Vegetarians typically endure all kinds of nutrition-related questions. How do you get your protein? What about iron? Do you eat enough B-vitamins? When it comes to vegetarian athletes these questions get amplified. Is it even possible to fuel your training and recovery as a vegetarian? Of course it is!
The truth is that sports nutrition is complex; it’s totally dependent on the individual, what kind of sport they’re training for, and what their training volume is like. But throwing a vegetarian diet into the mix doesn’t make things any more or less complicated than it does for any other athlete.
Daily protein recommendations for the average person are 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound. If you’re following a strict vegan diet the recommendation is to bump up to 0.9 grams of protein per kilogram or 0.41 grams per pound of body weight, since not all plant-based proteins are utilized as efficiently by the body as animal proteins are. When it comes to athletes, the recommendations increase to 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram or 0.45 grams per pound of body weight for the average recreational athlete, and increase further to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram or 0.68 grams per pound of body weight for serious competitors. Vegetarian athletes should consume about 10% more protein than non-vegetarian athletes: 1.3 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram or 0.59 to 0.81 grams per pound of body weight. And of course, this also depends on the type of sport we’re talking about; a marathon runner is going to need to fuel their training in a very different way than a body builder would.
Good sources of protein include eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt, beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, and nut butters.
Carbs are especially important for endurance athletes. Although there is no single macronutrient ratio that could possibly meet the needs of every athlete, a general formula for endurance athletes is to aim for:
- 60% of your calories from carbohydrates (pasta, rice, oats, potato, whole grains, wholegrain bread, fruit, etc.)
- 20% of your calories from fat (olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nuts, nut butters, olives, etc)
- 20% of your calories from protein (as above)
Everyone talks about how important protein is for muscle recovery, but if you’re doing an endurance sport like running or triathlon, for recovery from training your focus should be on 4 parts carbohydrate to 1 part protein. Some examples:
- whole wheat toast with peanut butter
- chopped up fruit with yogurt
- cottage cheese with some fruit
- energy bar formulated with 4:1 ratio (lots of date-based bars meet this ratio)
- an apple with a handful of nuts
- a sandwich with some cheese
- a fruit smoothie with a bit of protein added
Keep in mind that for recovery, when you eat is just as important as what you eat. The ideal window for glucose uptake from carbohydrates is within 30-60 minutes of your workout.
Intake of healthy fats is important for overall health and especially for fueling longer activities like distance running or cross-country skiing. Athletes should be mindful to eat fat in the right balance, as too much fat can get in the way of necessary carbohydrate intake. Be mindful to not have too much fat in pre-exercise meals or snacks, as fat slows digestion and can make you feel full and sluggish during your training. It’s best to add fats to your meals post training or between training sessions. A simple way to maintain a good fat to carbohydrate ratio is to add small amounts of healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, etc., to carbohydrates. Hello avo toast!
Iron is important for anyone, but in particular for the vegetarian athlete as it carries oxygen in the blood to exercising muscles. Low iron stores can result in poor performance. Vegetarian athletes can meet their iron needs with iron-rich plant foods including lentils, beans, leafy green vegetables, prunes, blackstrap molasses, and iron-fortified breads and cereals. Combining these with foods high in vitamin C, like tomatoes, citrus fruit, broccoli, or peppers, helps our body with absorption of iron from plant-based (non-heme) sources. Vegetarian athletes should have their iron checked periodically by their doctor to determine if an iron supplement is needed.
Smoothie photo via Shutterstock.
Katie is a university-trained nutritionist and professional writer based in Stockholm, Sweden. She is a vegetarian of more than two decades, and is passionate about real food. Her blog The Muffin Myth is all about approachable nutrition. Read more from Katie →