Whatever the reason that leads us to adopt a vegetarian diet, nowadays more and more top athletes are trying it and do it successfully. However there are some specifications that we must consider before opting for this type of diet.
For many athletes meat, with its high protein content, is the basis of muscle development and therefore it would be unthinkable to have a vegetarian diet, however, there are excellent sources of plant protein that can match the quality of meat protein.
The dilemma of proteins
Meat, dairy and eggs are the ultimate sources of protein in the diet of most people, Their proteins are complete and of high quality, which means they have all essential amino acids for the body, while plant proteins are usually deficient in many of these amino acids. However if we properly combine vegetable proteins, they can quite easily become equal to the quality of animal proteins.
For example, combining beans with corn, or lentils with bread can provide excellent quality protein.
People who follow a vegetarian diet regardless of whether or not they are a sportsman/woman should pay special attention to their intake of proteins since deficiency may be more common and a major cause of fatigue, which some people experience during their dietary change to vegetarianism. An athlete should know that protein products and plant foods tend to have a lower amount of protein than animal products and those that are rich in protein often also contain a significant percentage of carbohydrates.
An important fact which the athlete should be aware of is that a vegetarian diet will require consuming large amounts of food to meet their body's nutritional needs.
Calcium, zinc and iron are minerals that are often not abundant in vegetarian diets, and an athlete may have higher requirements of these. An athlete must take care of their iron intake, particularly during periods of intense training, as a lack of iron can result in anemia, which not only affects the athlete's performance, but also will be reflected in his or her overall health.
Types of Vegetarians
Vegetarianism can be classified by food intake:
Frugivores: Their diet consists of nuts, fruits, seeds, honey and some vegetable oils.
Macrobiotics: A diet which totally excludes any food of animal origin, dairy and eggs. They eat only raw organic cereals and condiments such as miso and seaweed.
Vegans: Reject any food or animal product. In more extreme cases of veganism, they do not consume honey, wool, silk, leather and other products or condiments derived from animals.
Lacto-vegetarians: Exclude foods like meat and eggs, but do eat dairy products and milk.
Ovo-lacto-vegetarian: Does not consume meat, but does eat milk, dairy and eggs.
Quasi-vegetarians: Do not eat red meat, but more chicken, beef fat, fish, eggs and dairy.
Advantages and Disadvantages
You can definitely be vegetarian and a top athlete, however, a vegetarian diet should be well balanced which depends on the type of exercise you do and the lifestyle you live.
The advantages of leading a vegetarian diet is that it is a more natural diet, rich in fruits and vegetables. Moreover, vegetarians tend to turn to organic foods which are generally free of undesirable substances and chemicals which normally our body must work to detoxify. Vegetarian diets can also help to decrease the recovery time of an injured athlete through reducing inflammation.
The disadvantages may be that food intake is not appropriate, especially proteins and vitamins like B12, so you may need to seek advice from a specialised nutritional counsellor to ensure that your diet is adequate.