Are you a vegetarian runner training for a marathon? Can a vegetarian diet provide distance runners with the right nutrition, protein and calories needed for hard-core training and racing goals? This article provides some vegetarian training diets tips for runners.
First, let’s take a closer look at the different types of vegetarians:
• Lacto-ovo vegetarians – eat both dairy products and eggs
• Lacto-vegetarians – eat dairy products but not eggs
• Ovo-vegetarians – eat eggs but not dairy products
• Vegans – don’t eat dairy products, eggs or anything that comes from animals
• Fruitarians – avoid all animal products and processed foods
If you’re a vegetarian, you’ll need to eat the same nutritional diet as a regular, meat-eating runner, but because of your limited food choice, you’ll need to devote much more of your time exploring and preparing the best diet to make sure you aren’t missing out on vital vitamins, minerals, and calories.
But how do you do that? In this article, we’ll look at the key nutritional priorities for a vegetarian runner and specific foods that can help you plan and accomplish the perfect plant-based diet.
Must-haves to include in your vegetarian runner’s diet are:
- Grains and cereals – wholegrain bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, muesli
- Legumes, nuts and seeds – soya beans. kidney beans, split peas, lentils, almonds, cashews, sesame seeds
- Fruit and vegetables – as much as you want. Think variety. Try new fruits and vegetables and include them in your diet every day
- Dairy or soya products – look out for fat free and reduced calorie options for milk, yoghurts, cheeses
Without enough protein in your diet, it’ll take considerably longer to recover from long runs. Amino acids that come from the protein we eat are essential for muscle growth and tissue repair, providing a source of fuel and hormone synthesis, not to mention building antibodies for helping ward off illness.
Since vegetarian runners aren’t eating protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and poultry, what can they eat to guarantee they get enough in their diets, especially when they’re in the midst of hard-core marathon training? Are they getting enough protein from beans, complex carbs and nuts?
The best sources of protein for vegetarians are grains with legumes, eggs, chia seeds, beans, nuts, tofu, lentils, cheeses, cow, soy and almond milk, grains like quinoa, bulgar and oats, vegetables with soy, legumes with nuts, vegetables with dairy.
For vegetarians and vegans, 15% of calories should come from protein, so try and make every snack a “protein snack”.
To maintain strong bones, we need calcium. Non-vegans get nearly all their calcium from dairy foods, so it's vital for vegans to get calcium from other foods. Good sources of calcium for vegans are:
• Fortified soya, rice and oat milk
• Leafy green vegetables (but not spinach)
• Sesame seeds and tahini
• Dried fruit
• Brown (wholemeal) and white bread
The average adult needs about 700mg of calcium each day, so it's essential that vegans incorporate enough of these foods in their diet. The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. Fortified margarine and fat spreads, fortified breakfast cereals and egg yolks contain vitamin D. The body also makes its own vitamin D when exposed to sunshine.
The best vegetarian foods rich in carbohydrates are buckwheat, quinoa, rice or starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes.
You need good fats in your vegetarian running nutrition, and that’s where omega-3 essential fatty acids come into the picture. These “good” fats are needed for normal growth, development and brain function, and they help cut inflammatory markers linked with chronic disease. Essential fatty acids, such as DHA and EPA, are usually found in fish. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) can be obtained through plant sources.
You can enhance your omega-3 consumption by eating foods that incorporate flaxseed oil, walnuts, rapeseed oil, pumpkin seeds, tofu, avocado and soybeans. Breads, cereals and pastas can be found fortified with ALA whilst microalgae-fortified foods like yogurt can also be found with DHA.
Iron and Zinc
If you have low iron levels, you won’t have as many red blood cells and your haemoglobin levels will drop, thus, less oxygen will be carried to your muscles, making sport and running more difficult.
Zinc keeps infections at bay, eliminating carbon dioxide from working muscles and aiding healing of injuries. Unfortunately, the plant-based form of bo th iron and zinc isn’t absorbed as well as the animal form, making it tricky for vegetarians to get the right amount as easily as non-vegetarians.
As a vegetarian, you can up the amount of iron (non-heme) and zinc from vitamin C-rich foods, such as green, leafy vegetables and citrus fruits which improve the absorption of iron. Breakfast cereals fortified with iron and zinc can boost your everyday intake. Be sure to include foods packed with iron and zinc, like grains, spinach, legumes, lentils, nuts, soybeans, quinoa, baked potatoes (with skin), dairy products, organic tofu and blackstrap molasses.
Iron is, more often than not, linked with anaemia, but shortage of vitamin B-12 also leads to this condition. As a vegetarian, dairy products such as cow’s milk, cheese and eggs can support B-12 requirements. Some foods like cereals, soy milk and meat substitutes are fortified with B-12. If you’re a vegan, though, it’s recommended you supplement with vitamin B-12 either in multivitamin form or in a B-12 fortified soy product.
Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
One of the main advantages of a vegetarian diet is that, unlike a non-vegetarian diet, plant-based foods are relatively non-acidic – or “alkaline” – compared to the acid-forming diet of meat and dairy products. A very acidic blood pH could cause inflammation and, as a result, hold-up healing.
Meat-based foods have more acidity because the animal protein is packed with sulphur-containing amino acids which, in turn, increase production and excretion of sulphuric acid during their metabolism. What’s more, this acidity can get so high it causes the body to seep calcium from the bones to counteract the acids!
People eating low-fat diets based on vegetables, whole grain foods and fruit are thought to have lower blood pressure and improved cholesterol levels. Moreover, there’s certain evidence to suggest those who eat vegetarian foods are at lower risk of suffering from chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and heart disease.