Sports and Vegetarian Diet: Benefits and Controversies


What are vegetarian diets?

Vegetarian diet we mean a diet oriented mainly or exclusively on the consumption of foods of plant origin.

This attitude can bring advantages and disadvantages of a healthy nature, depending on the degree of restriction, and for the same reason it can be more or less applicable in various conditions (for example gestation, growth and old age) and circumstances (for example the practice of sport).

In this article we will try to summarize all the implications possible vegetarian diets on the practice of desirable physical activity and intense sports, listing the benefits but also the controversies related to the different nutritional intake that they entail.

Vegetarian diets

There are various vegetarian diets types even if, for simplicity, in nutrition it is customary to divide them on the basis of the foods allowed and forbidden. For the truth on the other hand, the criterion that allows a more accurate differentiation would be the philosophical or ethical one. Let's go into detail.

In particular:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian diet: all vegetables, fungi and microorganisms (yeasts, bacteria), milk and derivatives, eggs and derivatives, honey are allowed. Animal organisms and parts of them, both land and water, are prohibited. In theory, there is no limitation to the choice of other products (clothing, vegetables grown with the use of animal fertilizers, etc.). It can be further differentiated into lacto-vegetarian (without eggs) and ovo-vegetarian (without milk);
  • Vegan diet: all plants, fungi and microorganisms are allowed, while any animal derivatives are prohibited, including milk, eggs, honey and derivatives. Moreover, silk in clothing is abolished, all agricultural products obtained with animal fertilizers (blood meal, bones, horns and hooves, fish meal), drugs tested on live organisms, etc .;
    • Raw food diet: it is a vegan diet that includes only products raw, such as fruit, vegetables, oil seeds and starchy foods of all kinds. The food DON'T must be heated over i 48 ° C (118 ° F). Usually, these processes are done by means of a low temperature dehydrator;
  • Sattvic Diet: Also known as the yogic diet, this is a plant-based diet that may also include dairy and honey, but excludes eggs, red lentils, durian, mushrooms, alliums, blue cheeses, fermented foods or sauces, and alcoholic beverages. Coffee, black or green tea, chocolate, nutmeg and any other type of stimulant (including overly pungent spices) are also sometimes excluded;
  • Macrobiotic diet: it mainly contains whole grains and beans, but derives from the Zen philosophy, which tries to balance the yin and yang elements;
  • Fruitarian diet and Jain vegetarianism: they only allow fruit, oilseeds, starchy seeds and other vegetables that can be harvested without harming the plant. Jain also includes dairy products;
  • Buddhist vegetarian diet: Many followers of this philosophy interpret the precept "do not kill" as abstinence from meat, but not all. In Taiwan, vegetables from the Allium family are excluded: onion, garlic, shallot, leek, chives, etc.

Others similar

Other similar diets, that is, which exclude certain products, are: pescetarianism (allows fish products), pollotarianism (allows avian meat) and chicken-pescetarianism.

Today, however, the concept of a vegetarian diet that comes closest to nutritional balance proper is probably the flexitarianismo.

This excludes nothing. Conversely, it includes fish products, eggs, milk and yogurt 2 or 3 times a week, meat 1 or 2 times and cheese once. There is no limit to vegetables, obviously within the limit of caloric intake, and there is also a small space for comfort food (sweets, "good" spirits).


Why choose a high-plant-based diet?

Given and considered the tendency towards the abuse of foods of animal origin by developed Western populations - already underway since the second half of the 900th century - and the relative negative health implications that it entails, the adoption of a nutritional style most vegetarian is now considered an attitude directly and indirectly quote against various pathologies and uncomfortable conditions - such as the famous "diseases of well-being".

This is because vegetarian diets bring levels lower of saturated fat, cholesterol and animal proteins (even if related indirectly at certain health risks *), while offering more levels high carbohydrates, fibers, magnesium, potassium, folic acid and various types of antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, polyphenols, etc. [Fraser GE (2009). "Vegetarian diets: what do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases?". The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 89 (5): 1607S – 1612S.].

