There are numerous reasons why athletes choose to follow a vegetarian diet, including ecological, economical, humanitarian, and health. Regardless of why athletes choose to become, or remain vegetarians, the various health benefits have been well documented, and can be found in table 1.
Athletes exercise more than the average person and are less likely to be overweight. Many athletes abstain from tobacco and drugs and limit their alcohol intake as well. Nevertheless, a vegetarian diet is usually high in fiber, low in fat and cholesterol, and rich in antioxidants, phytonutrients, and other important nutrients2.
Health Benefits Of A Vegetarian Diet
- Reduced risk of coronary artery disease3
- Lower average blood cholesterol levels (total and LDL)4
- Lower blood pressure1
- Lower obesity - hover around ideal body weights8
- May help reverse the effects of atherosclerosis once they have occurred4
- Less digestive disorders (constipation and diverticulosis) 5
- Reduced risk of Type II diabetes (adult-onset)8
- Reduced risk of gallstones5
- Improved control of blood sugar (may be due to high fiber in diet)8
- Lower risk of various cancers - colon, lung, and breast - than the average American8
Despite the lengthy list of benefits attributed to following a vegetarian diet, there are various myths that still persist with regards to its appropriateness for athletes. Below are some myths and truths surrounding vegetarian athletes.
Myth /// Nutrient Reduction From Plant Foods
A diet of a vegetarian athlete which emphasizes plant foods, in order to enhance carbohydrate intake and optimize body glycogen stores, may lead to increases in dietary fiber and phytic acid intake to concentrations that reduce the bioavailability of several nutrients including zinc, iron, and some other trace minerals.
The Truth: There is no convincing evidence that vegetarian athletes suffer impaired nutrient status from the interactive effect of their heavy exertion and plant-food based dietary practices to the extent that performance, health, or both are impaired7.
In general, athletes take in higher calories to meet the physical demands of their sport, and are therefore less likely to have low nutrient intakes.
Myth /// Inadequate Protein Intake
Vegetarian athletes can not take in adequate amounts of protein.
The Truth: Data indicate that all essential and nonessential amino acids can be supplied by plant food sources alone as long as a variety of foods is consumed and the energy intake is adequate7.
Including a variety of soy and soy products, nuts, beans, and lentils (low fat dairy and fish, if preferred) is important for an adequate protein intake.
Myth /// Risk Of Oligomenorrhea
Vegetarian female athletes are at increased risk for oligomenorrhea (abnormally slight or infrequent menstrual flow).
The Truth: Evidence suggests that low energy intake, not dietary quality, is the major cause of irregular menses [(irregular menstrual cycle)]7. Taking in adequate calories and a variety of foods is important for normal menses.
When athletes choose vegetarian diets, they must plan with care to be sure that they are taking in adequate nutrients including total calories, protein, the B vitamins, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids6.
In the next issue of the NSCA's Performance Training Journal, we will discuss different types of vegetarians and what foods vegetarians should eat to meet certain vitamin and mineral requirements.
- Berkow SE, Barnard ND. (2005). Blood pressure regulation and vegetarian diets. Nutrition Reviews, 63(1):1 - 8.
- Chang-Claude J, Hermann S, Eilber U, Steindorf K. (2005). Lifestyle determinants and mortality in German vegetarians and health-conscious persons: results of a 21-year follow-up. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, 14(4):963 - 968.
- Fraser GE. (2005). A comparison of fi rst event coronary heart disease rates in two contrasting Ccalifornia populations. Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging, 9(1):53 - 58.
- Kendall CW, Jenkins DJ. (2004). A dietary portfolio: maximal reduction of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol with diet. Current Atherosclerosis Reports, 6(6):492 - 498.
- Key TJ, Davey GK, Appleby PN. (1999). Health benefi ts of a vegetarian diet, Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 58(2):271 - 275.
- Leitzmann C. (2005). Vegetarian diets: what are the advantages? Forum of Nutrition, 57:147 - 156.
- Nieman DC. (1999). Physical fi tness and vegetarian diets: is there a relation? Th e American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70(3 Suppl):570S - 575S.
- Sabate J. (2003). Th e contribution of vegetarian diets to human health. Forum of Nutrition, 56:218 - 20.