Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Is a Vegetarian diet a good option for sportsmen?

More and more people are becoming  aware of the positive  affects their diet can have on performance and are looking for ways to fine tune what they eat in order  to have the greatest impact on their energy,  strength and recovery.

Take for example the recently crowned number  1 tennis player, Dokovick. What does he attribute his fantastic  rise through the ranks of elite tennis player to- a change in diet and the removal of gluten. For many athletes they are well aware of the importance of a healthy and balanced diet and the benefits it can have on performance, but what does this mean for those not surrounded by personal nutritionists and advisers?

What exactly should we be thinking  of  when it comes to preparing our bodies for exercise? Often people can become consumed  with ensuring their  carb to protein ratios are correct  or making sure their  fat intake is sufficient. While this is important, it's just as important as the quality and source of these nutrients .

The aim of any athlete should be to reduce the nutritional stress load that is put on their bodies by eating a nutrient dense, alkalising and well balanced meal.

But  is  a vegetarian or vegan diet a healthy choice for athletes?  YES it can be if managed correctly.

Vegetarians, or  even vegans, can still get the necessary macro and micro nutrients their bodies need and research has shown there is no significant difference between a vegetarian and non vegetarian athlete.

Plus, it's not only nature who benefits from the elimination of animal protein, there are loads of physical benefits for the athlete too:

  • Nutrient dense plant foods  are generally digested much quicker in your system, reducing the amount of energy expended to break them down, leaving more reserves for exercise.
  • A healthy vegetarian diet that includes an array of fresh fruit and vegetables will contain loads more antioxidants, excellent for boosting energy levels and speeding recovery times.
  • Animal products are typically acid forming in the body. For those wishing to optimise performance, improve sleep, avoid diseases (like cancer and osteoporosis), increase energy and lose weight  ie. reduce the internal stress on their body,  an alkalising diet is way more beneficial. By eliminating meat in the diet and eating more alkaline green vegetables, almonds, quinoa and millet you are helping  to greatly reduce acidity in the body. 
  • Finally, plant based diets can also be lower in saturated fat due to less animal products.

Protein intake  is often the biggest concern for vegetarians, particularly for endurance athletes as it is vital for rebuilding and repairing lean muscle mass. It is true that the most abundant sources of complete proteins ( ones that contain all 9 essential amino acids that the body can't make itself) are meat, chicken and other animal products but they are not the only sources. Plant based options include quinoa- a nutrient dense protein grain from Peru , buckwheat and hemp seed, often used as a protein source in smoothies. (One cup of cooked quinoa provides about 18 grams of protein.) Beans, pulses, nuts seeds and nut butters  are also great sources of protein. Simply making sure you are eating a varied diet containing a range of the above, throughout the day will ensure you create a  balanced amino acid profile.

While protein is used to repair and rebuild,  carbohydrates are the fuel  for the body.  Our bodies can use fat and protein but they are not the most efficient or "cleanest" source as protein  can create toxins when burned.   The best source is complex carbohydrates such as unrefined whole grains like   brown rice, legumes (beans, lentils), fibre-rich vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds as they lower the glycemic index and provide sustained and long-lasting energy.
Vegetarians need to also make sure they are getting adequate amounts of good healthy fats such unrefined, cold pressed  olive oil, almonds, and avocados as these are not only beneficial for lubrication and protecting the joints but also to absorb the fat soluble vitamins A,E,D,K.  Often on a vegetarian diet you  need to particularly ensure you are getting enough essential fatty acids ( omega 3 and 6). Without omega-3, there's an increased risk of inflammation, muscle soreness and lowered immunity. Great sources are nuts, (walnuts)  seeds (hemp, flax, pumpkin, chia) and plant based oils.

A few things vegetarians need to be extra vigilant for are key  nutrients like iron, calcium and b12. While they are more readily available to meat eaters, plant based sources are more bio-available than those derived from animal products, which means your body can absorb them  more easily. Without B12, the body can't convert fats and proteins into energy, a transformation critical to an athlete's performance. Leafy greens and sesame seeds are great sources of calcium ,while iron can be obtained from pumpkin seeds and b12 from nutritional yeast (delicious and tastes cheesy)  and miso.

So yes, vegetarians and vegans can fuel their bodies correctly with only plant based foods. Just remember to keep it varied, keep it unrefined and keep it fresh.  The more unprocessed foods you consume, the less stress you are placing on your body and the better the environment you are creating for peak performance.


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