There is much controversy and misconception surrounding the topic of vegetarianism. This controversy and misconception is even more so when applied to a specific group of people such as athletes. There are many types of Vegetarianism, but the one that will be focused on throughout this paper is the lacto-ovo vegetarian, which is the most common. This type of vegetarian eliminates all meat but still eats animal dairy products. Strong ideas and opinions have been formed on whether or not it is a good idea for athletes to be vegetarians because of the extra precautions they must take. I believe that a vegetarian athlete can’t maintain a perfectly healthy diet and lifestyle even with extra planning and attention to their diet. Being an active omnivore, my question is, can a vegetarian diet supply the same nutrients as an omnivore athlete diet? It does take additional educated planning to make a healthy adequate diet, but with proper education and guidance this is a simple task. A lot of non-supporters may be basing their opinions on false information regarding vegetarians. Throughout this paper I will explore the various avenues of being a vegetarian athlete.
When it comes to the topic of vegetarian athletes, the most mentioned area of concern is inadequate protein intake. The American Dietetic Associations recommend that athletes consume 1.5 g of protein/kg of body weight. Many people believe that because meat has been removed from the diet, the athlete will not get enough protein. This is a very big misconception because it shows that most people associate protein exclusively with meat. As mentioned before, there are many misconceptions surrounding vegetarians. One of the main misconceptions is that vegetarians eat nothing but vegetables. Although the diet of a vegetarian consists of large amounts of vegetables, it also consists of a variety of other food items that are high in protein. Nuts, seeds, and beans are an excellent source of non-meat protein and contain “heart-healthy” fats such as mono and polyunsaturated fats that lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease. A few examples of the amount of protein in these nuts are almonds that contain 21 grams of protein, and peanuts that contain 26 grams of protein. Seeds are also a great source of protein. Sunflower seeds contain 23 grams of protein, and sesame seeds, which are also a great source of calcium, contain 26 grams of protein. Because we are talking about Lacto-ovo vegetarians, eggs are a great source of protein as well. It is easy to see that vegetarians have a lot of options when it comes to protein, making it easy to meet the recommended protein requirements.
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Another area of concern in vegetarian athletes is vitamin B-12 deficiency. It is a concern in all vegetarians. Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that plays a key role in the normal function of the brain and nervous system. This vitamin helps to produce energy from metabolism of fat and protein, form myelin, which is a fatty cover that insulates your nerves, and produce energy from metabolism of fat and protein. It also helps to produce hemoglobin, which is the component of your red blood cells that carries oxygen to your cells. This is why a vitamin B12 deficiency can cause fatigue. It is found in foods such as fish, meat and some dairy products. It is obvious that vegetarians would be susceptible to deficiency because the majority of the vitamin is found in meat. A strict vegetarian diet is going to have insufficient amounts of this vitamin. Because of this a multivitamin or fortified soymilk can be consumed to meet these needs (Fuhrman 226).
Macronutrient requirements vary in vegetarian athletes based on body size, gender, training intensity, and activity level (Burke 168). Carbohydrates should make up the largest portion of the athlete’s diet. Eating adequate amounts of carbohydrates should be fairly easy for a vegetarian athlete because a large number of the foods vegetarians eat contain carbohydrates. There have been many studies that show that a high carbohydrate diet can help and improve exercise performance along with muscle and liver glycogen storage. By increasing glycogen storage, the athlete would be able to perform better in long exercise activities and short exercise activities that have a high intensity levels. Sports nutrition guidelines suggest that 60-65% of the total energy should come from carbohydrates (Burke 170). However the athlete should be well informed of appropriate sources of carbohydrates because some sources are not ideal for an athlete. Below is a chart that contains information on some fruits that has a great source of carbohydrates:
Fat is usually a word that scares people. Fat can be a concern of heart disease in some people and can be a concern of weight gain in others. However fat is essential for a healthy diet and should be consumed in healthy amounts to avoid excessive weight gain or health risks. Fat should make up the remainder of the diet after protein and carbohydrates needs are met. The American and Canadian Dietetic Associations recommend that <30 % of total energy intake should come from fat. With athletes the concern does not lie in getting too much fat usually, it is not getting enough. Eating foods such as nuts, seeds, olives, and olive oil that are high in mono and polyunsaturated fats make it easy to get the adequate amount of fat without raising health concerns. Making sure the athlete gets enough fat and making sure the fat the athlete is consuming is not detrimental to their health is a very important task.
