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Eating Guide for Vegetarian Athletes

Vegetarianism may be followed by some athletes due to various reasons. An athlete can be vegan, ovo-vegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian or fruitarian. Vegetarian diet can be followed by an athlete for religious beliefs, ethical, economical or health reasons. Some female athletes may switch to a vegetarian diet with the aim of decreasing calories and weight that is required for some sports like gymnastics. When an athlete becomes vegetarian his diet should be monitored carefully as occasionally this habit may develop in to an eating disorder.

Although following vegetarian diets would not affect the performance of an athlete, proper planning of the diet in terms of energy, carbohydrates, proteins, fats and other micronutrients should be done. Body weight and composition should be monitored to determine if energy needs are satisfied. Protein intakes of vegetarian athletes are often complained to be low. Animal proteins are well digested than plant based protein even though the protein quality of vegetarian diet is adequate. To compensate this incomplete digestion a 10% increase in the protein intake is recommended, in other words 1.3 to 1.8 g protein per kg body weight is recommended for vegetarian athletes. Choose proteins wisely and emphasize on the good quality proteins. This could be achieved by including plenty of low-fat dairy products, eggs and protein rich plant sources like soy.

Also extra care of micronutrients like vitamin 12, vitamin D, iron, calcium, zinc and riboflavin should be taken to avoid vitamin deficiency as these nutrients are particularly high in animal products. Even though iron intakes of a vegetarian athlete is similar or higher than the omnivorous, bio-availability of iron in plant based products is low (as heam iron present in animal sources is readily absorbed by the body), thus the iron stores in a vegetarian athlete are generally low. Moreover iron requirement is increased with increase in exercise, thus possibility of low iron stores in the body is high in vegetarian athletes, especially women. Iron levels should be monitored periodically to avoid low body stores and anemia in women athletes. Include whole-grain cereals, dark green leafy vegetables, kidney beans, rice flakes, lentils, figs and some dry fruits to get non-heam iron in the diet. Additional vitamin C should be consumed with non-heam iron to facilitate its absorption in the body. Animal products are the primary source for vitamin B12, which is one of the most common vitamins very low in the diets of vegetarian athletes. Vitamin B12 can be derived from eggs, yeast, fermented products, cheese, milk, yoghurt or vitamin B12 fortified cereals or soy milk.

Registered dieticians specialized in sports nutrition are an important resource for vegetarian athletes. They can help them to plan a well balanced diet and avoid any nutritional deficiencies.
Submitted on January 16, 2014