The most common type of vegetarian diet is one that avoids meat, chicken and fish but still allows milk and eggs. This is called a 'lacto-ovo-vegetarian' diet and will be the focus of this article. However there are others who follow more restricted diets, also avoiding eggs or milk or are vegan, avoiding any animal product, including honey.
There are many benefits of following a vegetarian diet including a lower risk of becoming overweight and developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol and some cancers. A vegetarian diet tends to be lower in saturated fat and higher in fruit, vegetables and pulses which result in a higher anti-oxidant and fibre intake, both important for the heart, cholesterol and digestive system.
For the vegetarian runner, these benefits are obviously advantageous. However there are a few points to consider, to ensure your diet is balanced and optimum for running.
Protein is essential for a healthy immune system, and important in a runner's diet to aid recovery and repair muscle damage. However, it is a common misconception that athletes need to consciously add vast amounts of protein in their diets. The non-athlete needs 0.8g protein per kg of body weight and this is increased to 1.2-1.5g per kg for endurance runners.
Most non-athletes who eat three meals a day, even those who are vegetarian, commonly consume at least double the protein that they need anyway. If you look at the table, you can see how the protein in foods (including carbohydrate sources) can easily add up.
A 60kg female elite runner for example would need no more than 90g of protein and this could be achieved by having a pint of milk through the day (in cereal, teas, coffee etc), a baked potato with beans and cheese for lunch, and a vegetarian chilli for dinner with rice and a yogurt.
The other issue is to do with amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Animal protein including dairy foods has a high 'biological value', which means all the essential amino acids that we need, are present in the food. Vegetable sources of protein (apart from soya and quinoa) are known to have a low biological value, meaning they lack one or more amino acids. When following a vegetarian diet, make sure you have different sources of protein throughout the day to cover all the amino acids.
|Food / Drink||Protein (g)|
|Can tuna/175g fish||33|
|1 chicken breast||26|
|75g pork chop||21|
|1 pint semi-skimmed milk||19|
|50g cheddar cheese||13|
|180g cooked pasta||9|
|200g baked beans||10|
|2 fish fingers||7|
|2 slices of brown bread||6|
|180g cooked white rice||5|
Iron is essential to form blood haemoglobin which carries oxygen round your body, clearly this is important for runners because they need enough oxygen to get to their muscles to perform.
It is possible to get enough iron from a vegetarian diet but, unfortunately only about 2-10% of the iron in vegetable sources is absorbed, compared to 30% of the iron in red meat. You can increase the iron absorption of dark green vegetables, dried fruit, nuts, wholemeal bread and fortified breakfast cereals for example by having some vitamin C rich fruit juice with the meal. Avoid having caffeine with these iron containing foods as the caffeine reduces its absorption.
This vitamin is important for growth, repair and general health - an important vitamin if you are putting in the miles as it will aid your muscle recovery. It is only found naturally in animal foods, including dairy and eggs. Other sources include yeast extract, fortified breakfast cereals and soya products.
Omega 3 fats
Omega 3 fats have a proven role in improving blood cholesterol and supporting heart health. They also have anti-inflammatory effect which may help inflamed joints. The best source of omega 3 fats is oily fish. However there are vegetarian sources such as linseed, walnut, soya bean and rapeseed oils and also omega 3 enriched eggs, spread, milks and yogurts. However, the evidence of omega 3 from vegetarian sources in protecting your heart, is less clear.
Hidden saturated fats
As there is no meat in the vegetarian diet, saturated fat is often low. However, many vegetarians each more cheese than meat eaters and this can increase fat intake. Make sure you choose low fat dairy where possible, if you want to manage your weight and improve your heart health.
Recipe for Vegetable Fajitas
This is a great vegetarian meal, low in fat and high in anti-oxidants and fibre. It is also a good choice if some of the family are meat eaters as these foods can be stir-fried separately and put in a separate bowl for people to help themselves to.
Ingredients (serves 4)
- Lots of vegetables (onions, peppers, mushrooms etc)
- 3 tablespoons lime juice
- Half teaspoon chilli powder
- Half teaspoon ground coriander
- 8 tortillas
- Salsa chutney
- Combine the lime juice, chilli powder, coriander and pour over the vegetables. Put in the fridge for 30 minutes
- Coat a pan with non-stick cooking spray. Add the vegetables and stir fry until cooked.
- Warm tortillas for 20 seconds the fill them with the vegetable mixture
- Serve with salsa