Super Herbal Foods - Nutrition for the vegetarian and vegan athlete
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Nutrition for the Vegetarian and Vegan athlete

Careful nutritional planning is required by vegan and vegetarian athletes so they can perform and remain healthy and recover from injury at a good rate. Problems with deficiencies of nutrients in those that eat diets containing little or no animal based products can be fully addressed by attention to the diet and intensity of exercise of the athlete. The major problem with receiving the required amounts of various nutrients are focused on those who avoid high protein animal based foods. The different types of vegetarian who do eat dairy and eggs and fish will be less likely to have such low levels of the nutrients needed than vegans who do not eat any animal products. Vegans especially risk not having adequate intakes of energy, protein, calcium, iron, zinc and vitamin B12.

The vegan/ vegetarian diet unless well planned and including sufficient energy intake can lead to the following deficiencies, problems and effects on the athletes performance and health;

Dysmenorrhea (menstrual pain that is excessive) Oligomenorrhea – reduced frequency of menstruation or Amenorrhea – absence of menstruation.

Low bone densities and impaired calcium levels will lead to a higher risk of fractures and injuries.

Lack of iron which causes iron deficiency anemia and zinc deficiencies are common. Iron deficiency anemia which compromises aerobic metabolic reactions and process, causing endurance problems,  results in poor immune function, short attention span, irritability, poor learning ability. Vegetarians need to include the following iron sources in their diets – fortified cereals, legumes, dark leafy green vegetables, dried fruits and using cast iron cookware also increases the level of iron in the diet.

Perniciuos anemia

Lack of B12 which lowers the body’s ability to create new red blood cells and therefore will lower oxidative capacity which is the muscle's maximal capacity to use oxygen and essential for good athletic performance. Sources for vegetarians are yeast spreads, whey powder, milk and yogurt, cheese, eggs B12 fortified soy milk, vitamin B12 fortified meat analogues (food made from wheat gluten or soybeans to resemble meat, poultry, or fish), vitamin B12-fortified energy bars, and vitamin B12 supplements.

A disordered vegetarian diet can lack of adequate levels of vitamin D - sources are mushrooms yeast and fortified products such as orange juice, margarine and soy and rice milk. Zinc can be lacking too. Sources for zinc for the vegetarian are grain products, nuts and seeds, soy products, vegetables and legumes.

Lack of adequate levels of creatine – even though humans can synthesise creatine internally the natural synthesis levels are not adequate for those on a non-meat diet as meat is the main source of creatine.

Low protein levels are also linked to low energy intake levels.

With a planned diet vegetarians and vegans can cover their protein requirements by eating legumes, grains, seeds and nuts. If however energy intake is low the body breaks down the protein as an emergency source of energy therefore resulting in low protein levels. The low protein levels compromise the body maintenance, growth and recovery and therefore performance, health and injury recovery time are affected. Meat and dairy products are complete proteins – they have all the essential amino acids in them. Plant foods are not and must be combined by vegetarians to provide all the essential amino acids. This is achieved by combining cereals and legumes in the same meal. It is important that this combining is in the same meal as this is the only way a high quality amino acid pool is created effectively.

Low energy levels

This seems to be the main limiting factor for vegetarian and vegan athletes to retain an adequate calorific intake to retain or build muscle mass. Especially when the athlete increases the length and intensity of their training, they need to monitor energy nutrient intake and make sure it is high enough. Not substituting appropriate other foods to provide nutrients that meat and dairy would have been supplying to the body is the main cause of deficiencies especially in those just becoming vegetarian. Eating a diet of lots of high fibre foods (beans and whole grains can be too filling and bulky if your sport requires a high intake of calories. To be able to consume enough calories replace some of the beans and whole grains with dried fruit and fruit juice. Also a mixture of whole and refined grain products instead of all wholegrain can reduce the bulk of the diet too. Tell-tale signs of a calorie intake that is too low are fatigue, tiredness and weight loss.

Vegetarian endurance athletes have to be careful not to have a very high fibre meal before a long race – it would be very uncomfortable. So they need to avoid beans, grains, raw vegetables and nuts and seeds and limit cabbage, onions, cauliflower, turnips.

Eating the following before would avoid the discomfort: cooked vegetables, bananas, peel apples, fruit juice, refined grains, skim/soya milk, free range eggs, cheese/soya cheese.

Riboflavin deficiency (vitamin B2)

Riboflavin i s needed for energy production and normal cellular functions of the body. Vegetarians can find riboflavin in soy products, whole grain and enriched cereals, almonds, asparagus, bananas, sweet potatoes and wheat germ (and dairy products).

L-carnitine(beta-hydroxy butyrate)

L-carnitine is required in the muscles to transport the long chain fatty acids in the cells to the mitochondria of the cells where they are metabolised this helps increase blood flow. The presence of carnitine also detoxified ammonia which causes early fatigue. It is also thought to spare muscle glycogen break down and decrease lactic acid production. It mainly is shown to benefit especially athletes involved in high intensity exercise/sports. Carnitine is synthesised from amino acids found mainly in meat and dairy products so vegetarians need to make sure they take in enough protein foods. If a supplement is deemed necessary it must be the L-Cartnintine rather than the less expensive DL – cartinine which has been linked with causing muscle weakness.
Medium chain triglycerides in coconut oil and palm kernel oil do not require L-cartinine to deliver the fatty acid chains to the mitochondria.

Omega - 3 fatty acids

Omega 3 fatty acids benefit athletes as they reduce muscle soreness, improve delivery of oxygen and nutrients to muscles and tissues as a result improve aerobic metabolism, increasing the release of somatotropin which is a growth hormone improving muscular recovery and reduced inflammation of tissues which results from muscle fatigue so there is a faster recovery. Omega 3 fatty acids are found in cold water fish. For the vegetarian sources are foods high in ALA (alpha – linolenic acid) - English walnuts , flaxseed oil, canola oil, ground flaxseeds and/or recommended daily supplements.
By not preparing food with oils high in omega-6 such as corn, soy, safflower, sunflower, most vegetable oil blends "vegetable oil" and sesame oil. Instead, using low omega-6 oils like olive, avocado, peanut, or canola will increase the levels of omega 3 fatty acids in the body.

Maximising iron intake for vegetarian athlete

To increase the absorption of iron from vegetables just squeeze lemon or orange juice on them before eating. The presence vitamin C increases the amount of iron able to be absorbed.
Dark green leafy vegetable have iron but also oxalic acid. The presence of the acid reduces the amount of iron that is available to be absorbed. To rid the vegetables of the oxalic acid but leave all the iron which can then be absorbed by the body blanche the vegetables in  boiling water for 5 – 10 seconds.
To increase iron levels in the body replace bran added cereals with whole grain cereals.

Recommended Supplements

There are many supplements that are great to use to enhance the levels of nutrients in the diet especially for those who eat restricted type of foods such as;

© Kayt Cooper - Diet and Nutrition Advisor

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