The key is not to just remove meat, but to replace it, says D. Enette Larson-Meyer, PhD, RD, author of Vegetarian Sports Nutrition. "The biggest mistake people make when they change up their animal-eating habits," says Larson-Meyer, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Wyoming, "is that they'll go from filling their plate with steak, potatoes and a salad to just potatoes and a salad. You have to think, at least until it becomes second nature, What should I eat to replace what I was getting [nutritionally] from the meat? Then put a big scoop of beans and rice on your plate."
Follow these eating recommendations so your body isn't asking midride, "Where's the beef?"
DON'T SKIMP ON CALORIES
Vegetarian diets tend to be high in fiber-rich foods that fill you up without providing much caloric energy. That can be a problem when you're burning 2,000 calories on a long ride or race. "Choose some foods that are more refined and calorie-dense," advises Larson-Meyer. "For instance, if you're having whole vegetables, choose white rice or pasta rather than whole-grain. This will help you get the easily accessible energy you need."
CHOOSE COMPLETE PROTEINSLegumes, grains, nuts and seeds are adequate sources of protein, but individually they aren't complete. This means they contain some, but not all, essential amino acids. To compensate, choose plant-protein sources that complement each other. "We do this naturally by eating beans and rice, and nut butters and bread," says Larson-Meyer. "But if you're doing hard training that's breaking down a lot of muscle, it's wise to eat from a wide variety of these sources to make sure you get all the amino acids you need."
ABSORB MORE IRONThe iron in plant foods, such as spinach, Swiss chard, nuts and whole grains, is harder for your body to absorb than iron from animal sources. So when vegetarians become iron deficient it's usually because they're not absorbing it well. "There are many tricks that help make plant iron more accessible," says Larson-Meyer. Organic acids, like ascorbic (vitamin C) and citric (in citrus fruits), significantly improve absorption. Drizzle citrus vinaigrette on your leafy greens, chase a meal with orange slices and smother your burrito in tomato-rich salsa.
BULK UP ON B12If you eat dairy products, you need not worry about getting enough vitamin B12, which is essential for nerve function (nerve damage from B12 deficiency is irreversible) and for your body to create oxygen-carrying red blood cells. But if you go vegan, you'll need to consume a range of B12-rich foods like fortified whole-grain cereals, textured vegetable protein and fortified soy milk. Or take a multivitamin.
CONSIDER CREATINECreatine, which is abundant in beef, pork and fish, is essential for building strength and generating power for sprints and climbs. Research shows that creatine stores are lower in the muscles of vegetarians than in non-vegetarians. But studies have shown that vegetarians perform just as well as meat-eating athletes, and some world-class sprint athletes, including Carl Lewis, have competed on meatless diets. If you do sprint-type riding and are concerned that you're not getting enough creatine, you may benefit from a supplement, says Larson-Meyer. The recommended dose is five grams a day.
Savory SubstitutesHow to keep your hearty meal hearty—without the meat
IN YOUR / REPLACE THE / WITH
Taco / Ground beef / Lentils and cheese
Lasagna / Ground beef / Black beans
Burger bun / Beef or turkey patty / A patty of lentils, pinto and garbanzo beans
Pasta / Chopped chicken / Tofu, pressed in paper towels then marinated
Stir-fry / Pork / Seitan (wheat meat)