Roughly two per cent of the UK population are vegetarian, while six per cent follow a meat-free diet but still eat fish. The reasons for vegetarianism vary from ethical to financial, while others opt to cut out meat in pursuit of a healthier diet. So does it really make any difference – can athletes achieve as good, or an even better, performance without meat or fish?
Evidence shows that following a healthy vegetarian diet it is perfectly possible to achieve the same results as a non-vegetarian, although aerobic performance is not improved.
Most people consider a vegetarian diet to be one that includes grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits while excluding meat and fish, seafood and by-products of slaughter. It generally still includes other animal products like eggs and dairy. But there are different classifications in the vegetarian dietary spectrum: near/semi-vegetarians still eat fish, poultry, eggs and dairy but exclude red meat. Pesco-vegetarians will include fish, dairy and eggs in their diet. A lacto-vegetarian will include dairy but not eggs, an ovo-vegetarian includes eggs, and a vegan excludes all animal-derived foods completely.
The immediate consideration when eliminating these foods is how to replace the nutrients that they provide – protein is the major consideration, but also iron, zinc, vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D. Careful planning will ensure that all these nutrients are replaced in another part of the diet, but it’s always important to bear in mind that being a vegetarian and an athlete needs planning and attention.
Some people purport to be vegetarian but eat a diet of pizza and processed foods in the belief that by giving up meat they’re healthy. This is clearly not the case and a diet should always consist of clean, unprocessed foods including wholegrain carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats. This will help ensure that the vegetarian tennis player will replace the missing nutrients identified above. As the building block of the body, protein is essential for metabolism of tissue, good bone health and repair of muscles after exercise.
Meat and fish deliver all of the essential amino acids, which means a meat-eater does not have to worry about having the correct spectrum. However, a vegetarian will have to work harder at ensuring that they are eating a range of plant proteins in order to gain as many of the amino acids as possible – especially the essential nine.
One thing to consider is that often energy may dip as a result of a vegetarian diet. This is often thought to be linked to iron-deficiency anaemia from the lack of red meat, or pernicious anaemia from the loss of vitamin B12. However, it is possible that it is simply a lack of calories being consumed versus those being expended. Adopting a vegetarian diet may require eating more food and a higher number of calories than before. By making sure you eat enough calories, this is only going to impact on your performance – not your weight.
Sarah Brown is principal of Good Food Works Nutritional Therapy. She has a particular interest in functional sports nutrition and digestive health, and provides personal consultations, coaching clients to reach their health goals by optimising their nutritional choices. She works in clinic at Pure Sports Medicine in south-west London.