Vegetarian bodybuilding diets should focus on getting enough of the critical vitamins and nutrients in their diets.
Since vitamin B-12 is not naturally produced by either plants or animals, it needs to be closely monitored by vegetarians. In addition to B-12, there are several other critical vitamins that must be present in the blood to provide the nutrients your body needs for daily performance.
Athletes who are vegetarian must pay even closer attention to their vitamin intake, since their bodies undergo more stress and exertion than the average person.
Let’s examine a few vitamin deficiencies common among vegetarians and what you can do to maintain sufficient blood levels of these crucial vitamins. When you deprive your body of the vitamins it needs to perform at the gym, you’re putting it at risk of developing more serious health conditions.
Vitamin B-12 Deficiency
People can become vitamin B-12 deficient for a variety of reasons: old age, use of antacids, side effects of prescription medications, bacterial infections, and meatless diets.
According to Dr. Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, bacteria are responsible for producing vitamin B-12, and plants and animals only get vitamin B-12 when contaminated by this strand of bacteria.
Vitamin B-12 is essential to your health for:
- Proper digestion
- Nervous system functioning
- Regulation and formation of red blood cells
- Immune system functioning
- Mental clarity and concentration
- Physical energy
- Adrenal hormone production
Vitamin B-12 is incredibly important during pregnancy and lactation for infants, as well as for athletes who push their bodies to the limit. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends vitamin B-12 supplement tablets or monthly vitamin B-12 shots to treat severe cases of deficiency.
A lack of vitamin B-12 can lead to a condition known as pernicious anemia, which is characterized by a lack of healthy red blood cells and enlargement of existing cells. According to the National Institutes of Health, this condition occurs when the body destroys cells that make a special protein, intrinsic factor, which is released by cells in the stomach. Red blood cells are essential because they provide oxygen to the body’s tissues.
Although symptoms are often mild or nonexistent, NIH suggests that the following symptoms can be associated with both vitamin B-12 deficiency and pernicious anemia:
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Fatigue or paleness
- Loss of appetite
- Shortness of breath during exercise
- Swollen red tongue or bleeding gums
- Confusion or depression
- Numbness or tingling of the extremities
Vegetarians who spend a great deal of time in the gym may notice a decrease in energy and motivation when their B-12 levels are low. Fortunately, there are healthy ways to boost those levels back up.
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vegetarians, people who have milk allergies, and those who don’t get enough sunlight could be at risk of vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is essential in building and repairing strong bones, because it helps the body utilize dietary calcium.
Low levels of the vitamin have been associated with cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment in elderly adults, severe asthma in children, cancer, and diabetes. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the average person needs between 1,000 and 2,000 IU of vitamin D per day from the sun, diet, and supplements.
Researchers at Harvard also suggested that the elderly, people with dark skin, and those who are obese can benefit the most from vitamin D supplements. People living in northern latitudes (anyone living north of an imaginary line drawn from San Francisco to Philadelphia in America) can benefit from supplements between the months of October and February. Spending time exercising outdoors in sunlight is one of the best natural ways to boost vitamin D in your body.
Vegetarians who are physically active can also benefit from vitamin D supplements. The best way to measure if you have a vitamin D deficiency is by taking a 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test. Healthy people have levels of 30 ng/mL to 74 ng/ML, and levels below this range indicate a deficiency. Read more about the test at A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia on PubMed Health.
Calcium helps the body maintain strong bones and teeth. The Dietitian’s Guide to Vegetarian Diets cites 45 medical studies that have examined the calcium intakes of vegetarians. Although milk and dairy foods are most often associated with calcium, dark green vegetables are great sources of calcium when consumed in high quantities.
Effects Upon Bodybuilders and Athletes
Since bodybuilders, fitness enthusiasts, and athletes work off a higher percentage of the foods they eat, these individuals must pay even closer attention to their daily vitamin intake. If you have a vitamin B-12 deficiency, you may feel fatigue and a lack of physical energy. If you have a vitamin D deficiency, you may experience bone pain and muscle weakness.
Both of these deficiencies have been linked to cardiovascular problems, so your heart could have trouble keeping up with you during strenuous workouts. The Health Science Center at the University of Florida suggests that vegetarians can boost their heart health by planning their diets wisely.
Vegetarian athletes should bulk up their vitamin B-12 intake with fortified cereals and soy, rice, or almond milk for heart health. Vegetarians can also keep their hearts healthy with plant-based omega-3 fatty acid foods like soy, broccoli, and cauliflower.
Vitamin B-12 deficiency is also linked to low bone density, which is needed to support prolonged exercise. According to a “New York Times” health guide, excessive exercise, such as that performed by marathon runners, can lead to iron loss and a specific type of anemia. Although dried beans and green vegetables contain lots of iron, it is often less easily absorbed than the type of iron contained in meat. Therefore, vegetarian athletes need to ensure that they are eating enough iron-rich foods to compensate for their high level of exercise.
Blood Type and Diet
After the book of naturopath physician, Peter D’Adamo, Eat Right 4 Your Type, was published in 1996, people began considering the link between blood type and diet. According to his blood type diet recommendations, people with Type A blood (39% of the population) are best suited for vegetarianism. Meanwhile, people with Type O blood (46% of the population) are genetically predisposed to require meat, and people with Type B blood are somewhere in the middle.
Like any nutritional recommendation, the blood type diet has its fair share of critics. However, you may want to consider your blood type when planning out your vegetarian meals. If you have Type O blood in particular, you should look into supplementing your vegetarian diet with the aforementioned crucial vitamins.
Meatless Foods Rich in Vitamin B-12
- Soy milk
- Red Star T-6635+ brand nutritional yeast
- Wheat gluten and soybean-based meat substitutes
- Organically-grown spinach
- Vitamin B-12 fortified breakfast cereals
- Spirulina (vegan)
Meatless Foods Rich in Vitamin D
- Milk fortified with vitamin D
- Orange juice fortified with vitamin D
- Egg yolks
- White and shiitake mushrooms
Meatless Foods Rich in Calcium
- Almond butter
- Soy milk
- Dried beans
- Chocolate pudding
Vitamin B-12 and vitamin D are not frequently found in foods, and even less frequently in vegetarian-friendly foods. Therefore, vegetarians are advised to supplement their diets with these two vitamins, at a minimum. The Mayo Clinic suggests that vegetarians pay close attention to these dietary nutrients as well:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf, MD, who practices in Iowa, refers to vitamin B-12 as “the energy vitamin” because it is critical for so many bodily functions. Vitamin B-12 is necessary for energy production, DNA synthesis, nerve communication, and blood formation. Anemia caused by lack of vitamin B-12 and iron results in lower capacity for exercise, preventing you from reaching your fitness potential.
Fortunately, vitamin deficiencies are preventable and treatable, especially when detected early. Pay close attention to how your body feels when you’re at the gym and during times of rest. And keep in mind: the more variety you bring to your vegetarian diet, the more likely you’ll be able to meet all your nutritional needs.