NSCA Article Regarding Athletes and Vegetarian/Vegan Diets

The National Strength and Conditioning Association released their Performance Training Journal, vol. 8.6, today, containing the article, “Where Do Vegetarian Athletes Get Their Protein?” by Juan Gonzalez PhD, CSCS and Ashley Eubanks.  The article discusses many current misunderstandings that surround vegetarianism and veganism,  and offers some great assurances to the many athletes that are becoming vegetarian or vegan.

“Achieving optimum nutrition is something every serious athlete strives for every day.  Many people believe that maintaining the appropriate level of nutrition is harder for vegetarian athletes than it is for their omnivorous counterparts.  As this article will explain, a vegetarian athlete can be energized well enough to perform maximally with a diet which is diverse and well-rounded.”

One misconception discussed is the incorrect notion that a vegetarian will not be able to get all appropriate proteins from plant protein sources.  This is not true.  Many plant sources contain all the essential proteins, for example, soy protein, buckwheat, hempseed, and quinoa.  Plants that do not contain all essential proteins can be mixed with other plants in the daily diet resulting in the athlete getting all essential proteins. 

“Therefore, a vegetarian needs to become knowledgeable about protein sources. For instance, even though some plant-based sources have reduced amounts of particular amino acids, one can combine foods to fill in these “amino acid gaps.” If one food is low in lysine for example, then it should be combined with a food that is high in lysine. Some examples of appropriate combinations are:
• Grains and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils)
• Legumes and seeds (sunflower and sesame) 

Previously, it was believed that complementary proteins needed to be included in the same meal. It has been realized that as long as the foods are consumed in the same day, one will receive the same benefits (3). By including complementary proteins as a part of the daily diet, a vegetarian can be confident that they are obtaining all of the essential amino acids. Research indicates that a diet containing diverse plant foods can provide all essential amino acids (1,3).

The American Dietetic Association observes that a vegetarian diet offers high levels of dietary fiber, carotenoids, flavonoids, and various phytochemicals. The ADA also recently announced in 2009, that the typical protein intake of lacto-ovo-vegetarians (and vegans) appears to meet or even exceed requirements. In addition to this, the ADA affirmed that athletes obtaining protein from plant-based diets are able to achieve their protein needs. The American Dietetic Association listed the following as typical benefits of a vegetarian diet:
• Lower blood pressure levels
• Lower blood cholesterol
• Lower risk of hypertension
• Lower risk for Type II diabetes
• Lower BMI (Body Mass Index)

It appears the vegetarian diet has many health benefits. As this article shows, athletes who are following a vegetarian diet can achieve adequate amounts of protein. The well-rounded vegetarian diet is able to successfully energize athletes by providing all the necessary protein requirements in addition to offering a high-carb, low-fat diet.”

Now is a good time to reconsider your food choices.  A vegetarian or vegan diet will not limit a person in any way.  All activities can be done, and many report feeling more energetic (4). 

1. American Dietetic Association. Position statement of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. 109(7): 1,266 – 1,282. 2009.
2. Bergstrom J, et al. Diet, muscle glycogen and physical performance. Acta Physiologica 
Scandinavica. 71: 140 – 150. 1967.
3. Young VR, and Pellett PL. Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid
nutrition. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 59(5): 1,203S – 1,212S. 1994.
4. Vegetarian Times, December 2009.

Published by Raul Ramirez, L.Ac., Ph.D.

Physician, Catch Wrestler, Kickboxer, Vegan, Progressive

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