Nutritional Tips for Vegan and Vegetarian Triathletes

by Jo Scott-Dalgleish, Nutritional Therapist

Concerned that following a vegetarian or vegan diet will prevent you from performing at your best in triathlon? Or find yourself having to justify your dietary choices to family or club mates? There’s no need to worry.

Vegetarian TriathleteA well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can support a substantial endurance training programme, and a position paper from the American Dietetic Association and the American College of Sports Medicine explicitly states that “foods of animal origin are not essential to ensure optimal athletic performance.” .

But you do need to give some thought to how you are going to meet your nutritional needs as a triathlete in training and competition, while also maintaining a well- balanced diet and adhering to your chosen dietary principles, whether that excludes meat and fish (lacto-ovo vegetarians) or all foods of animal origin, including dairy products, eggs and honey (vegan).

Moreover, as a female triathlete, you need to make sure that you are supporting your specific nutritional needs, where they vary from men, as well. You can read about these here.

Before looking at specific nutrients that you need to perform well as a triathlete, I’d like to mention the importance of getting your calorie intake right. Excluding any food groups from your diet can put you at risk of under-eating, and this risk is higher for ladies who are involved in sport where there is a high level of energy expenditure.

You will need to consume more calories than your friends who are not training for around an hour a day (or more, if you are training for an Ironman or Half-Ironman distance), and it’s important that these extra calories come from high quality, nutrient dense, natural food sources, rather than processed foods or just from consuming sports nutrition products like drinks, bars and gels.

If you fail to meet your overall calorie requirements over a period of time, by not eating enough to meet your energy needs, this can lead to adverse consequences for your health such as irregularities in or loss of your menstrual periods, compromised bone health with an increased risk of developing osteoporosis, or a weakened immune system.

In the shorter term, you are likely to see a reduced response to training and failure to meet the triathlon performance goals that you have set yourself. If you‘d like to learn more, the International Olympic Committee have just published a new consensus statement that explores and addresses this issue, known as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport or RED-S. It’s not just relevant for Olympic athletes!

So which nutrients do you need to focus on as a vegetarian or vegan triathlete? I’ve identified five that are particularly important:

Protein: as a triathlete, you need more protein in your diet than the general population; a general guideline is 1.2-1.4g/kg of body weight, so if you weigh 60kg, that’s 72-84g per day. This is likely to make up between 15 and 20% of your overall calorie intake, and can be harder to achieve if you are vegetarian or vegan. Rather than worry about counting grams of protein, make sure that you are including some at every meal and snack, with a larger serving size eaten in the meal or snack that follows your training session, as adequate protein is essential for muscle recovery.

If you do eat eggs and dairy products like cheese, milk and yogurt, these are excellent sources of protein, with a complete amino acid profile, and combined with a selection of plant sources you should be able to meet your protein requirements without too much difficulty. You can also top up with whey and casein protein powders, which are derived from milk.

Plant sources of protein include beans and lentils (legumes), grains, nuts, seeds and a small amount in green leafy vegetables like spinach or kale. But with a few exceptions – soya, hemp – most plant proteins do not provide all eight amino acids that need to be obtained through your diet. If you are vegan, the answer is to include some of at least two of the above different food types every day, eg rice and beans, nut butter on wholegrain toast, mixed seeds stirred into porridge. They don’t have to be eaten at the same meal, either, just over the course of the day.

Soaking nuts, seeds and beans can help improve their digestibility, increasing the amount of protein that you obtain from eating them. You can also use plant-based protein powders to top up your protein needs. Soy, hemp, brown rice and pea protein powers are all available. I recommend the ranges from Pulsin or Sun Warrior. Blend with non-dairy milk and some fruit for breakfast or a delicious post-training recovery drink.

• Iron and Zinc: adequate iron is required for energy production and adequate zinc for digestive health and immunity, as well as many other functions. Not eating meat may result in lower intakes of these important minerals. However there is evidence that the body adapts over time by adapting the percentage of minerals that it absorbs from food. But you also need to bear in mind that many plant foods include natural substances called phytates that impede mineral absorption, so it’s important to have several different sources in your diet each day.

Good sources of iron for vegetarians and vegans include wholegrains, nuts, seeds, legumes, leafy green vegetables, dried fruit and blackstrap molasses. Eating vitamin C rich foods (ie vegetables and fruit) with plant sources of iron greatly improves iron absorption too.

Good sources of zinc for vegans are legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. Vegetarians can use these sources, plus eggs and hard cheeses.

• Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids: these fats play an important role in the immune system, heart health and brain function. You have to obtain these from your diet as they cannot be made in the body. The best source of the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA is oily fish, clearly not part of the vegetarian or vegan diet. Certain plant foods do provide some alpha linoleic acid (ALA), which is converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but only at a very limited rate. ALA can be found in flaxseeds and their oil, hemp oil, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts.

Some omega 3 is also found in the algae spirulina and chlorella. Try to include at least one of these food sources in your diet each day. You can also buy chia seed gels as an alternative to energy gels; using these would increase your omega 3 intake as well as providing the energy you need to fuel long training sessions. If you eat eggs, go for the omega 3 enriched ones, as this provides another source.

• Vitamin B12: deficiency of vitamin B12 is a particular risk for vegans, as plant sources are limited. Lack of B12 can contribute to anaemia and impact adversely on endurance performance. Sea vegetables and algae like spirulina do contain vitamin B12 but it is not well absorbed. Vegans are recommended to supplement B12. For vegetarians, adequate amounts can be obtained from regular consumption of eggs and dairy products.

To sum up, there’s no reason why you can’t perform to your peak potential in triathlon if you are vegetarian or vegan provided you consume enough calories to meet your energy needs, ensure that you are getting enough protein and eat a range of foods that include iron, zinc, omega 3 essential fatty acids and vitamin B12.