ATTENTION!* The correlation between animal proteins and health problems is indirect. This means that it is not the proteins themselves that are a problem, but the type of food processing. We are talking about preserved meats such as sausages and grilled or grilled cooking.

Among these above all:

  • Obesity and related complications (such as joint ones, greater susceptibility to chronic autoimmune and / or inflammatory reactions, tendency to lithiasis, etc.)
  • Illnesses of replacement, largely related to obesity but not only (dyslipidemia, type 2 diabetes mellitus, primary arterial hypertension, hyperuricemia and gout, etc.) and related complications;
  • Dysfunctions of the apparatus digestive (e.g. gastritis, GERD, constipation, irritable colon, biliary lithiasis etc.);
  • Certain types of tumor (especially in the colorectal but not only) etc .;
  • Problems osteo-articular.

Why did we talk about a "more" vegetarian diet and not a specific type of vegetarian diet? Because, depending on the type of philosophy adopted, the nutritional profile can change a lot.

Not for nothing, the many studies on the health effects of vegetarian diets observe contrasting effects on mortality. A major overhaul found a decrease the overall risk of mortality from all causes, such as cancer (except breast) and cardiovascular disease ["Effect of the vegetarian diet on non-communicable diseases". J. Sci. Food Agric. (Review). 94 (2): 169–73.].

However, a meta-analysis found a lower risk of ischemic heart disease and cancer, but no effect on mortality complessiva o malattia cerebrovascolare. ["Cardiovascular disease mortality and cancer incidence in vegetarians: a meta-analysis and systematic review". Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism. 60 (4): 233–240.].

A further analysis combining two large studies found that vegetarians in the UK have an all-cause mortality similar to that of carnivores [Appleby, Paul N; Crowe, Francesca L; Bradbury, Kathryn E; Travis, Ruth C; Key, Timothy J (January 20, 2017). "Mortality in vegetarians and comparable nonvegetarians in the United Kingdom123". The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 103 (1): 218-230.].

The "American Dietetic Association" states that in all stages of life, a vegetarian diet ( DON'T vegan) properly planned it can be "healthy, nutritionally adequate and useful in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases". [Craig WJ, Mangels AR (July 2009). "Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets". J Am Diet Assoc. 109 (7): 1266–82.].

Let's look at some of the most important scientific evidence on the benefits of a predominantly vegetarian diet.

  • Vegetarian diets seem to offer relief dall 'rheumatoid arthritis, but the reason is not known

[Hagen KB, Byfuglien MG, Falzon L, Olsen SU, Smedslund G (2009). Hagen, Kåre Birger (ed.). "Dietary interventions for rheumatoid arthritis". Cochrane Database Syst Rev (1): CD006400.];

  • Vegetarian diets might reduce the risk of developing the diabetes mellitus type 2. There is solid evidence that a vegetarian diet can also help people with type 2 diabetes achieve greater glycemic control.

["Position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada: Vegetarian diets". Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 103 (6): 748–65. 2003.].

[Papamichou D, Panagiotakos DB, Itsiopoulos C (June 2019). "Dietary patterns and management of type 2 diabetes: A systematic review of randomised clinical trials". Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis (Systematic Review). 29 (6): 531–543.].

[Effie Viguiliouk et al. (2019). "Effect of vegetarian dietary patterns on cardiometabolic risk factors in diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials". Clin Nutr 38 (3): 1133-1145.].

  • A 2015 review found that vegetarian diets "reduce effectively blood concentrations of cholesterol total, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), but also high density (HDL). "This could be preventative towards the process atherosclerotic - and therefore of certain cardio-vascular events - however, it is also mediated by other risk factors - such as inflammatory ones.

[Wang, Fenglei; Zheng, Jusheng; Yang, Bo; Jiang, Jiajing; Fu, Yuanqing; Li, Duo (2015). "Effects of Vegetarian Diets on Blood Lipids: A Systematic Review and Meta‐Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials". Journal of the American Heart Association. 4 (10): e002408.].

