Despite the increasing focus and awareness of plant-based diets and the benefits for athletic success, there persists a myth that athletes cannot be vegetarians AND perform optimally. Moreover, an even larger misconception is one relative to the athletic prowess of females who take on a vegetarian lifestyle. In other words, many people still believe that females who are vegetarian find it difficult (or impossible) to be successful and even excel in athletic endeavors (a myth easily debunked by looking at the success of Serena Williams, a vegetarian tennis superstar!).
More than likely, the largest argument against plant-based athletic prowess (male or female) is related to idea that plant-based diets do not adequately provide enough protein. Of course, protein is an essential component to any athletic lifestyle – necessary to build and retain muscle mass, as well as fuel recovery. However, it is a naive notion that only animal sources can provide the elements to fulfill any athlete’s protein requirements.
Indeed, current research indicates that the highest quality and most abundant sources of protein are not necessarily meat derived, but rather come from cheese and whey. Moreover, studies suggest that the spectrum of plant-based dieters consume more than adequate amounts of protein than what is required daily. Even the most strict of vegan lifestyles can consume enough protein from soy, beans, nuts and green leafy sources. Research also corroborates this – contrary to long-held (and still current) beliefs – showing that all essential and non-essential amino acids can be consumed from plant sources alone.
Plant-based diets do pose some “challenges” for the female athlete or active lifestyle. However, in general – these issues are similar across ALL female athletes, regardless of dietary regime. But there are some specific dietary guidelines that should be followed for any plant-based athletic female.
Iron » Females taking on an active or athletic lifestyle require sufficient intake of iron. Women naturally lose iron during their menstrual cycles, therefore replenishing iron reserves in the body are essential to maintain both health and performance. Plant-based diets typically don’t provide iron that is as easily absorbed as animal based sources. However, diets that include iron rich foods such as legumes, beans, spinach, and certain fruits are important to follow. In addition, abundant sources of Vitamin C, which helps the absorption of iron, are important for plant-based females. High quality iron supplementation is also a great way to ensure that adequate levels of iron are taken in.
Calcium »Calcium rich diets are important to fuel bone health and help reduce the risk of osteoporosis – particularly important for females. Abundant sources of calcium rich foods such as nuts, cereals, seeds, legumes and certain greens are key to ensuring ample amounts of calcium are consumed. Moreover, calcium supplementation can help guarantee adequate calcium levels for female athletes.
Vitamin D ». Vitamin D works hand in hand with Calcium in terms of absorption. Vitamin D can easily be synthesized by the body by sunlight exposure. Relative to plant-based diets, dairy products (which are typically fortified with Vitamin D), are often excluded. As such, attention to Vitamin D intake is important for balanced and proper body function.
Vitamin B12 ». Vitamin B12 plays a key role in the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, as well as the formation of blood. Vitamin B12 is probably one of the more challenging vitamins for vegetarian female athletes to source, since it is primarily exclusive to meat, egg and dairy products. So for strict female vegans, B12 supplementation is key in order to ensure proper intake – sourced specifically from certain sea vegetables, soy or particular cereals.
Zinc » Plant-based female athletes should ensure they are consuming adequate levels of zinc in their regimen – particularly if they are trying to add or maintain sufficient muscle mass. Zinc is commonly missed by athletes and fitness enthusiasts. However, zinc plays a role in increased muscle strength and performance, is involved with protein synthesis, and also aids in muscle recovery and growth. Diets that are high in whole-wheat breads, legumes, nuts and seeds are important for female plant-based athletes to ensure that adequate zinc levels are consumed.
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