How to Fuel with Dietary Restrictions

By Ashleigh Libs | Oct. 02, 2017, 4:05 p.m. (ET)
vegetables and nuts
Do you have a dietary restriction that affects how you fuel for triathlon? You’re not alone. Many athletes have dietary restrictions for medical (allergies, intolerances, other gastrointestinal issues), personal or cultural/religious reasons, and these restrictions greatly impact food choices. Dietary restrictions can be of particular concern for individuals with high-caloric needs such as endurance athletes.

The Why

Common personal and/or medical restrictions:

  • Vegetarian or vegan
  • Dairy-free
  • Gluten-free
  • Paleo

Common cultural/religious restrictions:

  • Hinduism: typically, no meat entirely; however, some only refrain from beef
  • Buddhism: no meat
  • Muslim: follow Halaal
  • Judaism: must be kosher

Fuel Adequately

Athletes with food restrictions have a greater concern for getting enough calories, protein and vitamins/minerals, especially if they have more than one restriction (e.g. gluten-free and dairy-free). As an athlete, it is important to understand which nutrients are contained in the food or food group eliminated so you can incorporate other foods with those nutrients. Here are six common nutrients of concern for a variety of dietary restrictions, plus key food sources to include in your diet.

Iron

  • Common deficiency for vegetarians, vegans
  • Sources: spinach, asparagus, tofu, lentils, pumpkin seeds and soy beans
  • Tip: To enhance absorption, consume vitamin C and carotenes along with iron-rich foods (example: juiced citrus fruit on a spinach salad).

Calcium

  • Common deficiency for vegans, dairy-free, paleo
  • Sources: Leafy greens, tofu, nuts, kidney beans, calcium-fortified cereals, soy and rice beverages, and juices
  • Tip: The body can absorb about the same amount of calcium from fortified products as it does with the calcium from milk.

Vitamin D

  • Common deficiency for vegans, dairy-free
  • Sources: Fortified foods such as soy milk, juices and cereals
  • Tip: A daily supplement is often necessary for vegans, especially in the winter months.

Omega-3 fatty acids

  • Common deficiency for vegans
  • Sources: Ground flaxseed, chia seeds, canola oil, soy milk
  • Tip: Studies have indicated omega-3 supplementation could be beneficial in endurance athletes to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress related to exercise.

Zinc

  • Common deficiency for vegans, gluten-free
  • Sources: Whole grains, legumes, soy products and fortified cereals
  • Tip: The vegan diet often has a high phytate content, which is a compound that can bind to zinc. This means vegans often require a higher intake of zinc since it cannot be used by the body when it is attached to phytate.

Fiber

  • Common deficiency for gluten-free, paleo
  • Sources: Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, apples, berries, pears, prunes), nuts and seeds
  • Tip: Specific to gluten-free, incorporate gluten-free whole grains such as amaranth, buckwheat, oats (certified gluten-free) or quinoa and legumes/beans.

It’s important to remember that athletes with food restrictions are still able to perform at a high level when they prioritize nutrition. Working with a registered dietitian can help ensure each individual receives high-quality protein and nutrient-rich whole foods to prevent vitamin/mineral deficiencies.

“Over the years of working with endurance athletes, vegan diets have proved to be the most restrictive concerning calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iron and B-12,” says Susan Kitchen, registered dietitian and USA Triathlon Certified Level II Endurance Coach. “Historically, adequate quality protein post-workout has been a challenge. Recently, vegan products have emerged on the market that offer on-the-go options.”

Regardless of food restrictions, athletes are encouraged to stick to familiar training and race-day fueling habits.

Still have questions? Utilizing a certified sports dietitian (CSSD) can help you ensure that you're getting enough of the right nutrients and can also customize fueling techniques according to any dietary restrictions.

Ashleigh Libs is currently a master’s student in nutrition with a sports concentration at the University of Utah. She received her bachelor’s degree in dietetics, with a minor in psychology, from the University of Dayton (Ohio). She has experience working with the University of Louisville’s football team and the University of Dayton’s soccer, women’s volleyball and baseball teams. Her goal is to help people/athletes discover what works for them nutritionally to reach their performance goals. You can get in touch with Ashleigh by emailing her at ashleighlibs17@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.