As if vegetarians didn't have enough diet difficulties, consider the special challenges faced by vegetarian athletes. High-intensity activity requires higher levels of protein, calcium, iron and vitamin B12, so vegetarian athletes need to be creative enough to combine these nutrients at meal time to meet their needs.
The science behind food combinations
Protein is made up of nine essential amino acids. An amino acid is considered essential if the body does not make it on its own, meaning you must get it through food or supplements. Most animal proteins naturally contain enough essential amino acids that they can stand alone as good quality protein options for meals and snacks.
But many plant sources of protein have a "limiting" amino acid—i.e., an amino acid in a relatively low amount. To compensate for this, vegetarian athletes need to consume "complete proteins" by combining foods that together provide an adequate amount of all nine essential amino acids. In other words, the foods must complement each other's limiting amino acid, bringing the total between the two foods to an adequate amount.
What happens if I don't consume complete protein combinations?
Consuming foods or food combinations that are incomplete limits how well your body uses the protein. To get the most "bang for your buck," it's best to combine foods that assure your body can most efficiently and effectively use what you are eating. This is especially important for athletes looking to optimize muscle maintenance, muscle gain or recovery.
Examples of complete protein vegetarian food combinations
- Grains and legumes: rice and beans; peanut butter sandwich; tortillas with beans
- Grains or vegetables with dairy or soy: pasta with cheese; baked potato with dairy/soy sour cream; rice pudding; cereal with milk
- Legumes and nuts: hummus made with chickpeas and tahini; snack mixes that include peanuts and walnuts
- Soy protein: tofu smoothie; tofu stir-fry; vegetarian burgers [note: soy is a natural vegetarian complete protein]
- Quinoa anything: This fun grain is naturally a complete protein all on its own, just like soy and soy-based foods.
How big a problem is this for vegetarians or vegans?
Luckily (as you may have noticed), many of these combinations are commonly eaten in our culture. However, the more restrictive an individual's diet becomes (vegan, intolerances, etc.), the more likely it is to be a problem. I often find it's not so much a matter of getting the foods in, but making sure they are eaten in the correct combinations. I recommend you review the above list and make an effort to create complementary protein combinations at every meal.
Sample one-day protein food combo meal
- Breakfast: Apple Walnut Quinoa
- Snack: Homemade hummus and carrots
- Lunch: Rice and beans with a fresh spinach salad and an orange
- Snack: Tofu smoothie made with kale, silken tofu, berries and honey
- Dinner: Baked potato with sour cream, black beans and broccoli with one glass of soy or cow's milk
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