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Protein and Vegetarian Swimmers

posted Dec 14, 2015, 1:16 PM by Pat Windschitl   [ updated Dec 14, 2015, 1:16 PM ]
By Chris Rosenbloom, professor of nutrition at Georgia State. 

Recently, a swimmer sent me an email about her coach’s concern about her choice to be a vegetarian. She chose a vegetarian diet for “ethical reasons,” but her coach told her she needed to eat meat to be a competitive swimmer. 

I don’t want to contradict her coach’s advice, but I responded that what she needed was the nutrients in meat, not necessarily the meat. Don’t get me wrong, I honor everyone’s dietary choices, and you can eat a healthful performance diet while being a meat-eater or being a vegetarian. Lean meat is a nutrient-rich choice for many athletes, but non-meat eaters can, with good food choices, meet their nutritional requirements and remain competitive. 

Protein needs are slightly higher than for meat eaters because plant protein is less well-digested compared to the protein in meat or dairy. Good protein sources for swimmers who don’t eat meat include brown rice, quinoa, protein-enriched pasta, nuts, seeds, tofu, soy foods (milk, cheese and yogurt, tempeh, and texturized vegetable protein), peanut and other nut butters, and beans and peas (black beans, kidney beans, chick peas, black-eyed peas and lentils).  Plan to eat a protein-rich food with every meal and snack. Recover after a hard workout with a combination carbohydrate and protein snack, like peanut butter on whole grain bread, lentil soup, chili with beans, soy milk smoothie, or meatless “chicken” patty on a whole grain bun.

Other nutrients found in beef include iron, zinc and vitamin B12, so to replace these nutrients try including these foods.
For iron include dried beans and peas, nuts and seeds, and fortified breakfast cereals. Snack on dried fruits to boost iron intake, too.
For zinc eat nuts and seeds, whole grain bread, cereals and pasta, soy foods, including soy-based meats (replacements for burgers, chicken, turkey, bacon or sausage). For vitamin B12 include food fortified with the vitamin (check the nutrition facts panel for B12 in fortified cereals, energy bars, soy milk, and soy foods). 

A sports dietitian can help you plan a healthful vegetarian diet and these resources can also give you some useful tips. Vegetarian Resource Group (http://www.vrg.org) and the Vegetarian Nutrition group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (http://vegetariannutrition.net/).

Chris Rosenbloom is a professor emerita of nutrition at Georgia State University and provides sports nutrition consulting services to athletes of all ages. She has no ties to the dairy industry aside from liking milk. She is the editor-in-chief of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Sports Nutrition Manual, 5th edition and editor-in-chief of an online Sports Nutrition Care Manual for health care professionals. She welcomes questions from swimmers, parents and coaches. Email her at chrisrosenbloom@gmail.com.