Vegetarianism is a dietary practice of not consuming meat and possibly other animal derived foods and beverages. Vegetarian diets can be divided into, but not limited to, four categories: lacto-ovo-vegetarian (with diary and eggs), lacto-vegetarian (with dairy), ovo-vegetarian (with eggs) and vegan diets (devoid of all animal products). The position of Dietetics Australia on vegetarian diets states that well-planned vegetarian diets can meet the nutritional needs of competitive athletes. The impact of vegetarian diets on athletic performance is not extensively studied, although several elite vegetarian athletes have risen to the top of the sports world.
Nutritional Considerations for Vegetarian Athletes:
Athletes consuming a vegetarian diet may be at greater risk of developing insufficiencies for the following nutrients: proteins, essential fatty acids, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12. The higher risks may be the result of increased needs and losses during training, lowered absorption and digestion rates of vegetarian foods, and uneven distribution of nutrients in meat and plant products, and poorly planned meals.
Potential Risk of Nutrient Inadequacies and Impact on Performance for Vegetarian Athletes:
a. Protein and Essential Amino Acids:
Protein is vital to the maintenance, repair and synthesis of skeletal muscle, insufficient protein intake can result in reduced muscle mass, impacting performance. It is advised that vegetarian athletes utilise protein sources including, organic- non - GMO soy products, beans, legumes, eggs (where allowable), tofu and dairy products (where allowable).
b. Essential Fatty Acids:
Essential fatty acids attenuate tissue inflammatory processes and oxidative stress. A lack of essential fatty acid intake has been shown to impact on muscle fatigue, severity of pain, and swelling as a result of inflammation. Vegetarian athletes are encouraged to consume foods sources such as fish (where allowable), eggs (where allowable), flaxseed oil, nuts and soybeans to avoid essential fatty deficits.
Iron is vital for energy production and the synthesis of haemoglobin and myoglobin, contributing heavily to oxygen carrying capacity. The impact of inadequate iron can result in impaired muscle function and limited work capacity, lowered oxygen uptake, lactate build-up and muscle fatigue. Vegetarian athletes are encouraged to consume a diet rich in legumes, dried beans, nuts, dried fruit (preferably sulfur free) and green leafy vegetables.
Zinc is imperative to growth, building and repair of muscle tissue, energy production and immune status. Inadequate zinc intake has been shown to decrease cardiorespiratory function, reduced muscle strength, and lowered endurance. It is recommended that vegetarian athletes consume foods such as legumes, whole grain cereals, nuts, seeds, and dairy products (where allowable) to avoid insufficient zinc intake.
e. Vitamin B12:
Vitamin B12 is responsible proper nervous system functioning, homocysteine metabolism, production of red blood cells, protein synthesis, as well as tissue repair and maintenance. Inadequate B12 intake can result in pernicious anaemia, reduced endurance, compromised aerobic performance, and a range of neurological symptoms e.g. syncope. It is advised that vegetarian athletes maximise their intake of eggs (where allowable) and dairy products (where allowable). Fortified foods and beverages are recommended, yet may not impact positively on TC assay B12 levels.
f. Vitamin D:
Vitamin D is essential for calcium metabolism, bone health, development and homeostasis of the nervous system and skeletal muscle, as well as contributing to immune function and cardiovascular fitness. Inadequate vitamin D intake is strongly linked to lower muscle strength and muscle mass, increased susceptibility to inflammatory diseases and increased incidence of bone fracture. Vegetarian athletes are encouraged to consume vitamin D rich foods including cod (where allowable), dairy products (where allowable) and eggs. of course, adequate sun exposure will maximise serum vitamin D status.
Calcium is responsible for growth, maintenance and repair of bone tissue, maintenance of blood calcium concentrations, regulation of muscle contraction, normal blood clotting and nerve transmission. A low intake of calcium can increase risk of low bone mineral density and stress fractures. Interestingly, lowered calcium intake is also associated with menstrual dysfunction among female athletes.
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Mark Hinchey Naturopathy, 601 Glebe Road Adamstown, Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia.
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