Fuelling the Vegetarian Athlete

Contributed by Sheryl Normandeau (Calgary, AB)

IN A 2003 STUDY BY THE AMERICAN DIETETIC ASSOCIATIONS and DIETITIANS OF CANADA, 4% of Canadians considered themselves vegetarians, and according to recent survey information from the National Restaurant Association, that number is steadily on the rise. What does eliminating or reducing animal foods mean for young hockey players and other athletes who require specific types of energy sources to keep them active, strong, and competitive?

Proteins

One of the major concerns with vegetarian diets and sport is finding the adequate proteins required to build and repair muscle tissue, and maximize energy (carbohydrate) resources.  The amino acids that form proteins may not be complete in plant-based sources so vegetarians must eat a wide range of protein-rich vegetables to achieve balance.  This is especially important if no dairy or eggs are consumed.  Vegetarian athletes also require larger portions of protein-rich food than non-vegetarians to supply the energy needed to perform at their best.  Soy products such as tofu, tempeh, and soy milk, yogourt and cheese are the best options for concentrated vegetable protein.

Other vegetable sources of protein:

  • Legumes
  • Grains
  • Whole nuts or seeds, or butters made from them
  • Hummus
  • Rice or nut milks

Vitamins and Minerals

Iron is necessary to facilitate the movement of oxygen to muscle tissue, but the iron found in meat is more easily absorbed by the human body than that found in vegetable sources.  Wholegrain breads and cereals, vegetables such as kale, chard, and spinach, nuts (especially almonds), and lentils and beans will supply the iron needed.  A good trick to help with the absorption of iron is to eat food rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruit or juices.

Vitamin B12 is essential “brain food,” and is a key player in the body’s conversion of nourishment to energy.  Unfortunately, vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods, so it is necessary for vegetarians to find alternate sources.  Fortified soymilk, breads, and cereals are the best options for vegans; if dairy is allowed, yogourt and milk are good choices.

Calcium intake must also be considered. Calcium promotes healthy bones and muscles, and is difficult to maintain at proper levels if no dairy is consumed.   Substitute calcium-fortified cereals, soymilk and dairy products to fill the gap.  Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables are also good sources of calcium.

Fibre

Adequate fibre intake is not usually an issue for vegetarian athletes, as most vegetable sources are chockfull of fibre, but it is important to properly time the consumption of fibre, to avoid stomach upset.  Although a small amount of fibre will actually help regulate blood sugar during activity, it is not usually recommended to eat high fibre foods such as legumes or bran before playing sports.

Carbohydrates

A sufficient intake of carbohydrates both before a game is necessary to maintain energy levels.  Carbs must also be replenished post-game.  There are plenty of carbohydrate sources available to vegetarians, including:

  • Fruit such as bananas and oranges, fruit juices or smoothies, dried fruit
  • Oatmeal or cereals, granola
  • Breads or crackers
  • Potatoes or sweet potatoes
  • Pasta

Snacks

Whether in the vehicle driving to the arena or sitting in the stands in between games at a tournament, snacks are important for both players and fans!  Make ahead and pack along vegetable chips made from carrots, kale or sweet potatoes.  Trail mix combos of dried cranberries or raisins, soy nuts, almonds and raw sunflower seeds are another good option.

Fluid Intake

It is necessary to maintain high levels of hydration at all stages of the game:  always keep a bottle of water filled and on hand!  Juice and chocolate milk or soy/nut drinks are good post-game options.

Vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike should focus on a balanced, moderate diet.  Selecting a variety of nutrient-dense foods is the key to maintaining good health, the enjoyment of eating, and optimum performance in sport (and in life!).

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