Eating red meat at least five times a week increases your risk for colon cancer by 400 % in comparison to eating it less than once a month. Vegetarians have a 24 % lower risk of mortality from heart disease than non-vegetarians. Given these statistics, it comes as no surprise to learn that 7.3 million Americans are considered vegetarians according to the 2008 Vegetarian Times study. With the abundance of food in the U.S, vegetarianism is generally considered a choice, typically for health, religious, environmental or ethical reasons.
Regardless, confusion exists over the true benefits of vegetarian diets, especially when it comes to athletic performance. Although these diets generally promote improved health, they also pose some legitimate health concerns. Vegan diets tend to be low in iron, zinc, calcium, riboflavin, vitamin D and B12, and possibly protein, all nutrients necessary for overall health and performance. As these nutrients are readily available and absorbed efficiently from animal sources, vegetarians who include animal products in their diet do not need to be concerned. Furthermore, specific compounds found in vegetables, legumes and grains interfere with mineral absorption, potentially compromising nutrient status and physiological function, including the effectiveness of our energy pathways.
Perhaps the most important and possibly misunderstood concern lies with protein quantity and quality.
While athletes require more protein, the average American female and male consume approximately 19% and 44% more protein respectively than the recommended daily allowance. But do vegetarian athletes consume adequate quantities of protein to sustain tissue maintenance, growth and repair? Vegetable protein sources, with the exception of soy, are absorbed less efficiently into the human body, and almost all lack or are deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids needed to build cells and tissues.
Consequently, vegetarian athletes need to pay particular attention to both protein quantity and quality. To assist, U.S. and Canadian dietitians have developed dietary suggestions for vegetarians, including athletes, to follow to ensure intake of the necessary quantity and quality of all nutrients to function and perform optimally. After all, Bill Pearl, four-time Mr. Universe, Joe Namath, Prince Fielder (MLB), Dave Scott (Iron Man Champion) and Olympian Carl Lewis have each demonstrated than vegetarian athletes can excel at any level.
The reality however is that the research and evidence surrounding nutrition is vast and varied, and as fitness professionals, we are constantly faced with a myriad of challenges. This includes helping vegetarians, addressing requests for menu planning, and performing dietary evaluations. Although we strive to steer clients towards safe and effective dietary practices while respecting scope of practice, we need credible resources and strong direction.
NASM’s Fitness Nutritional Specialist (FNS) is such a resource that was developed in collaboration with dietitians to provide credible information while working within scope of practice. With FNS, you will be able to provide general non-medical nutritional information, increase awareness and knowledge of healthy eating, direct individuals to nutrient-rich sources, track nutrient intake effectively to tackle the energy balance equation, and provide athletes with solid nutritional strategies to improve performance. If you’re feeling challenged and perhaps even frustrated with the misinformation around you, look to the FNS for your solutions.
For more on plant-based diets, try out course on the subject!
- Fuhrman, J. & Ferreri, D.M. (2010). Fueling the vegetarian (vegan) athlete. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 9(4):233 – 242.
- Giovannucci, E, et al (1994). Intake of Fat, Meat, and Fiber in Relation to Risk of Colon Cancer in Men. Cancer Research, 54, 2390 – 2397
- Gonzales, J. & Eubanks, A. (2009). Where do vegetarian athletes get their protein? NSCA's Performance Training Journal, 8(6): 10 – 11.
- Harris Interactive Service Bureau, (2008). Pool Survey for the Vegetarian Times. (5,050 respondents) RRC Associates, Boulder, CO.
- Laquale, K.M (2006). Practical suggestions for vegetarian athletes. Athletic Therapy Today, 11(4): 59 – 60.
- Siener, R. & Albrecht, H. (2003). The effect of a vegetarian and different omnivorous diets on urinary risk factors for uric acid stone formation. European Journal of Nutrition, 42(6): 332 – 337.