I love to be a fly on the wall at swim meets – teenagers will talk about everything with no care of who’s listening. This is dangerous when you start talking about food and a dietitian is near – my ears perked up immediately and in the seconds that I walked by a conversation, I heard misinformation from the mouths of these stellar athletes – education moment.
I heard that a swimmer was “going vegetarian” because it will help her shoulder. This was an interesting statement. My first thought was – kudos for this kid taking control of her diet. Eating a vegetarian diet is so healthy when done right, but it was hard to know exactly her way of thinking. The increased amount of fruits and vegetables is perfect to help control inflammation that can come with overuse.
If your child is in sports and would like to be a vegetarian, don’t discourage it – get educated and make sure they understand some basic nutrition. Here’s what you need to look out for:
Protein: Protein is one of the 3 macronutrients – the others being fat and carbohydrate. Since animal foods are a main source of protein for most people, those who don’t eat meat should make sure they are getting enough protein. Luckily, there are many sources of plant-based protein and vegetarian-friendly proteins – you just have to make sure you’re eating the right types of foods to get complete proteins.
Animal proteins are complete proteins, which means that they contain all of amino acids you need. For vegetarians, you can get complete proteins from cheese, milk, and eggs. There are some plant-based sources of complete proteins as well – soy and quinoa are the most common.
To make sure you are getting your child enough high-quality protein throughout the day, remember these pairings to make a complementary protein (which means together, they contain all essential amino acids).
- Beans and grains (rice and beans, beans and tortilla)
- Nuts and grains (almond butter on wheat)
- Legumes and grains (PB on wheat)
Iron: Especially for girls who have reached puberty, getting enough iron is absolutely essential. Iron is a main component of hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin carries oxygen to our cells and tissues and myoglobin carries oxygen to muscles. Not enough iron? You get tired, your muscles get tired, your performance declines.
For boys and girls 9-13, the requirement for iron is 8mg per day. This number for girls is flexed a little depending on whether or not she has started her period. A general rule is that at 14 through 18 years, the recommendation for boys is 11 mg/day and for girls, it’s 15 mg. Now, for vegetarian athletes, because the iron from plants is not absorbed as good as iron from animal sources, that number can be increased, up to 1.8 times as much.
Vegetarian sources of iron:
Fortified cereals – check the label, but most will give you 100% of what you need for the day
White beans (1 cup) – 8 mg
Lentils (1/2 cup) – 3 mg
Cooked spinach (1/2 cup) – 3 mg
Kidney beans (1/2 cup) – 2 mg
1 medium baked potato – 2 mg
18 cashews – 2 mg
Calcium: We all know that calcium is good for bones, so then we also know that in order to prevent stress fractures, your athletes need to get enough calcium (and vitamin D – because they work together to strengthen bones – vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption). For most athletes that are in weight-bearing sports (running, jumping, soccer, etc) this is also essential to build strong bones. For those not in weight-bearing sports (swimmers), cross-training is appropriate to help strengthen bones.
Boys and girls, 9-18 need 1,300 mg of calcium each day. The majority of calcium sources are vegetarian-friendly, you just have to get your kids to eat them.
8 ounces yogurt – up to 400 mg
1.5 ounces mozzarella cheese – 300 mg
8 ounces milk – 293 mg
1 cup cooked kale – 93 mg
1 cup raw broccoli – 40 mg
If your young athlete has decided to assert their independence starting with food, give them space to do so. This is a great opportunity for the entire family to get educated on what nutrients might be missing from the diet and how to get them. Remember, good nutrition is essential for performance.
If you are still worried about nutrition, seek out the help of a registered dietitian, who can help assess the diet and catch what’s missing.
Check out these references for more information: