The Vegetarian Athlete Part 1: The Basics

I've been a vegetarian for 14 years, just about my entire racing career. The past 3 years I've been completely vegan, which means I don't use any animal products whatsoever. As a coach, I'm in a position where many of my clients rely on me for nutritional advice, and as an athlete I have specific experience about what it takes to be a vegetarian and still compete at a high level. For the duration of time that I've been writing for, many of you have e-mailed asking for an article about vegetarianism where I shared that experience. So, here it is, with some conditions.

There are many reasons why people become vegetarian or vegan: moral, ethical, environmental, health, financial. The intent of this article is not to debate the merits of vegetarianism on any of those grounds; I won't make a case that the vegetarian diet is superior, or that it will make you faster. I don't know that either of those things are true. The goal is simply to recognize that more people than ever are choosing vegetarian or partial vegetarian diets for whatever reason, and with this article I'll attempt to provide some specific practical guidelines and suggestions for how to be a successful vegetarian athlete. I'm not a nutritionist, philosopher, or scientist, so I won't write from any of those perspectives. Instead I'll try to offer some solid advice from the point of reference of an experienced vegan coach and athlete. 

Vegetarianism has a certain reputation in the athletic community that it will make you sick or weak. Most of that reputation comes from people's first hand experiences; they stopped eating meat, and they got sick and felt weak. The primary reason new vegetarians have that experience is because they attempt to define and restrict their diets by what they cut out of it, rather than what they add to it. The American food supply is set up around a norm. That norm includes meat as a primary nutrient source. If you attempt to eat outside of the norm, you can't simply cut out meat and keep eating the rest of the normative food supply. I refer to this as the "peanut butter and jelly vegetarian." You know what not to eat, but not what to eat in its place.

This is magnified for the vegetarian athlete. A sedentary person probably could get away with peanut butter and jelly and not notice a difference. An athlete puts different demands on their body than the sedentary person. Hard training is, at its essence, a process of making yourself almost sick with work, recovering from it, and adapting to it. To do the healing required from hard training, an athlete has some minimum macro- and micronutrient demands above and beyond the sedentary person. The ones you need to be most concerned about as a vegetarian athlete are protein and iron, and of course, these are the ones I get asked about the most. I'm going to divide this article into two installments, and focus first on protein intake.

"You're a vegetarian? How do you get a enough protein?" To begin, most people simply don't need as much protein as they think they do. I've said in my articles before that you can find a published study to prove just about anything you like, but the general consensus is that an endurance athlete requires just about 1g of protein per kg of body weight. For a 75kg cyclist consuming 2000 calories a day, that's 15% protein, a very easily attainable minimum percentage with a vegetarian diet. A sedentary person requires only 20-40 grams of protein per day, while the average American diet reportedly contains 90-120 grams of protein per day. I expect most cyclists to consume more than 2000 calories a day, making it even easier to hit the minimum grams of protein needed.

"You're a vegetarian? What do you eat?" is the other way the question gets asked. "Everything," I think, is the most common reply. Again, to be a successful vegetarian, you need to define your diet by what you eat, not by what you don't. And again, the protein grams found in common meat sources need to be replaced if you stray from the mainstream food path. You can do this quite easily with just a few food staples.

Beans and rice are probably the most popular non-meat protein source, but I emphasize it less because it's a no-brainer. Cheap, healthy Mexican food is just about everywhere, and I think even the most beginner vegetarian learns quickly about the concept of combining non-meat protein sources to create "complete proteins" that have all essential amino acids. This concept is actually a myth, as all plant protein sources contain all of the essential amino acids, but in varying levels. A food with "incomplete protein" isn't devoid of an amino acid, it may simply have a lower amount of it. So, it's not impossible to get complete proteins from single plant food sources, but you can do it more efficiently by combing complementary foods. Grains and legumes (often in the form of beans and rice) is the most common combo. Additionally, they do not, contrary to the same myth, need to be eaten at the same meal. Amino acids are available in the blood for many hours after you eat. As long as the complimentary amino acids appear in the next meal or two that day, the body will have what it needs to make protein.

This is part of why soy products are important, perhaps most important, to a vegetarian diet. Soy protein is a complete protein, high in all the essential amino acids. Soybeans are also incredibly versatile, and the list of foods you can make from soy is long. Tofu, tempeh, soymilk, plus a wide assortment of "fake meat" products like hot dogs, burgers, sausage, yogurt, and the like are available in more and more places. For many of these foods, even the "real" version gets most of its flavors from spices and textures (sausage, for example), and soy lends itself well to recreating that. I'm not big on fake meat, but if you miss those things in your diet, soy analog foods are a convenient way to go.

The main plant protein sources in my diet are tofu, soymilk, tempeh, and seitan. Tempeh is a soybean patty like tofu, but is fermented and has a different flavor. Seitan is a beef-like product made from wheat gluten that's also very versatile like tofu. You should be able to find all these things in the natural foods section of your local large grocery store, or a natural foods store if your main grocery doesn't carry it. If you're lucky enough to have a large natural foods store like WholeFoods nearby, even better.

Many people will also talk about the "bioavailability" of plant protein sources. It's great if there's lots of protein in tofu, but what if you're body can't use it as easily as it can from beef? There's a ranking system for protein availability called the PDCAAS (the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score). Contrary to popular belief, plant protein sources like soy are some of the highest absorbable, and higher than beef. The top ranked foods are:

Casein 1.00
Egg White 1.00
Soybean (isolate) .99
Beef .92
Pea Flour .69
Kidney Beans (canned) .68
Chick Peas (canned) .66
Pinto Beans (canned) .63
Peanut Meal .52

Considering grams of protein per serving size of some foods, soy products do very well. 3oz of chicken breast has 94 calories and 19.6 grams of protein, while the same portion of tofu has 124 calories and 13.6 grams of protein, and beef has 242 calories and 16.7 grams of protein. You can see that soy products will clearly put you in the same protein intake range as meat products, and be just as bioavailable. If I'm training hard and need some insurance that I'm getting all the protein I need, a recovery shake made from rice milk, frozen fruit, and one 25g scoop of soy protein isolate will pretty much guarantee I meet my 1g of protein/Kg of body weight for the day. 

The major point to take away from this first installment is that adequate protein intake from plant sources should not be a concern if you're consuming the right foods. Again, the primary mistake to avoid is to define your vegetarianism by what you don't eat, rather than what you do. If you use vegetarianism as an opportunity to explore new dietary options, particularly from cultures that have a tradition of vegetarianism, you should find that you eat a wider, rather than narrower, variety of foods. With the increase in the number of vegetarians in the US, it's becoming easier and easier to find vegetarian staples like soymilk and tofu in just about every grocery store, making traveling as a vegetarian athlete easier as well. In subsequent articles, I'll write about micronutrients like iron and b12, as well as talk about race-specific nutrition for the vegan trying to avoid all that whey protein in energy bars and recovery drinks. 

If you have some specific vegetarian athlete issues or questions you'd like me to address in the coming articles, please send them in.