How to Transition to a Vegetarian Diet

Considering becoming a vegetarian to improve your running performance? You're on the right track since experts agree that vegetarian diets have been shown to improve weight, health and athletic performance. In fact, the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada endorsed vegetarian diets for sports training in their 2009 Nutrition and Athletic Performance Position Statement. You're also in good company with numerous elite vegetarian athletes, including Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis and national marathon champion Jane Welzel.

It can be challenging to make the switch to a vegetarian diet. As a runner, you're likely concerned about how a plant-based diet will impact your performance. Theoretically, when plant-based training and competition diets are carefully selected they can actually be superior to meat-based regimens. Vegetarian diets provide simple and complex fuel necessary for all types of distance running. In addition, they are loaded with phytochemicals--healthy compounds that help to protect body and muscle cells and assist with building strength, extending endurance and enhancing recovery. Low in fat and moderate in protein, most vegetarian regimens ensure an ideal balance of nutrients essential for endurance running.

Getting Started

A spectrum of vegetarian diets exist that vary based on what foods are permissible. In fact, on some levels of vegetarianism you can even eat chicken, fish and eggs. Experiment with different diets to find the one that is best for you. Adopting a vegetarian lifestyle is a gradual progression, requiring dedication on your behalf to learn nutritional guidelines, recipes and food substitutes. Don't rush into removing all non-vegetarian foods from your diet right away. The best way to begin is to incorporate familiar vegetarian meals into your diet more frequently. Some examples include cereal and milk, rice and beans, pasta with red sauce, and fruit salad with yogurt. Keep in mind that not all of our meal guidelines will fit your specific diet and may require you to substitute one type of food for another.

To make it easy, look for convenience foods such as ready-to-eat soups, meals, portable bars, shakes and snacks available at health food stores such as Whole Foods. Although expensive, prepared foods are easy to make and can help you stick with your diet during your transition. Consider grilled tofu, frozen or canned soups and chilies, and alternative beef or chicken skewers--all satisfying and loaded with carbs, protein, vitamins and minerals. If you're craving fast food, substitute a hamburger and fries with a veggie burger (found in the frozen section of grocery stores) and baked fries.

A Balancing Act

Mastering the art of balancing healthy plant-based foods is essential for optimum performance. While healthy plant-based diets can offer generous amounts of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, healthy fats and protein, those who practice poorly can run short  in iron, calcium, zinc, B12 and essential amino acids.

You can meet protein requirements with adequate amounts of soy, seitan (wheat-based protein) hemp, almonds, seeds and beans. In addition, eat foods rich in essential omega-3 fatty acids such as fish, soy, almonds, pistachios, flax or algae sources. Vegetarians have no problem getting enough carbs with the multitude of grains, veggies, fruits, nonfat dairy and dairy substitutes. When vitamin-rich foods such as meat are eliminated from the diet, consume alternative plant-based sources, fortified foods or a supplement to prevent deficiencies from impacting performance.

If you're still concerned about deficiencies in your diet, visit a registered dietitian (RD) who specializes in vegetarian sports nutrition. Go online or buy a vegetarian sports nutrition guide/cookbook to learn recipes and nutritional guidelines. Making your meals from scratch will also help to save costs. In the meantime, follow our menu guide above for inspiration to get started. Remember, becoming a vegetarian should be a fun experience, not a restrictive ordeal. Have fun trying out new recipes and learning the ins and outs of your new diet. Most importantly, take pride in making a positive step to a healthier you.

Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC, is director of Sports Nutrition and Performance at the University of Miami. Her new book The Reunion Diet: Lose Weight and Look Great at Your Reunion and Beyond (Sunrise River Press, 2010) is available on her Web site,, and in bookstores.

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