  • Returning to the subject of mortality, vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of 24% for ischemic heart disease compared to non-vegetarians, but no other demonstrable associations have been established between a vegetarian diet and other major causes of death.

[Key TJ, Fraser GE, Thorogood M, Appleby PN, Beral V, Reeves G, Burr ML, Chang-Claude J, Frentzel-Beyme R, Kuzma JW, Mann J, McPherson K (September 1999). "Mortality in vegetarians and non-vegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies". American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 70 (3): 516S–524S.].

In "Mortality in British Vegetarians", he further concludes: British vegetarians have a low mortality compared to the general population. Their mortality rates are similar to those of comparable non-vegetarians in other respects, suggesting that much of this benefit can be attributed to various non-dietary lifestyle factors, such as a low prevalence di smoke it's one socio-economic status generally high, or to aspects of the diet other than avoiding meat and fish.

Sports and Vegetarian Diet: Benefits and Controversies


However, objectively measurable controversies are also associated with vegetarian diets. Let's see the most clearly correlated ones from the scientific bibliography.

Vegetarian diet, skeletal health and vitamin B12

According to some studies, a vegetarian lifestyle may be associated with vitamin B12 deficiency and low bone mineral density compared to omnivores.

Vitamin B12 or cobalamin is very important for correct cell differentiation in pregnancy, which is why a possible deficiency is to be considered. potentially harmful for the development of the fetus. It is also essential (together with iron, folic acid, etc.) to synthesis dell 'hemoglobin and to the conversion ofhomocysteine in methionine (in addition of course to folic acid and vitamin B6).

["Vitamin B12 Linked to Osteoporosis and Bone Loss in Vegetarians". April 29, 2011. Retrieved November 4, 2011.]

[Iguacel, Isabel; Miguel-Berges, María L; Gómez-Bruton, Alejandro; Moreno, Luis A; Julián, Cristina (January 2019). "Veganism, vegetarianism, bone mineral density, and fracture risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis". Nutrition Reviews. 77 (1): 1–18.].

[Jianfeng; Zhou, Ruiyun; Huang, Wei; Wang, Jianjun (2020). "Bone loss, low height, and low weight in different populations and district: a meta-analysis between vegans and non-vegans". Food and Nutrition Research. 64.].

Vegetarian diet and dental health

A 2019 review found that the vegetarian diet may be associated with a greatest risk of erosion dental for the greatest amount of fruit and vegetables.

These are foods acid which lower the level of oral pH, in turn related to the development of caries.

The review, however, states that the results should be interpreted with caution due to the limited comparability of the studies and correction.

[Kirsten P. J. Smits et al. (2019). Vegetarian diet and its possible influence on dental health: A systematic literature review. Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology 48(1): 7-13.].

Vegetarian diets and eating disorders

The "American Dietetic Association" argues that vegetarian diets can be more common among adolescents with eating disorders, specifying however that DON'T they cause them, but rather that they are often chosen for camouflage an existing eating disorder.

[Craig WJ, Mangels AR (2009). "Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets" (PDF). J Am Diet Assoc. 109 (7): 1266–1282.].

Sports and Desirable Physical Activity

Improving the nutritional balance of the diet, increasing plant-based foods at the expense of animal ones compared to the average Western diet, is not the only way to promote a longer duration and quality of life.

Regularly try the so-called physical activity Motor desirable fitness type or even Sports it contributes to increasing psycho-physical well-being and improving the general state of health.

Note: it should be specified that very busy sports professionals and agonists often face complications (mainly joint or tendon) due to excessive training loads and for too many years.

What is desirable physical activity?

The desirable physical activity group is a group that includes several movement practices.

It is not about "disciplines" and, more often, it is based on a mixed program because it consists of exercises and practices of conditioning general physicist. The ultimate goal is therefore the set of benefits obtainable through it, not the eventual athletic performance to be achieved following a programming.

The desirable physical activity is then fundamentally characterized by a load di training higher than the basal activities, such as to bring benefits and organic adaptations, but nonetheless applicable on the majority of the population (age, sex, length of training, pathologies, etc.). However, it is not uncommon for the global commitment of a fitness enthusiast or an amateur bodybuilder to be higher than that of an amateur sportsman (like the classic Sunday cyclist).

