Vegetarian fitness and women

by in Women 21/10/2012

Vegetarian fitness and womenDespite the slew of world-class athletes who are vegetarians in recent years, the myth still persists that vegetarians are just an annoying bunch of scrawny weaklings. Most people believe that one has to eat through herds of cattle and coops of poultry in order to become a successful athlete or to excel in sports.

There are however, quite a number of vegetarian athletes who have shown that meat isn’t everything in sports. Patrik Baboumian is the 2012 European Powerlifting champion and has been a vegetarian since 2005. In the physically demanding sport of MMA, vegan Marc Danzig and lacto-ovo vegetarian Jake Shields have been consistent in their winning ways in the UFC.


While the few examples above are definitely enough to show that vegetarians can be successful athletes, there is an even bigger myth that female vegetarians will find it harder to take on fitness activities, much less excel in sports. Serena Williams recently won the Wimbledon Open and yes, she is a vegetarian.

The Protein Issue

Protein is perhaps the main reason why many people still believe that one’s physical abilities will be hampered if they took on a vegetarian lifestyle. For people all over the world, the very mention of the word protein conjures up images of steaks, hams and chicken breasts.

Indeed, protein is essential in building muscles and in helping the body recover after a workout or a tough training session. Even vegetarian athletes will agree to that. Supplementing with protein is also vital in keeping the body from going catabolic and starts burning muscles for energy. This leads to muscle loss and less muscles means limited performance.

So the logic seems pretty straightforward. Eat meat, gain muscle and kick butt, right?

Of course, what most do not know is that foods with richest sources of protein are not meat but cheese and whey. What most people also do not know is that it that studies have consistently shown that all types of vegetarians consume more protein than what the body requires on a daily basis.

Lacto and ovo vegetarians (those who consume either or both dairy products and eggs) are never lacking in protein in their diets with eggs and dairy products. Strict vegans on the other hand (those who don’t consume any food that is derived from animals) have enough protein sources in soy products, beans, nuts and even leafy greens.
As far as female vegetarian athletes and fitness enthusiasts are concerned, there are still quite a few misinformed trainers and bodybuilding regulars who think that the vegetarian lifestyle and diet is not enough for female vegetarian athletes to achieve their peak physical abilities. This opinion however, has long been disproved by studies confirming that all essential and non-essential amino acids (which are the building blocks of protein) can easily be consumed even with plant sources alone.

Other Issues

Oligomenorrhea. The vegetarian diet however, does pose a few challenges for female athletes and fitness enthusiasts. Some female vegetarian athletes have been found to be more susceptible to cases of oligomenorrhea, a medical condition characterized by infrequent menstruation. This however is due to the typical low calorie content of most vegetarian meals and not because of dietary quality. Consuming enough carbohydrate rich foods like whole grains, fruits and tubers like potatoes can easily address this problem.

Iron intake. Inadequate intake of iron is also an issue among female vegetarians who want to take on an active lifestyle. As women naturally lose iron during menstruation, it is important for them to replenish the body’s iron reserves to keep it in good shape. Iron from plant sources are not as readily absorbed as those from animal sources. In order to ensure that the female vegetarian consumes enough iron, foods rich in iron like beans and legumes, dried fruit and spinach should always be part of their diet. Vitamin C also enhances the body’s ability to absorb iron. Incorporating more citrus and other good sources of vitamin C into one’s diet can help enhance the body’s ability to absorb iron. It will also be wise to consult with a medical professional about supplementing with iron.

Vegan Issues

Calcium. Female vegans who wish to embark on an active fitness lifestyle should ensure that they are getting enough calcium in their diet. Not only will calcium help reduce the risk of osteoporosis, it likewise reduces PMS symptoms. Consuming enough nuts, fortified cereals, seeds, greens, legumes and tofu can usually provide one’s daily needs, but supplementation with calcium is usually the best way ensure that the female vegan meets her daily calcium requirement.

Vitamin D. This vitamin is important in helping the body absorb calcium properly. This is the reason why most calcium-rich milk is usually comes fortified with vitamin D. Since vegans exclude dairy products in their diet, they should look for other sources of the vitamin. If one chooses to supplement with calcium, the female vegan should choose one that has vitamin D. Daily exposure to morning sunlight for can also help the body synthesize vitamin D.

Zinc. Female vegans who are thinking of adding more muscle mass should ensure that they are getting enough zinc in their diet. Eating a lot of legumes, whole-wheat breads, seeds, nuts, tofu and legumes is usually enough to meet one’s daily requirement. Taking multi-vitamins can also help ensure she reaches her daily requirement. Studies have also shown that athletes who are supplementing with zinc, especially those who are taking the supplement just before bedtime have experienced great gains in strength and muscle mass.

Vitamin B12. Finding a good source of this vitamin will pose a bit of a challenge for both male and female vegans as the vitamin is almost exclusively found in meat, eggs and dairy products. While there may be vegan sources for this vitamin like sea vegetables, fermented soy products, soy milk and fortified cereals, the choices can be a bit limited. Supplementing with this vitamin is the best way to go. One must make sure however, that the supplement did not come from animal sources.

  • Great article – as a vegan athlete myself, this is something very near and dear to my heart. In terms of the big question about protein, I’ve found that Pea Protein Isolate and Sprouted Brown Rice Protein is a complete and healthy protein source. Some other tips include Chia seeds (heart health, essential omega 3s, fibre, protein and anti-oxidants); Maca (stamina, immunity, youthful skin, relief from stress and hormonal imbalance); Acai berries (anti-oxidants and strengthening the immune system); Rosehips (anti-oxidants, vitamin A, B and C); and Kale (beta carotene, calcium, potassium and vitamin A, C and K, antioxidants, phosphorous, copper, and iron). Looking forward to reading more. Cheers, Michael

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