by Suzanne Cruz
These days, more and more runners & walkers are flocking to a vegetarian diet to meet their nutritional needs. In the process, they're hoping to have more energy and rack up some PRs, too.
Depending on your definition, a vegetarian diet can range from eliminating red meat to totally avoiding all animal products. The key to a healthy plant-based eating style lies in planning a daily diet that supplies adequate calories and incorporates alternate sources of key nutrients typically supplied by meat and dairy foods. For vegetarian athletes, especially, this means putting the focus on what foods you choose to INCLUDE on a daily basis, not those you avoid. To be successful, you can't simply skip the meat and eat only the potatoes! You'll need to put a little more thought and planning into your daily food choices in order to get the heavy hitter nutrients - such as iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B12 and protein - that every runner needs.
Rewards and Risks
A well-planned vegetarian diet, chock full of health-promoting fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, can reduce your risk for heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, as well as help you reach and maintain a healthy weight. While a plant-based eating style doesn't guarantee a physical advantage, a recent review of studies concluded that it has no detrimental effects on performance, either.
A common pitfall of vegetarianism, however, is unbalanced eating, where animal foods are simply eliminated with little regard to finding appropriate substitutes. In this scenario, a vegetarian diet can be extremely unhealthful - high in saturated fat (from full-fat dairy foods like cheese), refined carbs, sugar and hydrogenated oils and low in protein, iron, zinc and calcium. As a runner, you put yourself at risk for iron deficiency anemia, a weak immune system, nagging injuries and, for women, an out-of-balance menstrual cycle that can contribute to stress fractures as well as the early onset of osteoporosis.
In some cases, vegetarianism can also be an indication that a runner is restricting food needlessly. A person who suffers from an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa (self-induced starvation) may use vegetarianism to justify avoiding meat and dairy foods but then be unwilling to seek out appropriate meat substitutes or eat healthy fat-containing vegetarian fare such as nuts and avocados.
Eating Well the Vegetarian Way
To avoid surviving only on the starchy side dishes of meat-focused meals (which can result in "carbohydrate overload" and a diet inadequate in protein, iron and zinc), you may need to build your cooking and diet-planning skills. This can take time, so don't feel compelled to eliminate animal based foods all at once.
Semi-vegetarians who eat poultry and/or fish can obtain the same range of nutrients as red meat eaters. Those who avoid animal flesh but eat dairy foods and eggs typically meet protein, calcium, and vitamin B12 needs but may have trouble getting enough zinc and iron. Vegans, those who avoid all animal foods, are most at risk for insufficient calories and nutrient deficiencies.
When it comes to replacing the protein readily supplied by meat, poultry and fish, opt for legumes (kidney, pinto, black and garbanzo beans) and soy foods (tofu, tempeh, soy milk, veggie burgers, etc.). Be sure to consume some of each daily. Non-vegans can also obtain high-quality protein from eggs and dairy foods. You can round out your daily protein needs by including whole grains, peanut butter, nuts, seeds and starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn.
To obtain all the essential amino acids your body needs to form complete proteins, concentrate on eating a wide variety of protein sources throughout the day. Vegetarians do not need to specifically "combine" foods at each meal to meet their protein requirement. You will need to consume enough calories, however, to maintain your weight and fuel your training. Otherwise, your body will resort to using the protein for energy rather than building and repairing body tissues, including muscles.
Keep in mind that a protein base built of cheese, peanut butter and nuts can easily tip you overboard in terms of calories and fat, making it difficult to reach and maintain a healthy weight.
Iron and Zinc
Both minerals are vital for a healthy immune system, and you need adequate iron to build healthy red blood cells and avoid the fatigue associated with iron-deficiency anemia. Make a conscious effort to include good, meatless sources of iron and zinc daily. Go for the legumes and whole grains again, as they contribute significant amounts of both. Lentils, soy foods, wheat germ, peanut butter and nuts and seeds contribute zinc; leafy greens, soy foods, dried fruit, oatmeal and fortified breakfast cereals dish up iron.
Necessary for strong bones and teeth, as well as to help muscles relax and contract and nerves conduct messages, calcium is a priority nutrient. Focus on getting 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily. Good choices: tofu (if made with calcium sulfate), leafy greens (except spinach, chard or beet greens), broccoli, figs, almonds, blackstrap molasses, sea vegetables and calcium-fortified foods like soy milk, cereal, breakfast bars and juice (check the food label).
Including milk, yogurt and cheese in your diet makes it easy - one cup of milk or yogurt or one-and-one-half ounces of cheese supplies 300 milligrams. For other sources, check the food label and add a "zero" to the amount listed as the % Daily Value. (For example, 20% Daily Value = 200 milligrams of calcium.)
Found almost exclusively in animal foods, B12 is needed for healthy red blood cells and nerve fibers. Although they are touted as good sources, don't rely on sea vegetables, tempeh, miso or spirulina. Much of the vitamin B12 in these foods is in an inactive form that your body can't readily use. Instead, opt for fortified foods, such as certain brands of soy milk, soy burgers and cereal (check the label), or take a multivitamin.
Suzanne Girard Eberle, MS, RD, is a former national 5,000-meter champion and is the author of Endurance Sports Nutrition.