Not eating meat has become popular over the past 10 years and certainly a point of interest and consideration for many athletes. However, as a female athlete, is it possible to adopt a plant-based diet safely, whilst maintaining a high intensity and volume of training? Can this be done without risking injury or fatigue?
Many female athletes, especially endurance athletes can suffer from low iron levels. Heme iron, which is more readily absorbed into the body, is found in animal products, and so a poorly planned vegetarian or vegan diet may put you at risk of low iron particularly as an athlete. Read on for some tips on how to make a plant-based diet work for you as a female athlete and how to weigh up whether it is the right fit for you and your training.
WHY FEMALES MIGHT THRIVE ON A PLANT-BASED DIET
After being diagnosed with an autoimmune system disorder in 2011, seven-time Grand Slam tennis champion, Venus Williams, decided to adopt a vegan diet. Venus found the diet helped her get back on the court after her diagnosis, and she has continued to play at the highest level since then.
But why the change? Following a plant-based diet full of fruits and vegetables and other anti-inflammatory foods can help athletes recover effectively from training and racing. Exercise increases the number of free radicals in the body can be flushed out through diet, hydration, soft tissue work and light movement. Following a high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory diet can help eliminate and prevent the build-up of toxins that can accumulate over hours of training.
Following a vegan or vegetarian diet is also often linked with an increased intake in carbohydrates. This is simply due to consuming non-meat sources of protein, such as lentils which are also great carbohydrate sources. In endurance sports, and strength endurance sports in particular (think cycling or triathlon) these additional carbohydrates are crucial to performance. Many female athletes experience an initial increase in energy as a result of their increased carbohydrate intake after transitioning to a plant-based diet. This increased energy can have a positive effect on your training and performance.
Are there RISKS for female athletes on vegan diets?
As with any diet, there can be a risk to the athlete if they are not wholesome and balanced. An unbalanced or restrictive vegan diet can be linked to:
- A higher incidence of eating disorders or low energy availability due to a decrease in food sources and options.
- A risk of nutrient deficiencies which can lead to an increased risk of musculoskeletal injuries.
- Disruptions to the female menstrual cycle have been observed in cases of limited dietary habits.
- Fatigue and slower recovery are often encountered if adequate micro and macronutrients are not replenished post training
IRON LEVELS AND THE MENSTRUAL CYCLE
The female menstrual cycle causes loss of blood and depletes iron stores. Running, and especially long distance running, breaks down red blood cells due to its heavy impact which contributes to blood losses. Because of this, it is common for female runners and athletes to struggle with anaemia and low iron levels. The result of this can be fatigue with reduced endurance and strength levels, as well as breathlessness and difficulty concentrating. Treatment options include increasing iron through diet, supplementation or in more severe cases, an intravenous iron infusion.
It is recommended that up until menopause, women need almost double the daily amount of iron than men. For example, approximately 18mg per day is ideal for women aged 19-50, whereas men over 19 and women over 50, for the most part, can stay healthy with 8mg per day. As an athlete, you will most likely require more than the recommended daily allowance of 18mg.
THE TWO TYPES OF IRON AND WHERE TO FIND THEM IN YOUR DIET
Heme iron is found in meat, fish and animal products and is more easily absorbed by the body. High sources of heme iron for non-vegetarians include: beef steak – 3.3mg per 100g, chicken liver – 12mg per 100g, oysters – 8.5mg per 100g, sardines – 6.1mg per 100g, mussels – 7mg.
Non-heme iron, which is found in green or leafy vegetables, or other plant-based sources, such as lentils or tofu, is harder for the body to absorb due to its molecular form. Some examples of non-heme iron include: spinach – 3.0mg per 100g (raw), lentils – 3.3mg per 100g (cooked), dried apricots – 3.1mg per 100g, tofu – 5.4mg per 100g. Be mindful that 100g of spinach is far less dense than 100g of mince, for example, so often a greater volume of food is required in order to obtain the same amount of bioavailable nutrients.
IRON ABSORpTION AND CAFFEINE
Note that iron needs Vitamin C in order to be absorbed effectively. So adding greens or other vegetables such as capsicum, fruits such as strawberries, oranges or kiwi fruit to your meal when eating iron rich foods will help your body make the most of the iron you are consuming.
On the other hand, certain foods can impede and interfere with iron absorption. These include calcium rich foods, caffeine sources such as tea or coffee, or alcohol. So try to limit these around your iron intake, especially if following a plant based diet, e.g. try consuming tea or coffee around meals, rather than with them.
getting the balance right: helpful supplements for female athletes
As you exclude any one particular food group, nutrient deficiency can become a risk. Because of this, it is important to aim for a balanced diet with a mixture of food sources, to keep your body and digestive system robust, as well as filling your cells with a variety of vitamins and minerals.
If you are following a plant-based diet there are certain supplements you may want to consider such as;
Omega 3s / Essential Fatty Acids – great for joint health and reducing oxidation within the body
Vitamin B12 – assists with energy levels and production
Vitamin D – for bone metabolism and density and maintaining a healthy menstrual cycle
Iron – vital for energy production and efficient oxygen use
Calcium – important for bone growth and health bone density
Zinc – great for immunity, period health, reduces PMS and lightens heavy flow during menstruation
Bindi Supergreens – Packed with over 40 nourishing ingredients that are naturally low in sugar and carbs, Bindi Supergreens are a natural nutritional powerhouse that can help boost your immune system, reduce inflammation and promote healthy digestion. Supergreens contain immune boosting antioxidants and plenty of B12 and iron to help fight fatigue.
A visit to your GP for blood testing can be a helpful way to monitor your nutritional health and therefore can guide your need for supplementation. Athletes with heavy training loads can require higher than normal levels of certain foods as well as nutrients such as iron.
Find out where your personal optimal range is and don’t be afraid to experiment with different foods and supplements to find out which ones allow you to sit comfortably in that healthy nutritional state.