For years, vegetarian athletes were the exception rather than the norm, but not any more, says Anita Bean
The vegetarian sports diet has been on an upward trend, with more high-profile names than ever proving that, if anything, it can enhance performance progress rather than reverse it.
One of the earliest to speak publicly about the benefits of cutting out animal products was Carl Lewis, who switched to a vegan diet in preparation for the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. He has since said: “I’ve found that a person does not need protein from meat to be a successful athlete. In fact, my best year of track competition was the first year I ate a vegan diet.”
Since then, other high-profile sportspeople, including tennis players Venus Williams and Novak Djokovic, are among those to have shunned meat to the benefit of their winning ways. And it seems they’re on to something by claiming meat doesn’t matter as much as we thought for sport.
A 2015 analysis by Australian researchers of eight previous studies that compared the performance of athletes eating a vegetarian diet with those whose diets included meat concluded that well-planned and varied vegetarian diets neither hinder nor improve athletic performance.
This is in agreement with the findings of a previous review of studies by the University of British Columbia, Canada, which suggested that vegetarian diets can provide more than enough protein to support athletic training and performance. Numerous studies have measured physical fitness, limb circumference and strength in vegetarian and non-vegetarian athletes and found no differences in any of these parameters.
In other words, vegetarians were not disadvantaged in terms of their performance, fitness or strength.
In one study, researchers asked runners to follow a vegetarian or non-vegetarian diet for two weeks. They found no difference in running performance between the two groups, suggesting giving up meat had no detrimental effect on short-term performance.
Among female athletes consuming a semi-vegetarian diet (less than 100g red meat per week), there was no difference in their aerobic fitness compared with meat eaters.
Danish researchers tested athletes after consuming either a vegetarian or non-vegetarian diet for six weeks alternately. The carbohydrate content of each diet was kept the same (57% energy). Whichever diet they ate, the athletes experienced no change in aerobic capacity, endurance, muscle glycogen concentration or strength.
In one study, ultra-runners completed a 1000km race over a 20-day period after consuming either a vegetarian or non-vegetarian diet containing similar amounts of carbohydrate (60% energy) and there was no difference in performance between the two groups.
In a 2002 study, athletes who followed a vegetarian diet for 12 weeks of resistance training achieved the same strength and muscle size gains as those following a non-vegetarian diet containing exactly the same amount of protein. In other words, when it comes to building muscle, it doesn’t matter where you get your protein from, provided you’re getting enough of it. What these studies prove is that vegetarians can perform just as well as non-vegetarians and that a well-planned vegetarian diet does not hinder athletic performance.
What about iron?
Although the body only absorbs about 10% of iron from our food, it absorbs considerably less (typically three times less) from plant foods compared with meat. But don’t fret!
There is evidence that the body adapts over time by increasing the percentage of iron it absorbs from food. So, if your diet contains only small amounts of non-haeme iron, a higher percentage of it will be absorbed. Also, the body adjusts its absorption according to its iron needs.
For example, if your iron stores dip, the body absorbs more to replenish them; similarly when iron stores are ‘full’ then the body absorbs less. Studies suggest that although vegetarians have slightly lower stores of iron than non-vegetarians, iron-deficiency anaemia is no more common in vegetarians than meat eaters. According to a review of studies by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, iron and haemoglobin levels are still well within the normal range.
Iron deficiency vs sports anaemia
It’s worth noting that it can sometimes be difficult to assess iron status from a single blood test, as strenuous exercise increases the volume of plasma in the blood, diluting the levels of haemoglobin. This increase can sometimes incorrectly suggest there is a deficiency. This is called ‘sports anaemia’.
It is not the same as iron-deficiency anaemia – it is simply a consequence of endurance training. It does not need any treatment as it is generally found in people who are in the early stages of a training programme.
The creatine equation
As vegetarians have lower creatine levels in their muscles than meat eaters (creatine is found only in meat and fish), they stand to benefit the most from supplementation.
Creatine supplements increase muscle levels of phosphocreatine, an energy-rich compound made from creatine and phosphorus that fuels muscles during high intensity exercise, such as sprinting or lifting weights. In one study, vegetarian athletes who took creatine supplements for eight weeks while following a resistance training programme experienced a greater increase in phosphocreatine, muscle mass and exercise performance than those who took a placebo, which suggests that vegetarians are more responsive to creatine.
