Down the garden path

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2012, 12:00am


If you think a diet free from meat can't satiate - much less energise - the average person, Chad Lykins will prove you wrong. For the past 10 years he's been vegetarian, and yet has been able to train daily for, and conquer, triathlons and trail-running races.

'Vegetarianism is great for athletes,' says Lykins, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's faculty of education. 'Some athletes that have become vegetarian think that their bodies recover faster and are more able to absorb nutrition. I am healthier and feel that I am doing my small part to promote a sustainable lifestyle.'

Perhaps more persuasive of the benefits of a plant-based diet is the list of star vegetarian athletes: athletics icon Carl Lewis, tennis greats Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, six-time Ironman winner Dave Scott, boxer Mike Tyson and Olympic hurdler Edwin Moses, to name a few.

It may not seem ideal for competing athletes, but well-planned vegetarian diets can be as balanced and nutritious as traditional ones, providing adequate energy and protein, and helping athletes of all kinds meet the energy requirements of their respective sports.

In 1990, Lewis embraced a vegan diet, one that includes no eggs or dairy products. Prior to the switch, the nine-time Olympic gold medallist was a meat-eater who skipped meals frequently. In his introduction to Very Vegetarian, a collection of recipes by American chef Jannequin Bennett, Lewis writes that athletes do not need protein from meat to be successful.

Daphne Wu, a freelance dietitian with Life Enrich Training and Consulting Centre in Jordan, says it is possible for top athletes to be vegetarian, but their performance depends on their food choices, since many plant-based foods tend to be high in calories - 100 grams of nuts, for example, provides 650-750 calories, and 100 grams of potato chips about 500 calories.

'If they do not include suitable meat alternatives in their daily meal plan, they will not be able to support the demands of daily training,' says Sally Poon, a sports dietitian with Private Dietitian.

Poon says a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet - one that includes dairy and eggs - is easier to stick to than a vegan diet because it increases food options. It also supplies vitamin B12, which helps the body make the red blood cells that carry oxygen to muscles.

Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal products and a deficiency can result in anaemia. Vegans can get B12 from supplements, fortified soy milk and the yeast extract Vegemite, Poon says. Mushrooms are also a good source of B vitamins.

Vegetarian athletes might also be at a higher risk of developing anaemia because iron from plant foods - also called non-haem iron - is not as easily absorbed as iron from animal sources.

'Iron helps produce red blood cells,' Wu says. 'A lack of it can therefore affect one's sporting performance, particularly if one is an endurance athlete.'

Non-haem iron can be found in leafy green vegetables, legumes and beans. Other decent sources include fortified breakfast cereals, dried fruits and gluten-based meat alternatives.

These foods are best consumed with vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus fruits and some vegetables, to increase the absorption of non-haem iron, Poon says. Avoid beverages, such as coffee and tea, and adding unprocessed bran to these meals, as this will only decrease the absorption of non-haem iron.

Vegetarian athletes who participate in contact sports might also want to step up their intake of calcium, which builds strong bones and reduces the risk of bone fractures. Dairy products, tofu, sesame seeds and dark, leafy greens are all excellent sources of this mineral.

Protein is also crucial to athletic performance because it builds and repairs tissues and makes hormones, enzymes and other body chemicals. It helps in the contraction of muscles, too, while regulating bodily processes, such as water balance. As plant proteins may be short of one or more essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein, food sources need to be combined to ensure all amino acids are consumed, Poon says.

'Combining different types of plant foods allows low levels of amino acids in one food to be complemented by the high levels of amino acids in the other,' she says. 'For example, eat legumes with grains, or legumes with nuts or seeds.'

She also advises eating these foods in moderation, since excess protein is stored in the body as fat.

Lykins says he made the mistake of overloading on protein when he first turned vegetarian.

'I was eating high-sodium, heavily processed meat substitutes once a day. I was also eating too much dairy.'

These days, he gets nutrients mainly from avocados, beans, fruits, nuts, seeds, oils and grains. When he craves junk food, he heads to McSorley's Ale House in SoHo for a veggie burger and fries.

Vegetarians are generally believed to be healthier than non-vegetarians.

Poon says that their risk for certain lifestyle diseases, like overweight or obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes and some forms of cancer, tend to be lower, as a plant-based diet is lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and higher in carbohydrates, fibre, folate, carotenoids, vitamins A and C, magnesium and other phytonutrients.

As long as their food choices are smart and varied, there is no reason why the performance of vegetarian athletes should be affected. Lewis said that he enjoyed his best year of track competition in 1991, several months after becoming a vegetarian.

Former Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier, who became a vegetarian in 1990 when he first started running, says he initially made the switch to enhance his athletic performance.

In those early years, he got his food combinations wrong and suffered from a lack of energy, but his performance improved dramatically once he learned to eat the right foods. One of the main benefits of a vegan diet for athletes, he says, is that it's alkalising, which minimises muscle inflammation and lactic acid build-up.

Brazier, 36, is so convinced of the benefits of veganism for athletes that he has carved a second career out of spreading the word about it. He is the author of the best-selling The Thrive Diet and has created a line of award-winning, vegan, whole-food products called Vega.

Lykins too has started developing his own sports nutrition, a vegan performance snack bar that he says isn't full of processed junk, but still tastes great. 'I never found one, so I developed my own.'

Having gained the approval of his running and hiking buddies, Lykins says the snack bar will be on sale in Hong Kong next year.

Shake away

Chad Lykin's ultrarunner smoothie

(blend everything and drink up)

84 grams almonds, soaked for at least four hours

4 dates, soaked for at least four hours

2 cups iced water

2 bananas

1 cup additional fruit (blueberries, pineapple or strawberries all work)

2 tbsp chia seeds (optional)

1 tbsp brown rice protein (optional)