No the whole of desirable physical activity includes: work, daily practices, hobbies and activities that are not actually demanding from a metabolic, cardiovascular, respiratory and locomotor point of view.

What is meant by sport?

Sporting activity, on the other hand, is better identified as a discipline aimed at itself.

Unlike the previous group, sports are not interchangeable for those who practice them and have as their final goal an improvement in performance or in any case the maintenance of athletic ability.

Agonists and professionals belong to this group, requiring even higher levels of commitment. In these activities, while maintaining high physical benefits on the one hand, there are also risks or complications related to so to speak "abnormal" training loads; the most frequent are obviously tendon, ligamentous and cartilage degenerations.

Veg and Sport Diet Association

It is therefore logical that, for preventive and curative purposes (where possible of course), the ideal choice would be associate a balanced diet - with more plants and fewer animals than the western trend - to an adequate and complete protocol of motor physical activity (sports or fitness).

However, as many readers will already know, moving more than normal requires a greater commitment of the whole body. Thinking to scale, this means that the systems, organs, tissues, cells, organelles, enzymes, cytochromes, etc. they will work "more than before".

Consequently, the diet of an athlete cannot be identical to that of a sedentary. Above we said that a "more vegetarian" diet is to be considered protective compared to the ordinary Western diet. On the other hand, the majority of the population has a fairly moderate level of physical activity, often sedentary.

Therefore, those who choose to engage in sports or motor exercise with significant workloads, can actually benefit from vegetarianism or similar philosophies, or not? Let's find out.

Sportsman's needs

The sportsman has nutritional needs superior compared to the sedentary. The greater the workload, the greater the overall nutritional intake must be, with differences related to individual macro or micronutrients. This is why a professional's diet can altogether be the doppio or triple more abundant than average.

The sportsman needs:

  • More energy: it derives mainly from carbohydrates and, to a lesser extent, from lipids; the need for essential fatty acids (AGE) and semi-essential fatty acids does not seem to undergo too important fluctuations;
  • More amino acids: they derive from proteins and have numerous functions. The essential ones are especially important (AAE), necessary for the protein synthesis of structural proteins (in particular of the muscle), enzymes (involved in energy processes) etc. It should be noted that the demand for proteins depends on the type of activity; it is much higher in strength sports (even> 2 g per kg of body weight) and muscle growth rather than in endurance sports (<2 g / kg);
  • More minerals e water involved in sweating: above all magnesium e potassium, even if their quantity varies according to the extent of sweating itself;
  • More antioxidants vitamins and minerals: we are talking about vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc and selenium. An increase in oxidative processes inexorably determines an increase in the quantity of free radicals. For this reason, introducing an adequate level of antioxidants, even of a different nature such as polyphenols, allows to oppose cellular aging processes;
  • More precursors e enzymatic components: we are talking above all about the B vitamins and certain minerals. Enzymes are biological catalysts essential to cellular processes which, in sports, increase exponentially.

If the "normal" diet is balanced, to meet the need for a moderate increase in the motor level it is sufficient to proportionally increase the caloric level.

However, some portions need to be revised in the event that the workload increases to be "higher than normal", or when the chosen activity is highly "specific".

To give an example, a weekly calorie intake that goes from 14000 to 15000 kilocalories (kcal) does not require much attention. Obviously it becomes essential to pay attention to the correct choice of foods and their portions, but without upsetting what we would call the "routine".

It is different for those who, for example, reach an energy expenditure of over 20000 kcal in the seven days, which will derive mainly from carbohydrates, as in the case of cross-country skiers. Or for bodybuilders and weightlifters, who crave above-average protein levels.

Especially in the high-level sports bands, satisfying one's nutritional needs often becomes complicated, due to management, digestive problems, etc. If this is true for an omnivore, let alone a vegetarian.

