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Nutrition guidelines for the vegetarian athlete

Are you a vegetarian who follows an active lifestyle? Here's what you need to know to ensure your diet gives you all the energy and nutrition you need to maintain peak performance.

One small thing: Are you a vegetarian athlete? Make sure you maintain your energy levels by eating more frequent meals and snacks, and including energy-rich foods in your diet.

Can you get enough energy, nutrients and protein from a vegetarian diet while maintaining an active lifestyle? Absolutely, say vegetarians who excel at sport. We examine the essential nutrients your body needs to function optimally (and which plant foods provide them).

1. Energy

How much energy you need depends on various factors, such as your size, gender, your particular sport and the level you're training at. But if you're finding it hard to gain or maintain your weight, you may need to eat more frequent meals and snacks and include high-energy foods in your diet.

Try these tips:

  • Sip on smoothies made with fresh fruit, plain yoghurt and milk or fortified soya beverages. You can add ground flaxseeds or ground almonds for a nutrient boost.
  • Carry energy-rich snacks with you, such as bran muffins, cheese, nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
  • Add sliced or mashed avocado and hummus to sandwiches and wraps.
2. Protein

Plant proteins aren't as well digested or as complete as animal proteins, so it's important to choose a variety of different protein-rich foods. Make sure you eat them at regular intervals during the course of the day to ensure you're getting enough protein.

  • Good sources of plant-based proteins include beans, lentils, split peas, quinoa, nuts, seeds, soya products, such as tempeh, tofu, soya beans and soya milk, and nuts.
  • Following a lacto-ovo vegetarian eating plan? Dairy products and eggs are great sources of protein to include daily.
  • Keep in mind that almond and rice milk have less protein than dairy or soya milk, so add a scoop of protein powder to a shake or smoothie to boost your protein intake.
3. Iron

Not getting enough iron can lead to low iron stores and eventually iron deficiency anaemia, which will definitely affect your performance. Unfortunately, many vegan and vegetarian athletes are at risk of low iron stores because the iron in plant-based foods is not as well absorbed as those in meat.

Fortunately, there are ways to optimise your iron intake:

  • Eat foods high in iron every day, such as wholegrains, iron-fortified cereals and breads, dried fruit (prunes, raisins and apricots), quinoa, beans, lentils, soya products and dark green vegetables like kale.
  • Make sure you include a source of vitamin C with meals and snacks – this will help your body absorb the iron it needs from the plant foods. Good sources include citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers and broccoli.
  • Avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals because they can inhibit iron absorption.

An annual blood test to check your iron levels is recommended for vegetarian and vegan athletes. Taking iron supplements without having your blood checked or taking too much iron from supplements may be harmful to your health.

4. Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12, which is necessary to produce red blood cells and prevent anaemia, is found almost exclusively in animal products. Look out for fortified foods and beverages that include vitamin B12, or supplement with a multivitamin if necessary.

5. Antioxidants

A variety of antioxidants, including vitamins C and E, beta carotene and selenium, help protect your body's cells from damage after exercise. Get your quota from nutrient-rich foods like vegetables, fruit, nuts, wholegrains and legumes, rather than from supplements.

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