Firstly, I’m not here to preach about why everyone should become vegetarian, I’m not vegetarian myself but I do try vegetarian dishes weekly. Recently I learned how to fuel my body on a non-meat diet.
From my personal experience it was hard exercising on a vegetarian diet, especially when my diet is predominantly based around meat and all I wanted after a long run was a juicy chicken burger filled with protein. However, with my good planning and sound knowledge of alternative foods, I found I was successful at maintaining performance on an all-vegetarian diet.
If you want someone to look up to, who has been successful in ultra-running on a vegetarian diet it would be Scott Jurek! Scott Jurek follows a 100% plant-based diet and has been victorious in nearly all of ultra-running’s elite trail and road events. These include the historic 153-mile Spartathlon, the Hardrock 100, the Badwater 135-Mile Ultramarathon, and the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, which he won a record seven straight times. Scott also holds the United States all-surface record in the 24-Hour Run with 165.7 miles: 6.5 marathons in one day fuelled only by plants!!
It is not impossible to fuel yourself on no meat!
I have written this blog to inform and educate those who need information about running vegetarian. I would like to challenge those who are meat eaters to think about alternative ways to fuel their performance.
Our culture is defined by what we eat. Over here in New Zealand our diet is based around the western diet, characterised by high meat, dairy and sugar intakes and reduced intakes of plant based foods. When someone springs on you that they are vego, the cliché is to think they are outside the social norm, but they could be onto something.
Vegetarian diets have been shown to reduced risk of lifestyle diseases, obesity and hypertension. As well as reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, liver and kidney disease, and the depletion of bone mass. It has also been shown that vegetarians live longer.
So how does it improve performance? Well there are 3 mechanisms that are associated with a vegetarian diet and enhancing performance;
- Eating a vegetarian diet increases an individual’s glycogen stores, and therefore enhances performance as glycogen is the main muscle fuel during exercise
- Eating a vegetarian diet increases your phytochemicals and antioxidants which help reduce oxidative stress (muscle damage) and improve immunity. Therefore you should be able to recover in a shorter time frame and perform for longer.
- Eating a vegetarian diet has an alkaline effect on acid-base levels in your body. It can reset the homeostatic balance and increase physical performance by increasing the alkaline in your muscles, thus reducing the acid. This ‘acid’ is often referred to as lactic acid and is a major cause of fatigue during exercise.
So how do you eat vegetarian, while still maintaining performance?
Athletic performance and recovery from exercise are enhanced by optimising your nutrition. When planning a vegetarian diet, it is essential to make sure it contains all the necessary nutrients you need for performance and training.
The accepted macronutrient distribution ranges for carbohydrate (45-65%), fat (20-35%) and protein (10-35%) of energy, are fitting for vegetarian athletes and especially those who perform endurance events. In general, the plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, and grains are high in carbohydrates, and they can serve as a main source of energy for endurance athletes.
The main concept to understand is that simply taking meat off the menu is not enough to guarantee an improvement in your performance. If one aspect of your diet is taken out and not replaced with a healthy alternative an imbalance occurs. A vegetarian diet has been shown to work but the issue surrounding this type of diet is that a vegetarian diet lacking in essential macronutrients can lead to decreases in performance.
To maintain your best performance and overall health vegetarians need to be aware of many factors with their nutritional intake. Below I have outlined some key factors that need to be taken into account with a vegetarian diet:
Unfortunately, plant based diets are not very energy dense – and it takes quite a lot of energy to fuel your training run. Also the energy needs in vegetarian athletes are even higher, as resting energy expenditure has been shown to be 11% higher in vegetarians compared to non-vegetarians.
Because vegetarians eat lots of high-fibre, low-fat foods, it is not uncommon to discover inadequately low energy intakes in vegetarian endurance athletes. If energy intake does not meet energy expenditure, put simply, your performance will bonk. It is recommended to eat 6 or more medium-sized meals/snacks containing energy dense plant foods as nuts, avocado, dried fruits, and dairy products to keep up with your energy expenditure.