That is why, again in the case of vegans, and conditionally if we are talking about lacto-ovo-vegetarians, the use of food supplements is recommended and it is highly recommended to consult a dietician.

Let us now try to understand which nutrients are most subject to depletion in the vegetarian diet of an average or highly engaged sportsman.

Essential Amino Acids and Proteins

Essential amino acids and proteins in vegetarian sports

The intake of proteins and especially of AAE in vegetarian and especially vegan diets tends to be lower than that in omnivorous diets.

In sedentary vegetarians there is no problem of total protein malnutrition or essential amino acids; milk, eggs and derivatives are sufficient to prevent the loss of lean mass (0,8 g / kg of body weight).

However, in very busy athletes, the excessive increase in these foods can become poorly tolerable and require supplementing with proteins in the form of powders, bars, etc.

It is different for vegan sportsmen, who hardly have a choice - especially if they practice bodybuilding or strength training. In vegetables, proteins have an average biological value, which is why it is essential to take great care in choosing foods based on the pool of essential amino acids present.

The raw foodists then have the big problem of having to undergo the presence of antinutrients such as protease inhibitors and tannins, which hinder the digestion of peptides by reducing the absorption of amino acids. The excess of fiber is also negative to optimize the uptake of amino acids from the meal in digestion and absorption.

Consuming only raw foods such as legumes and cereals to reach a requirement of over 2 g / kg of body weight and without exceeding the recommended energy quota is almost impossible.

For this reason, food supplements are used, which for vegans are mainly made up of degreased soy proteins or mixtures of peptides isolated from legumes and cereals.

Some make further discrimination on the needs related to individual essential amino acids. For the adult: phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, lysine, leucine, isoleucine and valine (the latter 3 also have the properties of branched chain amino acids or BCAAs); histidine for growing subjects. They are conditionally essential: cysteine, tyrosine, arginine, glycine, glutamine and proline.

Indeed, each of them plays a decisive role and some are more important than others for the sportsman. On the other hand, the literature has not yet managed to justify the integration of these molecules in addition to that of proteins of high biological value, which in itself seems sufficient.

A vegan sportsman who is not getting enough protein could obviously benefit from branched out supplementation as well as any other AAE or conditionally essential.


Creatine in vegetarian sports

Creatine is an amino acid molecule used as a reserve of phosphate groups by muscle cells.

It serves to make the contractile energy necessary for very short and very intense efforts quickly available.

The body is capable of synthesizing it and there is no form of nutritional deficiency related to it.

However, the body is also able to absorb it from food. It is mainly present in meat and, of course, the degree of endogenous synthesis depends on how much creatine we take with food.

In vegans, internal production is maximal and some believe it is not enough. If this is questionable in the sedentary and leaves doubt in the endurance athlete - but only because of the increased overall metabolism - there is no doubt that it may exist in the strength athlete and in the bodybuilder.

Better to say, creatine supplementation in these subjects, even more so if vegan, can increase strength performance in a few reps at high intensity (not 1RM and not even beyond 10-15 seconds of duration).

Moreover, by occupying a certain space inside the contractile cell and requiring water for its storage, it can favor the increase in muscle volume.

These two effects, on the other hand, are to be considered only in "responders", ie those genetically predisposed to absorb high levels of dietary creatine and to store them inside the fiber cells. For all others, it is either not absorbed or excreted in the urine.

Supplementing with creatine is therefore recommended for vegan strength athletes and bodybuilders who follow the same diet.

Omega 3: EPA is DHA

Omega 3 in vegetarian sports

Well yes. Despite the richness in total lipids and lipophilic molecules (such as vitamin A and vitamin C) of Western vegetarian diets, there is a lack of the two fatty acids semi-essential omega 3: acid Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and acid docosaesaenoico (DHA).

We will avoid listing all the biological functions and roles of these fundamental nutrients (membrane components, precursors of anti-inflammatory eicosanoids, constituents of nervous and ocular tissue, etc.). Suffice it to say that, if the diet does not contain fish products, it is "almost" impossible to reach the recommended intake of EPA and DHA - especially high in pregnancy, growth and old age.

