Food News and Facts

Is going vegetarian a bright idea for athletes?

by Alexandra Williams, MA

Running (and Lifting) on Plant Protein

Is going vegetarian a bright idea for athletes?

Whether you're an omnivore or not, it's increasingly likely that some of your clients will be switching from animal- to plant-based food sources, or at least will be changing the ratio they consume. In fact, Mintel Trends reported that 33% of German adults said they were actively cutting back on red meat in 2015, and 19% were incorporating more vegetarian foods into their diets. However, many athletes and trainers have concerns regarding the nutrient adequacy of a vegetarian diet. In what may come as a surprise, researchers at Arizona State now have evidence suggesting that not only can such a diet "adequately support strength and cardiorespiratory fitness development" but it "may even be advantageous for supporting cardiorespiratory fitness," especially among women.

In a cross-sectional study published in the November 2016 issue of Nutrients, these researchers examined the impact of a vegetarian diet on athletic performance. They compared elite endurance athletes - 27 vegetarian and 43 omnivore - by testing VO2max on the treadmill, and strength during leg extensions. They also assessed dietary data using 7-day food logs.

Looking particularly at diet, the authors found that total protein intake was lower among the vegetarians, yet protein intake as a function of body mass didn't differ between the groups. Regarding the VO2max tests, the women who ate a vegetarian diet had better results, while no significant difference existed between the male vegetarians and meat eaters. In the strength measurements during leg extensions, there was also no statistically significant difference between the two diet groups for either gender.

It's true that vitamin B12, creatine, protein, carnitine, iron and zinc are generally less bioavailable in plant versus meat food sources; however, vegetarian diets are typically higher in antioxidants and carbohydrates, which can be beneficial for athletic performance. As stated by the study authors, who called for larger future trials, "many factors affect an athlete's sports performance, and there is no dietary substitute for quality training. However, our study contributes to the literature about cardiorespiratory and strength comparisons between vegetarian and omnivore endurance athletes, and may provide a rationale about the adequacy of vegetarian diets for sport performance."

Kids in the Kitchen

If You Give a Kid a Cooking Class…

If you want children to eat more produce, it may be time for a cooking class. The Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior recently published research conducted by the University of Chicago that evaluated the effect of a "community-based, experiential cooking and nutrition education program" on the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed by students from low-income families. Researchers also hoped to examine the classes' impact on the kids' nutrition knowledge and cooking ability, as well as the family's attitudes and habits related to healthy eating.

The study invited 271 students (94% of whom were eligible for free/reduced lunch) in grades 3-8 to participate in a 10-week chef-led cooking class in their school cafeteria kitchen. Lessons covered a variety of healthy-eating topics, including meal composition and the health benefits and negatives associated with various foods. They also learned kitchen skills, including safety and sanitation, and life skills such as how to decipher a nutrition label. Parents and students completed surveys prior to the program's start and again 6 months after the final class. Questions measured nutrition knowledge ("With what should you fill half your plate?"), food preĀ­ferences ("Number of times vegetables/fruits/chips/soda were consumed yesterday."), attitudes ("Willingness to try new foods.") and behaviors ("Frequency of student helping cook dinner at home."). Results were statistically significant for "vegetable consumption," though the kids did not report liking these foods more. They also saw improvements in "increased nutrition knowledge," "cooking self-efficacy," and "communication about healthy eating." Areas that saw little to no change included chip and soda consumption and "adults cook dinner," though the "child helps cook dinner" number did show a slight increase. Also encouraging: Parents reported that their child's participation in the cooking program increased both family conversations about healthy food and the value the parents placed on eating as a family. The parents also reported a more favorable perception of their own ability to prepare a healthy meal.

While further studies and interventions are, sadly, needed to discover a way to help kids cut back on junk food and soft drinks, this study is very encouraging for those who work with children or have kids of their own.

Give Peas a Chance
(Beans, Too)

Recently, Scandinavian researchers reported that low-protein meals based on legumes (beans and peas) ranked higher in satiety (feelings of fullness) than high-protein meals centered on pork, veal or legumes (Food and Nutrition Research, Oct. 2016). The 43 healthy, young, normal-weight men did say, however, that the high-protein options were more of a feast for the senses, rating them higher in taste, aroma and appearance.

Restaurants Are Taking New Orders

How many calories are in that entree?

You may have heard that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently instituted requirements for certain chain restaurants (those with 20 or more locations) to post calorie information on menus and menu boards, as well as supply written stats on other nutrients (such as saturated fat, fiber, carbs, sugars, protein, and the like) upon request. Having this info readily available will make it somewhat easier for athletes, fitness professionals - everyone, really - to make informed decisions when they order. That's especially powerful when you consider that one-third of Americans' calorie intake typically occurs outside the home.

