I’ve been inspired to focus this month’s blog around the controversial subject of vegetarian diets within rugby and does it/can it have an impact on performance? (I say controversial in that most rugby players I know devour meat/fish/dairy like I’ve never seen!)
As a member of the Sport & Exercise Nutrition Register (SENr), each month I get sent the British Dietetic Associations’ (BDA) monthly publication ‘Dietetics Today’ and in this month’s (July) edition there was an exceptionally interesting article about vegetarian diets and sporting performance.
Now, I’ll hold my hand up and admit – I am not vegetarian, far from it! I love a good steak! And with some of the groups of players/squads that I’ve worked with in recent years, if you even say the word ‘vegetarian’ you get looked at like you are some kind of freak, and I’m pretty confident that right now, a few of you are looking at your computer screen turning your nose up at the notion of a vegetarian diet in relation to sporting performance. But before I receive a barrage of expletives, hear me out!
I’ll start with some basic principles which I want to clear up right away…
Being vegetarian does NOT mean eating just salads & vegetables – far from it!
There are in fact several classifications of vegetarians:
Traditionally we promote meat/fish/dairy as excellent sources of protein – and that’s because…well…they are! That’s not rocket science! However, what about the sporting among you that are vegetarian/vegan and do not eat these foods (for whatever reason)?
It does not mean that you cannot provide your body with excellent sources of protein – for example, the grain Quinoa provides us with a ‘complete protein’ (which basically means that all 9 essential amino acids needed by humans via our food are provided). It is an excellent source of the amino acid, Leucine, which research has shown stimulates muscle growth & repair far better than any other amino acid.
Soy protein is also another excellent source of protein for athletes, however is often criticised in the sporting world for not providing enough amino acids compared to some of its dairy counterparts. This is actually a myth! The Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Scores (PDCAAS for short!) are used to evaluate the quality of protein based upon human requirements and rank soy protein concentrate a score of 99% (this percentage can fluctuate slightly depending on how the soy protein is cooked/prepared etc. and just to satisfy your curiosity, milk proteins (casein) score 100%, do you think that’s a massive difference? I personally don’t.
It has long been documented the health benefits of eating a vegetarian diet vs. carnivores diet in that cholesterol, risk of cancer, heart disease, type II diabetes etc. are all lower in vegetarians than that of us meat-eaters. But before you all rush off ‘go veggie’ I need to make you aware of some of the potential considerations in going vegetarian (and I do stress the word potential! These considerations don’t necessarily happen to everyone!):
Micronutrients (Vitamins & Minerals)
Vegetarians often have lower concentrations of the minerals Iron, Zinc & Calcium and Vitamin B12 & D – this is due to an increased level of phytates & oxalates (naturally occurring compounds found in foods such as bran, seeds etc. (staple foods of vegetarian diets)) that prevent the absorption of the above mentioned vitamins & minerals – these vitamins & minerals would need to be closely monitored to see if they are affected by a vegetarian diet.
Essential Fatty Acids
One of the major drawbacks of a vegetarian diet is that they tend to be low in omega fatty acids, in particular EPA & DHA (found in Omega 3 oils in fish) – which research has shown may help to reduce fat mass and improve blood pressure regulation. This can easily be overcome by recommending alternatives to fish, such as Linseed or Flaxseed oil (fantastic source of omega 3!), eggs or soy as they convert their main fatty acid, Alpha-Linoleic Acid (ALA) in to EPA & DHA in our bodies.
Now for the hard-core among you that have probably taken creatine as a supplement at some stage will know what I am on about in this section. Creatine essentially helps to provide muscle with energy during muscle contraction and research has shown that creatine helps to improve strength, power and enhance resistance training, particularly in intermittent sports – like rugby.
Research has also backed up that vegetarians generally have lower muscle creatine (thought to be due to a lack of red meat in their diet) and so power output could potentially be lower in vegetarians. However, research has also shown that supplementing vegetarians with creatine monohydrate combats this potential pitfall in a vegetarian athletes training.
The general consensus that vegetarians/vegans cannot achieve optimum performance within sport, in my opinion, is a) totally false and b) thankfully, on the decline. It is true that certain sources of meat and dairy help to stimulate muscle growth and repair more effectively than their vegetarian alternatives, however with correct management of their diet, particularly protein requirements, vegetarians/vegans can achieve just as effective performance than that of their meat-eating counterparts.
And just to hammer home that you don’t NEED to eat meat/fish/dairy to achieve a greater sporting performance, famous sporting vegetarians/vegans include: 100m sprinter Carl Lewis, 400m hurdler Ed Moses and Tennis player Martina Navratilova – and with their numerous Olympic medals and her countless Grand Slam titles, you can’t tell me they haven’t achieved great sporting performances!
If you want an example of a vegetarian athlete who chases the egg: ex-Wasps & London Welsh player, Paul Sampson (pictured right) is a veggie – so for all of you that think it’s all about meat, meat and more meat to be able to smash someone in the tackle – think again!
Vegetarian diets are not just about munching down salads & raw vegetables but, as I hope I have demonstrated, there are options out there.
I’m not saying you necessarily need to give up the chicken, eggs and milk, but be aware of the vegetarian options available to you as they can also help aid performance. I will always promote to ANY athlete that there is no better substitute than a varied diet – and that includes the vegetarian options too!
Your thoughts and experiences (whether you are vegetarian or not!) on this topic would be most welcome – I’ve hopefully opened a few eyes to the possibilities beyond chicken!
By: Chris Curtis BSc (Hons), ANutr, SENr
Images taken from:
Telegraph & Argus and Vegetarianrecipes.net