Many athletes ponder with the idea of switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet in order to help improve their health and performance in a more natural manner. Whilst they begin with the best intentions a vegetarian or vegan diet can be very hard to stick to and many athletes switch back to a meat packed lifestyle.
By cutting out certain food products athletes can encounter problems, such as low energy, hunger pains and muscle pain that weren’t present before. Very quickly, people choose to revert back to their old diet, which is completely understandable.
And yet, more often than not, this is simply due to a lack of education. There simply is not enough information out there on how to solve certain problems an athlete will confront when changing diet. With more know-how, people who make the big switch away from food normality can use effective tactics to counteract and cure the conditions.
The Difference Between a Vegetarian Diet and a Vegan Diet
Quite simply, a vegetarian diet consists of eating meals where the main ingredients come from plants. This can include a variety of grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables. Whereas, a vegan does all of the above, and also refrains from consuming any animal products. This means not just meat but also any animal-derived substance (e.g. dairy or eggs).
Without enough protein in our diet carbohydrates enter the blood a lot faster causing more spikes and crashes in energy levels. The solution to this is to maintain a ‘snacking routine’ between meals. By feeding their body with the protein it requires, the specific levels needed in the athlete’s body will stay within a safe, balanced zone allowing a steady rate of energy to be released and sustained throughout the day. Certain products that should be kept in a kitbag to snack on throughout the day are:
- Cartons of soy milk
- Raw nuts (e.g. cashews)
- Larger snacks including tofu or lentils as these all pack a powerful punch of protein.
Also, for mid-exercise energy boosts, you can find nutritional snacks and hydration gels here, essentials for athletes to remain on top performance.
Anyone attempting this radical change of diet should realise how important fats are from the beginning. They help slow the rate of carbohydrate release so it’s important for an athlete replaces the loss of this key nutrient from their diet. A vegetarian or vegan diet does not aim to cut all fat out completely rather just minimize it in order for the athlete to maximize performance.
The best way to get the dietary levels of fat needed is through oils, specifically extra virgin olive oil. An athlete can use this oil as a dressing on salads or use it when frying certain foods, like tofu, to help them replace the fats they need to run that extra mile.
Top Up Your Iron levels
If the diet is not balanced properly, the body can suffer from a reduction in red blood cells due to the exclusion of red meat from an athlete’s diet. The problem with this is that without a significant amount of red blood cells the body cannot maintain an optimum level of iron storage to aid with performance. This is especially prevalent in long distance runners as a high level or iron is lost through the amount an athlete sweats during competition.
By not resolving this iron depletion the athlete will witness a reduction in their ability to perform and it could lead to other problems, such as anaemia. Depending on their sport then an athlete will need to consume more iron. In simple terms if you’re a runner you need a high intake of iron, but if you’re less cardio-based such as Golf, it’s not as necessary. This can be done through a variety of different foods:
- Fruits such as prunes or apricots
- Certain cereals and bran products
- Peanut butter
Up Your Salt Intake, Doctor’s Orders
Along with iron, sodium is also lost during sweat. The problem with this is that often it can lead to quite serious injuries to an athlete’s muscles. A vegetarian or vegan diet means that an athlete is usually prone to a dip in their sodium levels as many meat-free foods lack sodium as an ingredient. This causes problems during performance as, without the right levels of sodium in the body, muscles become stiff, begin to cramp and can sometimes tear.
To regain the suppleness of the muscle and achieve a high level of performance once more it is advised that an athlete do one of two things:
- Purchase certain branded sodium tablets that, in the correct moderation, provide the body with all the levels that it needs.
- Gently sprinkle sea salt upon meals throughout the day.
The benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets are slowly coming more into the public’s consciousness. It is clear though that knowledge on these diets is a key and necessary component in order to avoid problems. By educating themselves on the benefits and certain dangers of this diet, an athlete will be able to use plant power to its full potential.
For more nutritional advice, see what the experts say on the Alexandra Sports Blog.
Kindly contributed by Jennifer Thomas.