Veggie fuel for thought (The minerals and vitamins you need if you're vegetarian or vegan athlete)Veggie fuel for thought (The minerals and vitamins you need if you're vegetarian or vegan athlete) © Copyright

Veggie fuel for thought

Much has been made about whether it’s possible for top-level athletes who are either vegetarian or vegan to operate at elite levels of sport, but it is possible to strike a balance between the right protein, fats and carbs to do so. And dietary book Feed Your Fitness says there’s even more an athlete can do to maintain an immune system that allows them to operate at such levels. Here are some of the essentials that they say you need to get into your diet…

VITAMIN B12

Necessary for red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis, vitamin B12 is typically found in animal foods, but fortified breakfast cereals and grains, soya milk, and nutritional yeast products are also good sources. If you are a vegetarian athlete who consumes eggs and dairy products, you probably already meet B12 requirements, but vegan athletes should ensure an adequate intake, or take a B12-containing multivitamin. Risks of inadequate B12 intake include long-term damage due to neuropathy and anaemia.

CALCIUM & VITAMIN D

Inadequate calcium and vitamin D intake is associated with decreased bone density and an increased risk of  stress fractures. High-calcium plant-based foods include fortified orange juice, fortified cereals, almonds and almond butter, and green leafy vegetables. Dairy products (for vegetarians) or fortified milk alternatives, such as soya, rice, or almond milk, are also options.

The best source of vitamin D is the sun. Most people need to spend 10–20 minutes in the sun every day around midday, with some skin exposed without sunscreen, in order to get enough. Athletes that are at higher risk for a deficiency are those who are older than 65, are dark-skinned, and who exercise indoors.

IRON

Many athletes are at an increased risk of iron deficiency anaemia due to the inadequate intake of high-iron foods, iron losses via sweating, reduced absorption of iron, gastrointestinal bleeding, and (for women) menstrual blood loss. Iron is responsible for transporting oxygen in the body – any deficiency can affect athletic performance.

Haem sources of iron (like meat, chicken, and fish) are absorbed better than non-haem sources (like spinach and legumes). Iron absorption can be inhibited by compounds in certain foods: polyphenols in cocoa and coffee; oxalates in tea, kale, beetroot, and chocolate; phytates in bran, nuts, seeds, and cereals.

That said, there are some compounds that can enhance the absorption of non-haem iron, specifically vitamin C.

A range of foods are good sources of iron: eggs (for ovo-vegetarians); fortified breakfast cereals; dark green leafy vegetables, such as kale and spinach; beans, tofu, and soy beans; tempeh; enriched breads, rice and pasta; quinoa; potatoes; almonds; cashews; dried apricots and raisins; and blackstrap molasses.

ZINC

This mineral plays a role in several biochemical reactions, and helps with proper function of the immune system. Zinc, like iron, is not absorbed as well due to higher concentrations of phytates.

Vegetarian sources include hard cheeses, wheatgerm, Swiss chard, mushrooms, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, hummus, tofu, tempeh, peanut butter, nuts, and pumpkin and sunflower seeds.

OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS

These essential fatty acids cannot be synthesised by the body, so they must be obtained through the diet. Fish is a high source of omega-3. The best vegetarian sources of omega-3 include microalgae and sea vegetables. Flaxseeds (or linseeds), walnuts, and pumpkin and chia seeds all contain omega-3, too, but the bioavailability is poor.

Omega-3 fatty acids have many benefits, including reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and helping decrease inflammation.

These tips can be found in Feed Your Fitness by Rowena Visagie, Karlien Duvenage and Shelly Meltzer.  (DK, £12.99) – DK.com

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