A balanced diet is important for athletes to feel their best and aid in fuel and recovery. All athletes need adequate calories and a balance of carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals. Vegetarians often do not have any problems meeting their carbohydrate needs, but worry about if they are eating enough protein.
Vegetarian diets can have multiple meanings. Lacto-ovo vegetarian includes eggs and dairy products; lacto-vegetarian includes dairy but no eggs; ovo vegetarian includes eggs but no dairy; and vegan does not include dairy or eggs and often excludes honey. With a properly planned diet, athletes following any one of these types of vegetarian diets will be able to meet their nutrition needs.
All athletes need carbohydrates to provide fuel and energy for their bodies. Carbohydrates are important before a workout to provide this fuel and after a workout so that athletes will continue to have fuel. Some sources of carbohydrates include whole grain bread, rice, faro, fruit, dried fruit, sweet potatoes, corn, oatmeal, beans, pasta, crackers, sports drinks and milk. Eating a variety of whole grains, fruits and vegetables will not only provide vegetarians with the carbohydrates they need, but fiber, vitamins and minerals too.
Protein is needed to support muscle growth and recovery. Muscle is constantly broken down during exercise and adequate protein is important for repair. When people think of protein, many only think of beef, chicken and fish. However, it IS possible to meet protein needs for vegetarians avoiding these foods. Some vegetarian protein sources include eggs, milk, soy milk, soy yogurt, Greek yogurt, nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters, lentils, tofu, cottage cheese, vegetable burgers, quinoa and beans. Consuming a variety of different protein sources and eating protein at every meal and snack will help vegetarian athletes meet their nutrition needs.
Some other nutrients of concern for vegetarian athletes include iron, vitamin B12, calcium and Vitamin D. Iron is involved in the transport and delivery of oxygen to working muscles. There are two types of iron, heme iron and non heme iron. Non heme iron is found in plant foods and is less bioavailable than heme iron found in meats, poultry and fish. To help increase the absorption of non heme iron, it is recommended to pair iron containing foods with vitamin C. Vegetarian sources of iron to try are beans, dark green leafy vegetables and fortified cereals. Try pairing these iron rich foods with vitamin C rich foods such as bell peppers, citrus, strawberries, and broccoli. B12 is found in animal products and therefore is a nutrient of concern for vegetarians. While milk and eggs contribute some B12 for lacto ovo vegetarians, relying on milk and egg products alone might not be enough. Other vegetarian B12 sources for athletes to include in their daily diets are fortified cereals, fortified soymilk and fortified nutritional yeast. Calcium and Vitamin D are important for bone health and building strong bones. Vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption, and deficiency of Vitamin D is a concern for vegetarians and non vegetarians alike. Vegetarians that consume dairy are likely able to meet their calcium needs. However, those that avoid dairy should include calcium fortified soy milk, calcium fortified almond milk, calcium fortified tofu, canned salmon with bones, sesame seeds, almonds, and dried figs in their diets.
In conclusion, focusing on a variety of milk, soy products ,eggs, beans, lentils, whole grains, fruits and vegetables will provide vegetarian athletes with a well balanced diet to help them meet their nutrition needs!