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Vegetarian Diet and Exercise

by
author image Meredith Crilly
Meredith C. has worked as a nutrition educator, chef and community health projects since 2011. She received a Bachelor of Science in nutrition from the University of Tennessee and is currently completing an MS/DI program in nutrition.
Vegetarian Diet and Exercise
A vegetarian wrap on a table. Photo Credit MikeyGen73/iStock/Getty Images

Diet and exercise make up two primary ways to build a healthy lifestyle, which is why many people choose to follow a vegetarian diet. However, for athletes or anyone interested in being physically active on a regular basis, there may be concerns about getting adequate nutrients such as protein to fuel performance and build muscle. While athletes, either recreational or competitive, can follow a vegetarian diet without compromising their exercise potential, paying special attention to diet can maximize performance.

Performance Concerns

Vegetarian diets have been associated with lower death rates from heart disease and decreased risk of obesity, and you can choose to be a vegetarian without having your athletic performance suffer. A 2012 study published in the "Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition" looked at bicyclists who followed either a vegetarian or meat-containing diet. While the vegetarian group had slightly lower oxygen levels during submaximal effort, results did not demonstrate that a vegetarian diet decreases exercise potential. A 2011 study published in the "European Journal of Applied Physiology" confirmed these results. Athletes performing sprint training followed a vegetarian or mixed diet, and both groups saw the same improvements in athletic performance. If you're concerned about decreased athletic ability, research indicates that a vegetarian diet does not negatively affect your exercise performance, but has the same result as following a meat-containing diet.

Vitamins and Minerals

Since vegetarians consume more plant foods on a regular basis, the absorption of several nutrients may be reduced. Zinc, iron and some trace minerals can safely be obtained through diet, but vegetarians may have difficulty maintaining adequate intake. 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 food.

How Much Protein

Since meats are a primary source of protein, vegetarians may not be getting adequate amounts on a daily basis. Strength-training athletes should aim to take in 1.4 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, while endurance athletes should take in slightly less, with a range of 1.2 to 1.4. In order to meet these protein needs, you should make sure to get high-quality proteins from eggs and low-fat dairy products as well as legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Keep in mind that very little protein is stored in the body, which is why you should be sure to eat small amounts of protein throughout the day. Vary your sources and spread out your protein intake to ensure adequate intake.

Disease Protection

Although vegetarian diets may not be associated with improved athletic performance or endurance, other benefits make this dietary plan beneficial to serious athletes. A plant-based diet improves high-carbohydrate intake, which is required to provide energy for endurance exercise. Additionally, a well-planned vegetarian diet can be followed safely, with planning to receive adequate minerals and protein. Athletes who follow a vegetarian diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains take in high amounts of antioxidants, which reduce the oxidative stress associated with heavy exertion. Finally, this dietary plan provides long-term health benefits with a reduction in risk of developing chronic diseases. Combining regular physical activity with a vegetarian diet results in lower mortality rates than a vegetarian diet or exercise alone.

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