Be careful though, DON'T we are talking about the essential omega 3 alpha linolenic acid (ALA); of this, the vegetarian and vegan diet are rich in it (soy, nuts, pumpkin seeds, canola oil, kiwi, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, echium seeds and leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, cabbage etc.). However, to become metabolically active, ALA requires cellular conversion to EPA and DHA.

The only vegetable source of the latter are algae, obviously absent in the Western diet, and in any case limited useful given their very high iodine content - if in excess, in the chronic it can lead to thyroid imbalances.

Moreover, the sensitivity of polyunsaturated fats to light, heat and oxygen makes them generally not very conservable; in the West, algae arrive mainly in tins and dried - which suggests a certain loss of active omega 3s.

Flexitarians, on the other hand, as well as pescitarians, can benefit from the consumption of fishery products, avoiding the possibility of shortage.

Vegetarians are advised to use food supplements and to be very careful not to exceed the intake of omega 6. Linoleic acid (AGE omega 6) competes in the metabolic path with alpha linolenic acid, the only omega 3 vegetable which, however, must be converted by the body into the metabolically active forms EPA and DHA.

Too much linoleic acid can therefore hinder the production of the two semi-essential omega 3 EFAs.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 in vegetarian sports

Also called cobalamin, it is essential for the synthesis of DNA, the metabolism of fats and the synthesis of amino acids; this makes it indispensable for some processes such as the production of hemoglobin, myelin, etc.

This water-soluble B vitamin is deficient in vegetarian diets. Its level is so low as to be insufficient in all vegans; ovo-vegetarians, on the other hand, can enjoy the consumption of egg yolk, which contains good levels of it.

No plant provides vitamin B12 and the only ones capable of synthesizing it are bacteria and a few other microorganisms. Herbivores have an enteric bacterial flora that releases sufficient quantities, while carnivores feed on them.

Man is omnivorous by nature and needs to consume food of animal origin to meet this nutritional need. If not, he is bound to take dietary supplements or fortified foods.

Vegetarians deficient in vitamin B12 can easily develop anemia megaloblastica e iperomocisteinemia; increases the risk of various chronic diseases. In the event of gestation, the risk of fetal complications increases dramatically.


Football in the vegetarian sportsman

Together with phosphorus, it is the mineral that gives hardness to the bones. It is also essential to the cellular action potential and thus to the neuromuscular stimulus-contraction mechanism. We will not proceed further, but its functions are still much more numerous.

Calcium may be deficient in some vegetarians. If lacto-vegetarians are protected from this lack, vegans must pay close attention to the choice of food; vegetable calcium is scarce and less efficiently absorbed than animal calcium.

In the diet of the vegetarian sportsman, cabbage, green leafy vegetables, tempeh and tofu (derivatives of soy) must never be missing. The cooking must be such as to annihilate the antinutrients that can sequester it preventing its absorption, such as oxalic acid. This is why raw food eaters are even more prone to calcium depletion.

The athlete must absolutely take care of the calcium intake in the diet. It is true that the mechanical stimulus of motor activity tends to maintain the density of the skeleton and that, in the event of a food deficiency, the metabolism of calcium is able to save large quantities and increase intestinal absorption.

At the same time, however, greater losses inevitably occur and therefore the need for it increases.

Insufficient calcium in the diet reduces the efficacy and neuro-muscular efficiency and, in the long term, hinders ossification. In the young, this compromises growth and in the elderly predisposes to osteoporosis.


Iron in the vegetarian sportsman

It's a sore point for vegetarian cross-country skiers. This is because the foods that contain higher quantities and of the most bioavailable type are: offal, muscle meat, fish products, egg yolk. The vegetable one - higher in legumes than other vegetables - is not very bioavailable and is absorbed and metabolized in smaller quantities, also due to some antinutrients such as phytic acid.

The vegetarian population shows an insufficient iron intake for 40-58% of the total. That said, the primary complication due to it, namely anemia sideropenica, seems to arise independently of the type of diet (omnivorous or vegetarian) - perhaps due to the fact that today the vegetarian population uses food supplements.