Though this statute was originally due to take effect on December 1 of last year, that date didn't give eateries the required amount of time to comply. So start looking for these updates around May 5, when the FDA begins enforcing the rules. Note: Affected locations include those that offer take-out, sit-down meals, drive-thru orders, serve-yourself buffets, fresh-baked goodies and movie popcorn, among others.

Special Diets Are On the Rise

What's on your client's grocery list…and why?

In the recent Nielsen Global Health and Ingredient-Sentiment Survey, half of U.S. respondents reported adhering to a restricted diet - one that limits or prohibits certain foods or ingredients. It's only logical to expect that some of these consumers may be looking to fitness professionals for help regarding their grocery list. "Consumers want to eat more healthfully, but they can't do it alone," says Andrew Mandzy, the director of strategic health and wellness insights at Nielsen, which polled more than 30,000 people in 63 countries. The survey sought to understand how consumers feel about the foods and beverages available on store shelves, including those appealing to people with specific dietary restrictions.

Noteworthy U.S. Stats

Among American respondents, the most common category of food restrictions that was reported was "sugar conscious," with 22% reporting a need to limit or avoid foods with sugar. "Low sodium" was next (21%), followed by "low fat" (19%) and "low carbohydrates" (15%). At just 8%, "wheat/gluten free" was lower than might be expected, given the recent media attention, while the category "lactose/dairy free" followed close behind at 7%. Tied at 6% each were "vegetarian" and "flexitarian" (a diet that's plant-based but includes occasional meats). At 4%, Kosher eaters also warrant awareness, as do those who follow a Halal diet, particularly for fitness pros who work with clients in or from the Middle East. Though just 3% of Americans follow a Halal diet, 48% of the African/Middle Eastern respondents said that they do, making it the most commonly cited diet in the survey. At 2%, vegan was the least popular of the special diets, which is an interesting statistic, considering it has garnered more media attention than the more common Halal diet.

Factors Contributing to Healthier Eating

It's helpful to note the four main reasons for a worldwide increase in attention on healthy, clean eating, according to the Nielsen survey:

Global graying. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the growth of the world's older population will outpace that of the younger over the next 35 years.

Chronic health conditions. The leading causes of death and disability - cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, respiratory diseases and cancer - are expected to account for 73% of deaths globally by 2020, up from 60% in 2001.

Food as medicine. Seventy percent of the survey respondents said they actively make dietary choices to help manage or prevent health conditions.

Educated consumers. Modern consumers want transparency regarding where and how their products are made, raised or grown. Nearly 75% feel better about companies that freely supply this information.

By staying informed about dietary trends and restrictions, you can be better prepared to answer client questions on these topics.

The Economics of Food Selection

In collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), the Economic Research Service (ERS) works to apply "behavioral economic theories and concepts to improving food choices." Translation: Together, they look at how finances affect what we put on our plate.

To support that goal, the ERS has established two university-based research centers: The New Duke-UNC-USDA Center for Behavioral Economics and Healthy Food Choice Research, and the USDA Behavioral Economics/Child Nutrition Research Initiative (BECR) at Cornell.

The BECR Center will "facilitate innovative research on the application of behavioral economic theory to healthy food-choice behaviors that would enhance the nutrition, food security, and health of American consumers," while the Behavioral Initiative focuses specifically on "identifying behavioral economic-based strategies to encourage children to select and consume the healthy foods available to them through USDA's National School Lunch Program and its other child nutrition programs."

The research that comes from these two centers will help fitness pros understand what behavioral interventions can best be used with clients to improve their dietary choices. Visit for info from the children's research studies, and for news about BECR Center research findings.

Breakfast: It's Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

According to the National Restaurant Association, 72% of all adults wish they could order breakfast throughout the day. This news might create opportunities for fitness pros who help clients with eating plans, sell food in their facilities,
or are asking clients to create a food journal. Maybe it's time to expand your coffee offerings or make fresh juices available at the club all day. Perhaps it's an opportunity to recommend whole-grain toast or high-fiber cereal for "breakfast-supper" instead of fatty meat. And for those who like to cook, it could be the perfect time to offer a class on creating quick and easy breakfasts that can be packed for lunch or quickly assembled at dinner. AF

Meet our experts

AFM_Author_Williams Alexandra Williams, MA, A writer and editor, as well as a lecturer at UC Santa Barbara in the department of Exercise Studies, Sport and Recreation. She is a vegetarian who cooks and bakes from scratch. Find her at

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