Vegetarian diets in athletes

Diet based on vegetarianism has been on the rise in recent decades, due in part to the increase in available information (social networks, media, internet) and greater awareness of the health benefits that are associated to these lifestyle changes (lower risk of heart disease, decreased LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, type II diabetes, and cancer). Although it has been seen that vegetarianism generates benefits for the health of the general population , it is essential to know what or what are the benefits of vegetarian diets in athletes , especially in athletes with high sports performance. 

Vegetarian diet requirements

First, to ensure that vegetarian diets meet the needs of both health and athletic performance, it is essential to meet certain basic dietary requirements to achieve good health and those related to the specific diet of the athlete.

Beyond the verifiable benefits in this type of diet, poorly constituted vegetarian diets can predispose to significant deficiencies in energy, macronutrients (proteins) and micronutrients (vitamin B12 and vitamin D, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine) and lead to possible consequences for health and for the optimization of sports performance.

Why are vegetarian diets still being questioned in athletes?

Now, for most athletes, a well-constructed diet (omnivorous or otherwise) should provide enough energy to achieve energy balance and enhance athletic performance. However, the bibliography suggests that a negative energy balance is very common in vegetarian athletes, whether for resistance, who practice weight-bearing and aesthetic sports, and the performance in their discipline is conditioned.

This energy deficit is usually influenced by different factors, such as high intensity training that can decrease appetite, highly changing travel schedules, poor availability of food (abroad or away from home) and discomfort gastrointestinal, in addition to the restriction of different food groups that characterize the condition of vegetarianism.

Of course, important consequences can arise in high-performance sport if diets are characterized by insufficient energy. Immunity can be compromised, leading to disease predisposition, reducing free time from training and competition. General weight loss can occur accompanied by loss of muscle mass and as a consequence decreased strength, less work capacity and a lack of adaptation to training.

Achieving energy balance is important for all athletes , but meeting energy requirements is likely to be difficult when the regular diet promotes early satiety and reduced appetite for long periods of time.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine believe that both physical activity and sports performance and recovery from exercise are improved with optimal nutrition appropriate to the particular needs of each athlete. Therefore, the quality of vegetarian diets that seek to meet nutritional needs and support maximum athletic performance in athletes continues to be questioned.

The protein source in vegetarian athletes

The protein intake in athletes who adopt this trend as a lifestyle remains controversial. Currently, evidence indicates that protein intake covers the requirements of all amino acids (essential and non-essential) through plant food sources only, as long as a wide variety of foods is incorporated and energy consumption is adequate.

In terms of amounts, the protein recommendations for vegetarian athletes are slightly higher due to the decreased digestibility of these foods , although more studies are needed to make specific recommendations.

In general, vegetarian athletes do not have to rely on protein supplements or special foods. Vegetarian ovo-dairy can easily obtain animal protein derived from such products. Plant proteins such as those found in sesame, sunflower, pumpkin and tofu seeds are sources of amino acids that help maintain muscle development.

In any sports practice, nutritional monitoring with professionals trained in the subject is considered essential, especially if the athlete adopts eating behaviors that can compromise their optimal health and sports benefits.

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