Without enough protein in your diet, recovery from hard runs will take significantly longer. Vegetarian athletes can meet their protein needs from predominantly or exclusively plant-based sources when a variety of these foods are consumed daily, and energy intake is adequate.
Nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds contain some, and often lots of protein. Fruits, sugars, fats, and alcohol do not provide much protein, so a diet based only on these foods would have a good chance of being too low in protein. It is critical that vegetarian athletes combine protein sources to ensure adequate protein and amino acid consumption.
Protein recommendations for vegetarian athletes are slightly higher due to the decreased digestibility of plant foods. Meat, dairy, and eggs are 95% digestible, but grains and beans are only 85% digestible. Therefore, an increase in protein intake of about 10 percent is advisable for athletes. An optimal protein intake can be achieved through careful planning with an emphasis on protein-rich plant foods.
Vitamins and minerals:
Vegetarian diets can lead to deficiency in essential vitamins and minerals. Below are a few vitamins and minerals that become deficient with a vegetarian diet.
Firstly Zinc is essential for optimal immune function and supports reactions on the body. The availability of zinc from vegetarian diets is less than that of non-vegetarian diets. In particular, plants rich in zinc such as legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds are also high in phytic acid, an inhibitor of zinc availability. Therefore, zinc supplementation may be a wise choice particularly for vegan athletes. Secondly, calcium as it is important to have optimal bone health. Calcium-rich plant foods include watercress, bokchoy, kale, tofu, and almonds. Vegan athletes can meet their calcium needs by incorporating calcium-fortified food sources like soy-milk into their diet
Finally Vitamin B12: is essential for proper nervous system function and DNA synthesis, especially in red blood cells. The richest sources of B12 are animal products, milk, eggs, and fortified foods. Vitamin B12 is not found in plant-based food products.
To avoid deficiencies which can affect athletic performance, eat foods with ample amounts of vitamins and zinc such as fortified breakfast cereals, legumes, nuts and seeds. Supplementation may be beneficial, but as much as possible, you should try to take in nutrients from whole foods.
In athletes, particularly female endurance athletes, there is a risk of iron depletion and iron deficiency anaemia. Most of the iron in a vegetarian diet is non-heme iron which has a relatively low absorption rate (2-20%) compared with heme iron found in meat (15-35%).
This is significant as low iron stores have been associated with decreased endurance. In most cases, vegetarian athletes can achieve proper iron levels without supplementation. However, they need to be educated on plant sources of iron and factors that enhance iron absorption.
Vegetarian foods with high iron amounts:
- Baked potatoes w/skin
Foods that increase iron absorption:
- Vitamin C rich foods- e.g. orange juice
I recommend having foods high in iron with foods that increase absorption so iron stores can be maintained. If iron levels are low, iron supplements should be advised to build up and/or maintain iron levels.
So what does a typical day of food look like for a vegetarian runner?
*based on an (Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian) active 55kg female athlete who eats around 2200 kcals per day.
|Food||Amount (g)||Carbohydrate (g)||Protein (g)||Fat (g)|
|Breakfast||Cinnamon Apple Oatmeal||1 Cup||55||15||3|
|Lunch||Chickpea and mixed salad sandwich||1 Sandwich||26||20||15|
|Pre workout snack||Avocado on whole grain toast||50g Avocado
|Post workout snack||Scrambled Eggs on whole grain toast||1x Eggs
|Dinner||Noodle Salad with Haloumi and Peanuts||2.5 cup||130||60||20|
|Snack||Vegan Chocolate Mousse||1 serve||15||10||3|
From this diet we can see that carbohydrate accounts for around 59%, protein 27% and fat 14%, all in the acceptable macronutrient distribution ranges.
Being vegetarian and a runner can be difficult, however evidence suggests a vegetarian diet does not have a detrimental effect on your performance. But to have an best vegetarian diet much more time needs to go into planning to ensure you don’t miss out on your carbohydrates, protein, fats and essential vitamins and minerals.
If you are vegetarian or thinking about changing to a vegetarian diet it is important to gain sound knowledge from professionals of what you need to eat and how it will affect your training and race day performance.