A healthy vegetarian or vegan diet has many health benefits including lower rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. And with careful planning, it can meet all your energy and nutrient needs to ensure you perform at your best.
However, certain nutrients require more thought and planning as they can be lacking in a vegetarian or vegan diet. Below are the most common ones.
Some vegetarians and vegans have difficulty meeting energy needs because of high fiber and/or low energy density of plant-based foods. Although this is favored for the general population, amateur and expert athletes have increased energy needs to compensate for their high level of physical activity. In this case, the individual must consume caloric, yet healthy foods, such as avocado, nuts and seeds, and granola.
Also important to take into account is the increased protein needs in vegetarians and vegans due to the lower digestibility of plant-based proteins. Plant proteins aren’t as well digested or as complete as animal proteins, so choosing a variety of different types of protein foods over the course of the day is essential to ensure you get all of your amino acids. Because of this, it is recommended that vegetarian athletes consume 1.3 to 1.8 grams of protein/kilogram of body weight daily, which is 10% more than recommendations for non-vegetarian athletes. Good plant-based sources of protein include soybeans and soy products, beans, lentils, quinoa, peas, nuts and seeds, and nut butters.
There are 2 types of iron in food; heme iron found in animal foods and non-heme iron in plant foods. Vegetarians need almost twice the iron of non-vegetarians because non-heme iron is poorly absorbed. Plus, training can increase your need for iron. If your iron levels are too low and have a deficiency, you may feel fatigued and have impaired performance. To make sure to get enough iron:
Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal products. Unfortunately, a B12 deficiency leads to anemia and can cause symptoms like weakness, fatigue, light-headedness, rapid heartbeat, and rapid breathing, all of which will have a negative effect on performance. If you don’t eat eggs or dairy products, include foods fortified with vitamin B12 like soy beverages and meat substitutes, such as tofu dogs or veggie burgers. Nutritional yeast is also a great vegetarian source of vitamin B12.