet and still be healthy and perform well. The trick is to add more variety and eat many different fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, soy products and meat alternatives.
Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, is a board certified specialist in sports dietetics and owner of FuelFormance. The five-time Ironman competitor is also the author of Nutrition Periodization for Endurance Athletes: Taking Traditional Sports Nutrition to the Next Level (Bull Publishing). More information is available at www.fuelformance.com.
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