Ask an expert: Can vegans and vegetarians be serious athletes?

October 18, 2016 Providence Guest Blogger

Tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams do it. Ultimate Fighter champion Mac Danzig does it. Olympic track and field gold medalist Carl Lewis and Basketball Hall of Famer Robert Parish both did it. Can anyone compete as a serious athlete without eating meat?

We asked Valerie Edwards, MS, RDN, LD, a Providence dietitian with a special interest in working with athletes, to share her expertise.

What are the challenges of a vegetarian or vegan diet for people who are serious about their sport?

All high-level athletes have to pay attention to their nutrition, or else their performance will suffer.

Being a vegetarian athlete takes a little more attention and planning, but it isn’t that hard. Dairy products like milk, yogurt and cottage cheese provide a lot of protein, vitamin B12 and other nutrients that can fill the gaps when you go meat-free.

Going vegan, on the other hand, is challenging on a whole different order of magnitude –you have to put way more thought into what you’re eating. Vegans give up not just meat, but everything that comes from animals, including eggs, dairy products and all foods made with these.

Since many prepared foods have eggs or dairy products in them, vegans can expect to spend more time cooking and preparing foods. I’ve worked with athletes who were considering going vegan because they liked the idea of cutting out animal-based foods, but they weren’t prepared for the practical challenges of what to replace those foods with. It’s really important to figure out what you can add – not just what to cut out – to make this type of diet work for you.

I’ve also worked with athletes who like to eat the same thing all the time, but if you’re vegan, that can set you up for nutrient deficiencies, such as iron deficiency and even vitamin B12 deficiency. Vegans need to be very attentive to eating a wide variety of foods to cover all the nutritional bases.

Why is protein important for athletes, and how can vegetarians and vegans get enough?

Excelling at any sport requires exceptional muscle strength, and protein is the main building block for repairing and strengthening muscles. If you don’t get enough protein, that just can’t happen.

The bottom line is to get one or two good protein sources at every meal and most snacks. All grains have a few grams of protein in them, so whole-wheat bread, oatmeal and brown rice will supply a little protein along with a great source of carbohydrates. If you’re pairing those with higher-protein foods, such as beans and tofu, legumes, nuts and nut butters, quinoa and other seeds, you can get there. Vegetarians, as I mentioned, can add eggs and dairy products to the mix – they’re protein power-houses.

Be sure to read package labels – some foods contain a lot less protein than you may think. While soymilk provides 8 grams of protein per cup, for example, almond milk has only 1 gram.

For athletes with high protein needs, protein powders are a good supplementary source. For vegetarians, whey protein is the highest-quality option. Vegans can find protein powders made from hemp, peas and other vegan sources.

How much protein do athletes need?

Your protein needs depend on your sport, your weight and several other variables. Current guidelines recommend a range of 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for active adults, or .55 to .91 grams of protein per pound. For a 150-pound adult, that’s 83 to 137 grams of protein per day. Since your body can absorb only a limited amount of protein at a time, it’s best to spread the daily amount evenly across all your meals – eating 30 grams of protein per meal, for example – rather than saving it all for dinner.

Is there a difference in quality between plant and animal sources of protein?

The research shows that if you’re getting enough protein, the source doesn’t really matter. But we’re all different.

Years ago, a high-level cyclocross racer who was vegetarian came to see me after contracting giardia. He had gotten over the digestive issues with antibiotics, but just wasn’t bouncing back athletically. He had absolutely no endurance to ride, and his energy was crashing all the time. Since he wasn’t opposed to animal protein, I suggested that he beef things up, so to speak, to give his body some help recovering. After a two-week trial of adding more protein from meat, he recovered quickly. In his case, adding meat for a couple of weeks helped him regain his nutritional balance.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to eat meat, but I do suggest that people experiment with different options, especially if what you’re doing doesn’t seem to be working. Some people feel great and can perform at a high level on a vegan diet, and for others, it just doesn’t work.

Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in meat, eggs and dairy. What’s your advice for vegan athletes?

B12 is really important – deficiency can cause anemia, which will affect energy and endurance severely. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, miso, seaweed and tofu sometimes have B12, but they may not be reliable sources – it depends on how they’re processed. Since it’s hard for vegans to get this vitamin from their diets, I recommend a vegetarian multivitamin. It’s a good insurance policy to make sure you’re getting enough B12, as well as other important vitamins and minerals.

Can you get iron from a vegan diet?

Yes – cooked beans, cooked greens and even blackstrap molasses are decent sources of iron. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association also found that cooking in a cast iron skillet transfers some iron into food. But if you are prone to being anemic, as some people are, you might want to consider a supplement to be safe.

What are the signs of deficiency?

Fatigue and low energy levels could indicate an iron deficiency or an imbalance or shortage of protein, carbohydrates or total calories. More serious nutritional deficiencies take a long time to show up, and can be pretty brutal when they do. A deficiency of B12, in particular, can take up to 10 years to develop and can cause anemia, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, difficulty walking, balance problems, trouble concentrating – you just don’t want to put yourself in that position.

What else do athletes need to know about fueling performance?

Carbohydrates are the main fuel for the body, and high-level athletes burn through a lot of fuel. If you run low on carbs, you’ll burn through your glycogen, or energy stores.. In addition, if you don’t eat enough carbs or total calories, your body will break down protein for fuel. If you’re using protein for energy, then it’s unavailable to rebuild muscle. So eating enough carbs is important not only for fuel, but also to optimize your use of protein.

Timing of carbs matters, too. Ideally, you want to have a high-carb meal or snack a couple of hours before a workout or training session, and then immediately after. That’s just basic sports nutrition. Neglecting to refuel will deplete your glycogen stores for the next day and really affect your endurance – that’s the most common error I see athletes making.

There’s also some benefit to having a little protein right after, or even during, a workout. A glass of regular or chocolate milk is the ideal recovery drink, because it gives you immediate carbs and also some protein.

The Williams sisters, Danzig, Lewis, Parish and many other top athletes are proving that vegetarians and vegans can compete on a very high level. If you apply the same kind of commitment and discipline to your diet as you do to your sport, you may find that it can work for you, too.

For one-on-one nutritional coaching, connect with a Providence registered dietitian here.

Further reading

The Vegetarian Resource Group offers excellent information on both vegetarian nutrition and vegan nutrition.

For more detailed information on athletes and protein, read the article Athletes and Protein Intake in Today’s Dietitian.

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