Just like the macronutrient requirements, energy requirements also are based on the body size of the athlete, training intensity, activity level, and gender. During physical activity the body breaks down carbohydrates and fat and uses them for energy so based on the type of activity, we can estimate how much energy is required. According to studies a vegetarian athlete is going to require 500 –1000 more kcal a day than a non-athlete. However, this number can vary and for example, a long distance runner could require around 3000 kcal a day (Dorfman 39). Adequate energy intake could pose a problem to some vegetarian athletes who are concerned about maintaining low body weight. Because they are concerned about keeping their weight low, they may not take in the adequate amount of kcal needed each day. The athletes need to be aware of how much energy they should be taking in each day to prevent problems in performance and health.
Now that the concerns and requirements of vegetarian athletes have been addressed, it is important to know how to eat before, during, and after exercise for these vegetarian athletes. It can prove to be a little more difficult for a vegetarian athlete to plan a meal compared to a vegetarian non-athlete because certain things are needed as they are used up during exercise. The meal before the athletic performance is very important because you are providing your body with the energy it is going to use. The athletes always need to eat something before performing. Eating before a competition of athletic event should consist of food that will provide enough hydration and prevent hunger. It is very important to ingest food that will stay with the athlete throughout the athletic performance and not get “used up” during performance. Non-solid meals are good for athletes that experience nausea or other related stomach problems (Dorfman 103). Studies have shown that consumption of between 1 and 5 g of Carbohydrates/kg of body weight between one to four hours before athletic exercise has the potential to improve endurance performance (Burke 161) Some nutritionists say to limit the meal before performance to 800 calories and wait some 2 to 4 hours before proceeding to exercise (Dorfman 87). During exercise, eating carbohydrates has been proven to positively influence exercise by marinating blood sugar levels (Dorfman 83). The amount of carbohydrates that need to be eaten during exercise can vary based on exercise intensity and time. More carbohydrates would be needed for someone with a long duration and high intensity workout than would be needed for someone with a less intensity workout. This makes it difficult to state a set amount of CHO the athlete needs. Most importantly the athlete needs to stay hydrated during exercise no matter what the intensity level. The meal following the exercise performance is important, as the athlete needs to replace everything that the workout took away. Fluid and carbohydrates are especially important after exercise. Carbohydrate consumption should start immediately after the workout. Sports Nutritionist, Louise Burke states “the rate of CHO consumption should be approximately 1.5 g CHO/kg BW at 2 hour intervals for up to 4 hours” (Burke 172). Glycogen stores have been used up during exercise in the athlete and carbohydrates rebuild them, along with storing additional glycogen. Recommendations for post-exercise fluid requirements are to consume at least a pint of fluid for every pound of body weight lost during exercise (Clark 79). The athlete should consume enough water and fluids to prevent dehydration. Eating correctly before, during, and after athletic exercise is very important for a vegetarian because they have to make sure they are eating foods that will provide what they need for the amount of exercise they are going to participate in.
In conclusion, being a healthy vegetarian athlete is not a difficult task, in fact it’s rather simple. It does, however require extra consideration in meal planning and informed decisions on food choices. With careful attention, vegetarian athletes can maintain a perfectly healthy diet that consists of all the nutrient requirements. As mentioned previously, there are many misconceptions and a lot of controversy surrounding vegetarian athletes. Many people believe that athletes should not be vegetarians because they won’t get enough protein, vitamin B12, and energy. However the previous information has shown that these deficiencies can be avoided if the athlete plans a well-balanced vegetarian diet. Throughout this paper the various concerns, misconceptions, and requirements of vegetarian athletes were examined, and I now believe that all these show that vegetarian athletes can maintain a lifestyle that is just as normal or healthy as non-vegetarian athletes. It is important for the vegetarian athlete to be aware of their nutrient needs before, during, and after physical activity based on their activity level. Nutritionists associated with vegetarian athletes should educate the athletes on everything they need to know to maintain a healthy diet, and how to eat properly during physical activity. With proper education and action, a vegetarian athlete can live a very healthy lifestyle.
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