Iron is essential for the synthesis of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells with an oxygen transport function in the blood. Aerobic sports activity is based precisely on the flow of oxygen to the muscles and its use in energy production.

Any vegetarian sportsman must try to increase the bioavailability of the iron consumed by combining it in the same meal with vitamin C.

Vegans and lacto-vegetarians are generally advised to supplement iron, while ovo-vegetarians are recommended to have specific blood tests first.

For any vegetarian sportsman it may be advisable to integrate but only by consulting the doctor; in fact, by exaggerating, it is possible to suffer from intoxication by this mineral - if the doses do not take into account the real nutritional status.

Zinc and Selenium

Zinc in vegetarian sports

Zinc is a mineral with antioxidant power and involved in the structure of numerous hormones, enzymes and other protein components.

In sports, zinc undoubtedly plays a very important role but the deficiency is rare.

Even in vegetarians it is difficult to demonstrate a possible insufficiency of this nutrient in the diet; nevertheless - given its scarce availability in inorganic form, prevalent in vegetables - it is advisable to integrate it, especially in vegan diets (even to the extent of 50% of requirements).

Selenium in vegetarian sports

Selenium is also an antioxidant, participates in the synthesis of thyroid hormones and is a very important factor for several reasons.

Its deficiency is rare in the vegetarian and even more so in the omnivore. It is present in some cereals and oil seeds, but the primary nutritional sources are fishery products. For this reason, the pescitarians seem to have greater coverage of the deficit.

Abundant Nutrients

Abundant nutrients in the vegetarian diet useful for athletes

Regardless of the abundance of nutrients useful for everyone, such as fibers, phytosterols, tannins, polyphenols, lecithins, etc., the vegetarian diet offers various nutrients that are also useful for athletes.

Let's start with the two water-soluble vitamins folic acid and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

Folic acid is necessary as much as vitamin B12 for the replication of nucleic acids and therefore for cell differentiation, for the metabolism of amino acids (including homocysteine), for spermatogenesis and for the quality of oocytes, for fetal maturation, etc.

Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, contributes to the functioning of the immune system, is crucial for the synthesis of collagen, facilitates the absorption of iron in the intestine, etc.

We then move on to fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin E and vitamin K. Above all, the concentration of alpha tocopherol (vitamin E), a very important antioxidant that acts synergistically with vitamin C, is mainly responsible for the protection of essential fatty acids in the body, for example in cell membranes.

Vitamin K1 or phylloquinone is more abundant in the vegetarian diet than in the omnivorous one, because it is present in foods of plant origin. It plays an essential role in blood clotting and appears to be involved in bone metabolism.

Many think that the vegetarian diet is completely devoid of vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol), but this depends on the foods it includes. Egg yolk for example, present in the ovo-vegetarian diet, is one of the few foods to contain it. Obviously it does not hold a candle to animal liver, especially fish, but consuming eggs and exposing yourself to the sun regularly is enough to prevent significant deficiency of this vitamin.

Vegans, on the other hand, can increase the intake of mushrooms. Some species of these organisms contain vitamin D2, but it is not possible to establish whether the contribution of these foods can be defined as decisive. In general, it is always advisable to perform specific haematological analyzes and possibly integrate them.

Several useful minerals are also very abundant, such as potassium and magnesium, mainly involved in sweat loss (almost as much as sodium). The former abounds almost everywhere - to tell the truth, even in meat and fish - and the latter is present in whole and oily starchy seeds.

Both alkalizing, any deficit in the athlete inevitably causes the onset of muscle cramps and reduced performance.


In conclusion, it is not impossible to achieve good results in sport while following a vegetarian or vegan diet.

However, the athlete who wants to follow a nutritional regimen of this kind must keep in mind that:

  • Vegetarian is different from vegan: the former is increasingly sustainable and requires less food supplementation - which in most cases, for one nutrient or the other, must in any case take place;
  • All dietary choices depend on the training load, the type of activity performed and the objectives;
  • The intervention of a sports dietician is always recommended.
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