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Vegetarian or Omnivore: A Dilemma for Triathletes?

The diet of a triathlete is constantly scrutinized for its ability to optimally fuel the athlete for training and racing. We have previously reported on the vegetarian diet for triathletes. For our purpose, we define vegetarian as someone who eats eggs, dairy, and plants, but eliminates all meat, poultry, fish, and seafood, while an omnivore is someone who eats both plants and animals. Vegetarian triathletes can obtain all of the necessary nutrients to adequately fuel the body for hours of training and racing. In fact, a vegetarian diet may be more appropriate for triathletes because of their necessity to consume a large percentage of calories from carbohydrates. A vegetarian diet has also been associated with numerous health benefits, including lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and certain forms of cancer. Despite these remarkable statements, we are not here to sway you to adopt a vegetarian diet. But we do want to tell you that the optimal fuel for triathletes is based on the principles of a vegetarian diet.

Heavy training and racing fuel
A triathlete has about 2-3 hours worth of stored energy to fuel hard training or racing. During intense exercise, the triathlete utilizes this pool of stored carbohydrate for energy. Depending on intensity and duration, the triathlete will also utilize stored fat and protein for energy. The process of utilizing fat or protein as a source of energy is considerably less efficient than using carbohydrate. Unless there is a continued supply of the preferable carbohydrate, the triathlete will eventually reach the point of glycogen depletion, termed “hitting the wall.” The triathlete will “hit the wall” after 2-3 hours of racing or when the supply of stored or in-race ingested carbohydrate is depleted. At this point the body will only work at about 50% of maximum capacity. It is clearly advantageous to maintain adequate intake and stores of carbohydrates for exercise and optimal performance.

The primary fuel for exercise, defined above as carbohydrate, is strictly vegetarian. Endurance athletes should eat 60-70% of their calories from carbohydrates, which means that all triathletes should be at least 60-70% vegetarian. Carbohydrates come from many sources, including grains, cereals, rice, pasta, beans, fruit, vegetables, soy, yogurt, and milk. These vegetarian foods are high in the healthy complex carbohydrates and fiber, while low in the unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol. Carbohydrates can also come from sports bars and other products, which are also strictly vegetarian. If you are adequately fueling your body for exercise, you are likely consuming a mostly vegetarian diet.

Fat remains an essential macronutrient for the triathlete, as it provides fuel for low to moderate intensity activity. However, not all fats are created equal. The healthy unsaturated fats are found mostly in vegetarian foods, such as nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil. However, these healthy oils can also be found in fish and grass-fed beef. Alternatively, the unhealthy saturated and trans fats tend to clog arteries, raise cholesterol, lower the body’s level of good cholesterol, and slow the emptying of the stomach. These unhealthy fats are primarily found in meat, such as beef, sausage, bacon, deli meat, skin from poultry, and fried meats. But these unhealthy fats can also be found in vegetarian food, such as high-fat dairy, fried vegetables (French fries), chips, candy, some energy bars, and most processed/packaged food. It is interesting that both the vegetarian and omnivore can choose healthy or unhealthy fats. The triathlete must choose healthy fats to properly fuel the body, and this can be done as either a vegetarian or omnivore.

The remainder of the triathlete’s diet consists of lean sources of high quality protein. As previously described, protein is an inefficient fuel source. However, protein is vital to replenish hard-worked muscles with nutrients for proper recovery. Animal protein is a common means of obtaining protein for the body, but it tends to be higher in saturated fat, which is not only unhealthy, but also delays the emptying of our stomach contents and makes us bloated, full, and sluggish. Omnivores must again focus on lean sources of high-quality protein, such as fish, skinless poultry, low-fat dairy, and lean red meat. Alternatively, vegetarian protein is an excellent means of obtaining high quality protein that is not high in unhealthy fats and will not delay stomach emptying. Good food sources of high-quality vegetarian protein include legumes, nuts, seeds, soy, dairy, quinoa, seaweed, and protein powder. The triathlete who is an omnivore must focus on good sources of high-quality protein, which includes some meat and fish, as well as the vegetarian sources of protein, to properly fuel the body. It is interesting that the majority of the optimal sources of protein are vegetarian.

Vegetarian versus omnivore
The decision to be a vegetarian or omnivore is deeply rooted in ones values and beliefs. It is not the intention of this article to sway the reader towards a vegetarian diet. Rather, it is the intent to note that the fundamental principles of a healthy diet for triathletes are based on the vegetarian diet: mostly carbohydrates, healthy oils, and high-quality lean protein. Nonetheless, both the vegetarian and omnivore triathlete can obtain essential nutrients from high-quality vegetarian and animal-based foods to optimally fuel the body.
Bill Nadeau, MS, RD, is a member of the Eat2Win Sports Nutrition team with http://www.trismarter.com. When Bill’s not working with athletes on their diets, he can be found training or in the kitchen. Visit http://www.trismarter.com to learn more about their personalized coaching options such as Tri4Life and Tri2Lose as well as innovative Eat2Win sports nutrition services. Contact: info@trismarter.com or call 917.825.1451 for more information.

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