Coaching the Vegetarian Athlete: Ensure That Your Athletes Have the Fuel They Need for Peak Performance

By Mandali, Swarna L. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Coaching the Vegetarian Athlete: Ensure That Your Athletes Have the Fuel They Need for Peak Performance


Mandali, Swarna L., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Good nutrition is important for optimal health, growth, and athletic performance in adolescent athletes (ages 13-18 years; Steen, 1996). Adolescent athletes often depend on their coaches for nutritional information (Scofield & Unruh 2006) on weight management, dietary supplements, and dietary practices. Unfortunately coaches are not always adequately prepared to provide reliable information to their athletes (Bedgood &Tuck, 1983; Juzwiak & Ancona-Lopez, 2004; Sossin, Gizis, Marquart, & Sobal, 1997). Some dietary practices, such as vegetarianism, have the potential to be harmful to the adolescent athlete if not followed with careful supervision. However, most high schools do not have a registered or licensed dietitian working with athletes. Consequently, coaches play an important role in influencing the eating behaviors of their athletes. The purpose of this article is to describe different types of vegetarian diets and some sources of protein-rich foods, and to focus on the nutritional considerations of vegetarian athletes.

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Vegetarian Diets

Athletes can follow a vegetarian diet with a goal of obtaining health and performance benefits. In general, the plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, and grains are high in carbohydrates, and they can serve as a primary source of energy for endurance athletes. Vegetarian or semivegetarian eating patterns are more common among endurance athletes, such as distance runners and triathletes (Williams, 1997). However, some athletes, especially female adolescent athletes and male wrestlers, who are weight/body conscious and dissatisfied with their body, may follow vegetarian dietary patterns to mask disordered eating behaviors (Perry, Mcguire, Neumark-Sztainer, & Story, 2001; Robinson-O'Brien, Perry, Wall, Story, & Neumark-Sztainer, 2009). When working with or counseling an athlete following a vegetarian or semivegetarian diet, it is important to determine the underlying cause for such a choice. Also of concern is that vegetarian diets are usually low in nutrients such as calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. Particular attention should be given to these nutrients when counseling the vegetarian athlete, especially those in adolescence.

There are different types of vegetarian diets (see table 1). A person who follows a vegetarian diet does not eat meat, fish, or poultry and products containing these foods. The two main categories of vegetarianism are lacto-ovo vegetarian and Vegan. People following macrobiotic diets describe themselves as vegetarian, but they consume a limited amount of fish.

Table 1. Types of Vegetarian Diets

Type                  Foods Excluded              Foods Included

Lacto-ovo vegetarian  Meat, fish, and poultry     Grains, vegetables,
                                                  fruits, legumes,
                                                  seeds, nuts, dairy
                                                  products, and eggs

Lacto vegetarian      Meat, fish, poultry, and    Grains, vegetables,
                      eggs                        fruits, legumes,
                                                  seeds, nuts, and
                                                  dairy products

Vegan                 Meat, fish, poultry, eggs,  Grains, vegetables,
                      and dairy                   fruits, legumes,
                                                  seeds, and nuts

Macrobiotic diets     Fruits, nuts, and seeds     Grains, vegetables,
                      are used to lesser          legumes, and a
                      extent.                     limited amount of
                                                  fish

Source: American Dietetic Association (2000)

Meeting Nutrient Needs of the Vegetarian Athlete

Protein. Protein recommendations for vegetarian athletes are slightly higher due to the decreased digestibility of plant foods. …

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