Overall, creatine helps promote muscle growth, increases muscle mass, improves strength and power, improves the ability to perform multiple bouts of high-intensity exercise, improves performance during high-intensity exercise, and improves recovery after endurance exercise.
The quickest way of increasing your creatine stores is to ‘load’ with 0.3 g/kg of body weight for 5-7 days – that’s 20g/day for a 70kg person. Take this amount in four equally divided doses through the day, e.g. 4x5g. Alternatively, you can ‘load’ with a smaller dose of 2-3g/day for three to four weeks. Following the loading phase you can switch to a maintenance dose of 0.03 g/kg of body weight a day, or 2 g/day for a 70kg person.
RECIPE 1: PERFORMANCE PORRIDGE
Full of slow-release carbs, porridge is the perfect way to start the day. Add some cinnamon and throw in a banana and some nuts or stir in some blueberries to make it much tastier (and healthier). Ring the changes with a handful of raisins, a few chopped dates or dried apricots, a spoonful of desiccated coconut or apple purée.
Ingredients (serves one):
50g (2oz) rolled oats
300ml (10fl oz) any milk of your choice
A pinch of cinnamon
1 banana, sliced, or handful of blueberries
1 tbsp chopped nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts or pecans)
Instructions: Mix the oats, milk and half the sliced banana (if using) in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the cinnamon, fruit and nuts.
RECIPE 2: WALNUT BURGERS
These burgers are easy to make if you have a food processor. Walnuts are rich in omega-3 oils, which are important for oxygen delivery during exercise as well as for promoting recovery. They also supply protein, iron, vitamin E and zinc. Substitute the aubergine for mushrooms, if you prefer. This recipe makes eight burgers so if you don’t use them all, freeze the remainder (for up to three months).
Ingredients (makes eight):
1 tbsp light olive oil or rapeseed oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/4 aubergine, finely chopped
175g (6oz) walnuts
75g (3oz) wholemeal bread
A few sprigs of fresh rosemary (or 1 tsp dried rosemary)
1 tsp yeast extract (eg, Marmite) dissolved in 2 tbsp boiling water (or to taste)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Instructions: Preheat oven to 190°C/fan/170°C/gas mark 5. Heat oil in a pan and fry onions for 2-3 minutes. Add celery, garlic and aubergine and cook for five minutes until soft. Whizz nuts in a food processor until finely ground. Add the bread and process, turning into breadcrumbs. Add the cooked onion mixture, rosemary, yeast extract, salt and black pepper. Process until evenly combined. Add eggs and process so holds together firmly. If too wet, add more breadcrumbs. Shape mixture into eight equal-sized patties 11/2cm thick and place on oiled baking tray. Bake for 20-25 minutes until crisp and brown. Serve with baked sweet potatoes, a green vegetable and slices of butternut squash (place in a baking tin, drizzle with olive oil and bake for 20 minutes) whilst the burgers are cooking.
RECIPE 3: HALLOUMI AND RED PEPPER SALAD
Peppers and tomatoes are excellent sources of vitamin C and phytonutrients. Halloumi is slightly lower in fat than most hard cheeses. When it’s grilled, barbecued or fried it becomes beautifully crispy and savoury on the outside. Avocado and pine nuts both provide healthy mono-unsaturated fats and vitamin E.
Ingredients (serves two):
25g (4oz) halloumi
2 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
2 large handfuls of salad leaves (eg, baby spinach, rocket and watercress)
1 red pepper, sliced
150g (5oz) cherry tomatoes, halved
1 avocado, sliced
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A squeeze of lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Instructions: Heat up a griddle or frying pan over a high heat. Cut the halloumi into 5mm thick slices and then fry for 1-11/2 minutes each side until they are golden brown. Then set those on one side. Toast the pine nuts in the dry frying pan. Arrange the salad leaves on two plates, then scatter over the peppers, tomatoes and avocado slices, finally arranging the halloumi slices on top. Whisk the oil, lemon juice and seasoning together and then drizzle over the salad. Scatter over the pine nuts and serve.
» Anita Bean is an award-winning registered nutritionist and author of The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook, £14.99; bloomsbury.com