August 25, 2013

The Vegetarian Athlete.

Photo: Caza No 7

There are numerous athletes today who adhere to a strict vegetarian diet.

They are not only endurance athletes, but bodybuilders too.

Living on a plant-based diet for sport and competition can definitely enhance the ability to be clear and leaner than ever for your chosen exercise. The vegetarian athlete’s main concern is getting enough protein, which inevitably depends on which sport you choose to focus your energy and training.

The jury is still out on proper amounts of protein for the vegetarian athlete, and the actual source of that protein.

For an endurance athlete, the protein requirements are not as high as say, a bodybuilder. Someone who needs the extra muscle mass and weight has higher protein requirements, with certain plant sources providing protein amounts, but in limited quantities.

For the muscle building athlete (this includes Cross Fitters too!) the important concept is quality vegetarian calories, which will contain enough essential amino acids to provide the adequate protein for building muscle and mass, yet maintaining a lean, fat-free physique.

The endurance athlete, on the other hand, focuses more on a leaner body with less overall mass, so their protein equivalents are not as demanding. Their main energy source is carbohydrates. The vegetarian diet is heavily laden in this area. If the endurance athlete makes pizza and potato chips their go-to dietary choices, they will be deficient when it comes to overall whole food wellness.

It’s all too easy to reach for food choices that satisfy the need for calories and sodium replacement, which is lost during a long sweaty endurance session.

But, in this day and age, vegetarian nutrition has evolved for the athlete, and most are learning what makes their bodies tick in their sport.

Here is a list of staple foods for the vegetarian athlete:

  • All kinds of vegetables, cooked and raw
  • Vegetable sprouts
  • All kinds of fruits, usually raw
  • Beans and other legumes; lentils, chickpeas, adzuki beans, pinto beans, black beans
  • Starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Brown rice
  • Pasta (gluten-free is preferable)
  • Whole wheat bread, pitas and bagels (gluten-free is preferable)
  • Other grains and seeds; bulgur wheat, buckwheat, quinoa, flaxseed, hemp seed, chia seeds
  • Hummus
  • Nuts, nut milks, nut butters: almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, hazelnut milk, almond milk, peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter
  • Oils: olive, coconut, flaxseed and hemp (both unheated)
  • Agave nectar, used sparingly, as a workout fuel, not a sweetener
  • Protein powder (hemp, rice, pea, whey)
  • Limited soy products (fermented only-miso and tempeh)
  • Tea and coffee (limited)
  • Eggs (limited)
  • Cheese and dairy products (limited, and mostly low-fat)

The alternative plant-based diet from the above choices represents how the vegetarian athlete can create a healthy sports lifestyle.

It is not that hard to believe (any more) that the lean and mean, strong, able and powerful athlete can adhere to a vegetarian diet, and it is more common than ever.

With the food industry under scrutiny in every possible sense, a vegetarian diet for the athlete is simply smart.

Unless the meat is grass-fed, chickens are free-range, and fish are caught in the wild, following a vegetarian diet for sport will produce some awesome results.

The popular notion that an entire athlete’s protein is derived solely from meat sources is farther from the truth. Athletes everywhere are embracing a vegetarian diet and finding their performances are top-notch. Whether you are an athlete or moderately active, it is necessary to be aware of the nutritional implications of relying on a plant-based diet for your sport.

With the several types of vegetarians (lacto, lacto-ovo, ovo only), the key is to know how much protein is required for your athletic lifestyle and pick and choose foods from the staple list above.

Read up on it. Talk to health care professionals. Do your due diligence.

It makes a big difference between fueling correctly for your sport, and bonking incessantly each time you compete.

There is a caveat with the vegetarian athletic diet: the high-fiber, low-calorie nature of most vegetarian foods may pose a problem for athletes.

Very often the volume of vegetarian foods required to meet their energy needs is greater than the stomach’s capacity for food.

When energy reserves drop too low, the body will convert its own muscle or protein to compensate for the deficiency, leaving little left over for growth (if you are an anaerobic athlete-sports with intense bursts of energy).

Eating several smaller meals throughout the day, or snacking on foods that contain both carbohydrates and some protein may be helpful.  If you are resorting to protein shakes, or vegetable/fruit smoothies for energy, then it’s also a good idea to break up the amounts every few hours to supply the body with a constant source of nutrients.

Endurance vegetarian athletes can whip up vegetable and/or fruit smoothies post-workout to replace electrolytes, as well as give the body the necessary calories after a long aerobic session.

A bonus is the vegetarian athlete has lower blood cholesterol levels, better digestive function and a lower occurrence of certain types of cancer.

Treating your diet with care, knowing your optimum levels of exercise output, and balancing the proper amount of vegetarian foods, this recipe will definitely get you to the podium.


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Ed: Catherine Monkman

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