Why athletes should NOT be vegetarians


Ron Swanson knows whats up. Vegetarian. Vegan. Pescatarian. Lacto-ovo vegetarian. Lacto-vegetarian. Octo-vegetarian. Apart from the ketogenic diet, vegetarianism seems to be one of the most trendy food fads these days. I understand some feel led to follow this lifestyle due to religious or ethical reasons, but if optimal athletic performance is on your radar, I strongly advise AGAINST eliminating animal products from your diet! Read on to find out why…

Meat (beef, lamb, pork, veal, poultry and fish) plays an integral role in our diet. It is the predominant source of protein, B vitamins, iron and zinc. Consequently, iron and zinc are the two nutrients most often deficient in vegetarian or modified-vegetarian diets, especially the diet of athletes.Ā šŸ˜§Ā Therefore, should you still choose to exclude meat/animal products from your diet it would behoove you to work with a sports RD.

Let’s discuss why protein, B vitamins, iron and zinc are oh so critical for prime athletic performance.

šŸ‘‰Ā ProteinĀ is well known for its role in maintaining and repairing muscle mass, but it is also critical for the metabolism of other nutrients, transporting oxygen to muscles and promoting a strong immune system. Protein is comprised of amino acids, some beingĀ essential (meaning we most obtain from food because the bodyĀ is unable to synthesize them independently) and othersĀ non-essential (the body is able to synthesize from various nutrients/metabolites. While the QUANTITY of protein in the diet of athletes (vegetarian OR carnivore) is usually not a concern, the QUALITY of protein from plant sources is limited. For example, legumes do not contain all the essential amino acids, but one egg does!Ā 28030729-cartoon-illustration-of-an-egg-with-an-open-mouth-smile.jpg

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t cover complementary proteins right quick. Perhaps you’ve heard of them previously…complementary proteinsĀ refers to two different plant based protein sources which individually do not contain all essential amino acids, but when eaten together, all essential amino acids are present. Examples: peanut butter and whole grains, rice and beans, grilled cheese sandwich or hummus and pita bread.

The last point to cover regarding protein from meat is its superior bioavailability, compared to plant proteins. Bioavailability refers to the amount of nutrient which the body actually absorbs. According the the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations, protein digestibility is reduced by 10% in plant based sources due to the high fiber content, which prohibits complete absorption. Therefore, athletes who consume a vegetarian diet should aim for 110% of their calculated protein requirements to ensure adequate intake.

šŸ‘‰Ā B VitaminsĀ play a big part in energy metabolism (think electron transport chain related to ATP synthesisĀ šŸ¤“).Ā  While meats are a major source of B vitamins, whole and enriched grains, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, vegetables and dairy products can supply all dietary requirements for B vitamins…EXCEPT for vitamin B12! A B12 supplementĀ MUSTĀ be used if all animal products are eliminated from the diet.

  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamin):Ā Pork, green peas and whole-grain and enriched-grain products including bread, rice, pasta, tortillas and fortified cereals
  • Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin):Ā Milk and dairy foods, enriched bread and other grain products, lean meats, eggs and leafy green vegetables such as spinach
  • Niacin:Ā High-protein foods including peanut butter, beef, poultry, fish, avocado and enriched and fortified grain products
  • Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine):Ā Baked potato, banana, beef, fortified cereals, nuts, beans, pork, chicken and fish
  • Vitamin B12:Ā Milk and dairy foods, meat, fish (especially salmon), poultry and eggs
  • Folate:Ā Orange juice, spinach, Romaine lettuce, broccoli, peanuts, avocado, enriched grain products and fortified breakfast cereals.

šŸ‘‰Ā IronĀ is most well known for its job in helping transport oxygen to muscles, an especially critical task when it comes to sports performance. When body iron stores are low, (serum ferritin < 12ug/dL) it results inĀ anemia.

There are two forms of dietary iron,Ā hemeĀ (from animal sources) andĀ non-hemeĀ (plant sources). It is important to note absorption of heme iron is affected by body iron stores, but NOT by intestinal factors or meal composition. Conversely, absorption of non-heme iron IS dependent on iron stores, intestinal factors and meal composition. Case in point: the lower total iron body stores, the higher the absorption rate from various foods. As for meal composition, foods high in vitamin C help toĀ increaseĀ the absorption of non-heme iron. Think iron fortified cereal plus citrus fruits. On the flip side, avoid nutrients that block iron absorption, during the same meal, such as tannins, polypheols, phytic acid and oxalate, which are found in items like coffee, tea, whole grains, bran, spinach and fiber in general.

šŸ‘‰Ā ZincĀ is a contributor in a variety of bodily functions such as metabolic pathways, endocrine function and immune integrity, serving as a co-factor in over 100 enzymes. Due to zinc’s essential role in regulating lactate dehydrogenase activity, hypozincemia, (zinc deficiency) would most certainly result in decreased athletic performance. Making sure you get enough zinc is easy, so long as you’re consuming meat; the highest sources of zinc are found in meat/seafood, such as beef, crab, lobster and dark meat from poultry. Keep in mind while there are some meatless sources of zinc (yogurt, ricotta cheese, lentils, seeds), the bioavailability of zinc is much lower than its meat counterparts due to a high fiber or antagonistic mineral content. Bottom line: rely on meat!

Should you still feel compelled to consume a meatless diet, I would strongly recommend a daily iron, vitamin B12 and zinc supplement at 100% of the RDA, to ensure adequate intake and to prevent deficiency. Of course, FOOD FIRST is my philosophy but when key nutrients are insufficient it is better to use a supplement rather than face a potential nutrient deficiency.

If you’re still tuned in, gracia por venir! I know we got a bit technical on ya, but I firmly believe it’s important to know the WHY behind the WHAT. Feel free to comment with your thoughts, comments and suggestions…as well as follow us so you can stay up to date with our latest posts!

*Featured image cred: Martha Stewart Magazine