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Can you succeed in sport on a specialist diet?

Woman running on sand

Are specialist diets any barrier to staying fit?

With the summer running and sports season upon us, most people getting fit are also considering their sports nutrition.

Enthusiasts may be considering carb-loading for endurance, high protein diets with plenty of meat, perhaps boosting their calories with gels or shakes, or eating "clean". So can people with a more specialist diet - such as vegetarians and vegans - still compete?

The evidence from top athletes suggests they can.

Fuel for fitness:

Chargrilled courgette

Chargrill courgette with zingy flavours

Cook a split pea dahl full of protein and flavour

Eat clean by trying a wild rice salad

Fiona Oakes, a vegan since she was six, has just won the women's title in the North Pole Marathon, where runners compete in conditions as low as -30C, where a medical team was on standby for frostbite and marshals kept an eye out for polar bears.

She describes the "self-sufficiency endurance test" as "the most extreme thing I've done".

"The consequences of running in these temperatures are a very technical and logistically finely balanced thing," she explains.

"There are nutritional problems - when do you eat, what do you eat - it needs to be a military operation."

Whether a marathon runner, ultra runner, cyclist, or triathlete, different disciplines can mean different dietary requirements, explains sports nutritionist Jo Scott-Dalgleish.

"I work with endurance athletes and they need carbs, it's extremely important," she says.

Fiona Oakes finishing the North Pole marathon Fiona Oakes competes to raise awareness for her animal sanctuary
Fiona Oakes finishing the North Pole marathon She says the North Pole marathon saw her survive on flapjacks in -30C
Fiona Oakes finishing the North Pole marathon Fiona took the women's title proving a vegan diet can sustain endurance runners

"It's about getting a good balance of carbs, protein and fats. You need all three to support energy use, and carbs provide energy, and proteins and fats enable your muscles to recover afterwards, and you need a good selection of micronutrients and vitamins," she explains.

In the Arctic, Fiona Oakes had to carefully judge her intake of food and fluids. If she ate or drank too much, she'd have needed to stop for the toilet in freezing conditions, risking frostbite. Consume too little and she'd have run out of energy.

Portion sizes:

Dumbbells made of fruit

When exercising, one study recommends an energy intake of:

  • Greater than 50 kcal per kg per day for male athletes who train for more than 90 minutes a day
  • Forty-five to 50 kcal per kg per day for female athletes who train for more than 90 minutes day

Source: Nutritional practices of elite athletes study

Her solution was to eat basic, vegan, flapjack bars. "I'd eat one every three hours," she explains.

In recent years, vegetarian and vegan athletes have begun to stand out.

British cyclist Lizzie Armitstead, who is vegetarian, won silver at London 2012 in the road cycling race.

But diet remains something that all athletes, elite or non-competitive, have to consider.

''When talented, motivated and highly trained athletes meet for competition the margin between victory and defeat is usually small," reported Professor Ron Maughan in a seminal 2002 research paper The athlete's diet: nutritional goals and dietary strategies, which has been widely cited since.

"When everything else is equal, nutrition can make the difference between winning and losing," he declared.

However "diet is still an evolving science when it comes to sports nutrition", says Adharanand Finn, journalist, runner and author of Running with the Kenyans.

Apple in a glass and small football and glass of crisps A 'clean' diet high in natural foods is favoured by sports nutritionists

For example, "the traditional view is that carbohydrates are key for endurance athletes and I certainly eat a fairly high carbohydrate diet," he explains.

But there is also a view that vegetarian athletes may not get enough protein without eating meat, or in vegans' case, all meat and dairy products.

"I'm actually vegetarian and so omit meat and fish from my diet. This has never caused me any problems and there are lots of examples of successful vegetarian sportspeople," says Mr Finn.

Food for thought:

Healthy meal of mackerel, potatoes, steamed carrots and broccoli, tsp of spread

Is this the healthiest meal you could eat?

What does the body need for sport?

Rise of the 'semi-vegetarians'

What did athletes eat in 1948?

He has spent months living with world-class distance runners in training camps in Kenya.

"In all that time they only served meat once. The diet in a Kenyan training camp is very simple. Most days breakfast is just tea and a slice of bread. Lunch is rice, and beans with potatoes, carrots etc. Occasionally they'll have an avocado with it, too. Then supper is ugali (basically maize flour and water) and stewed kale. That's it. The same virtually every day.

"The athletes like to stick to their traditional diet - it has done them so well up to now, why change it?"

Fiona Oakes, who runs Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary in Essex when not competing, says she tends to "eat a lot of nuts, pasta rice, vegetables, fresh foods, and get protein from natural sources".

When she competed in the Marathon Des Sables, which was 154 miles (247km) across the Sahara over six days and in temperatures of up to 50C, she had to carry all her own food.

Who eats what:

  • Vegetarians do not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or by-products of slaughter.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat both dairy products and eggs; this is the most common type of vegetarian diet.
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid eggs.
  • Pescatarians will include fish and/or shellfish in their diet but not meat.
  • Vegans do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other products which are derived from animals.
  • Omnivores eat animal products and food from plants.
  • Meat reducers eat less meat on ethical and environmental grounds
  • Semi or demi-vegetarians will occasionally include meat or poultry.

"I took pine nuts - and was the first vegan woman to ever do that race. For 100g of pine nuts I got 700 calories - they were lightweight and nutrient dense," she says.

The requirements for vegan athletes are much the same as for all vegans and for the rest of the population, says Sam Calvert from the Vegan Society.

In fact a Current Sports Medicine Reports study says: "To maximise performance, recovery, endurance and resistance to illness, enhanced intake of beans, greens, seeds, nuts, whole grains, and other colourful plant products are recommended. These same suggestions also are important for the non-vegan athlete."

For vegetarians and vegans, 15% of calories should be from protein, says Jo Scott-Dalgleish, which means thinking of every snack "as a protein snack".

"Protein is not likely to be a problem on a well-planned vegan diet - as many people think it might be," explains Ms Calvert.

"But (every)one must be careful of consuming protein from whole food sources, and to guard against too much protein, which can also lead to health issues," she says.

The Vegan Society only recommends adding a B12 supplement.

Tour de France food:

France's Thomas Voeckler in the Tour De France

Why cyclists need a mountain of 6,000 calories

For some athletes, their specialist diet may be needed for health reasons - such as those who suffer with coeliac disease or who are gluten intolerant leaving out wheat-based products.

"They need to avoid certain foods with gluten (some breads, for example) but they still need carbohydrates - they just need to find certain alternative sources," says Jo Scott-Dalgleish.

She recommends they try to get carbohydrates from buckwheat, quinoa, rice or starchy vegetables such as sweet potato.

"I don't work specifically on 'eat this many calories'," she explains, "but it is quite good to have a rough idea how many you are eating.

"I focus on quality, and recommend a very clean diet with very healthy foods."

Walnuts Walnuts can provide a "protein snack"

"Any diet can be a good diet and any diet can be a bad diet, you need to eat sensibly and be well-adjusted, to get the nutrients you need," says Ms Oakes.

But most importantly, she says "listen to your body".

She has run with marathon legend Haile Gebrselassie and says "he's in to making his own sports drinks, he knows what he needs".

"I'm not going to dictate, but for any athlete interested in the possibility of going vegan, I've done it, so perhaps it is. People might think you can't have fitness, strength, and be physical but it is possible."

As one study says: "There is no special food that will help elite athletes perform better; the most important aspect of the diet of elite athletes is that it follows the basic guidelines for healthy eating.''

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