If you’re like most people, you want to perform at your best. Setting PRs is important to you. Making a difference in your career is a top priority. If you’re not pushing yourself, you’ll never know what you’re capable of accomplishing.
There are certain nutrients that are essential for peak athletic performance and cognition that are only available in animal foods, such as meat, fish, and dairy. This means that if you are a vegetarian or eat a low-meat diet, you may be missing out on reaching your true potential.
In light of the popularity of low-meat and plant-based diets, this article will highlight the key performance nutrients that are only available in animal protein. You’ll learn how they can boost performance (both cognitive and physical) and how to get them into your diet (supplement options and food based).
Creatine is formed from the amino acids arginine and glycine and it serves as an energy reserve in the body for short-term, intense exercise, such as weight lifting or sprinting. Studies show that making sure you get enough creatine has the power to enhance all of the following:
- Increase work capacity and delay fatigue (5 to 15 percent increase in work performance).
- Raise training volume and intensity for easier fat loss and greater muscle growth.
- Enhance aerobic and anaerobic performance (1 to 5 percent increase in sprint performance).
Additionally, stress depletes creatine stores in the brain and getting extra can help you stay sharp and maintain cognitive awareness when under pressure. It has also been shown to have therapeutic benefits, reducing heart arrhythmias, improving injury recovery, reducing arthritis, and lowering triglycerides and LDL cholesterol.
The body can produce a small amount of creatine, but this amount is not enough for peak athletic performance or optimal cognition. Meat eaters are generally able to get adequate creatine from their diet, however, they may see small performance enhancement from supplementation, depending on the type and quality of training and muscle fiber distribution. For example, anaerobic athletes like sprinters or football players who have a high percentage of type 2 muscle fibers will experience a greater increase in muscle creatine levels than an endurance athlete with a high percentage of type 1 fibers.
Vegetarians can benefit much more from supplementing with creatine than meat eaters. One study found that vegetarians had much lower muscle creatine levels than omnivores at baseline. When they supplemented with creatine for 8 weeks in conjunction with a heavy training program, the vegetarians increased muscle creatine content much more than the meat eaters (who also took creatine).
Vegetarians had higher training volume and work capacity, which produced greater gains in lean muscle mass and strength than the meat eaters (they increased type 2 fiber area by 4 percent and type 1 fiber area by 2 percent compared to the meat eaters who increased both by 1 percent).
Scientists believe that an increase of at least 20 mmol of creatine in the muscle is necessary to see a change in performance. All the vegetarians in the above study achieved this threshold increase with supplementation.
Creatine supplementation can also benefit brain function. In two studies, creatine supplementation benefited cognition in vegetarians compared to omnivores so that vegetarians improved working memory and intelligence.
Take Away: Studies show vegetarians are deficient in creatine. Supplementing with a relatively small dose of 3 to 5 grams of creatine a day can equalize the playing field with omnivores and radically improve muscle and brain function.
Carnosine is a compound formed from two amino acids, histidine and beta-alanine. Carnosine can boost intense exercise performance by buffering lactate production that is a byproduct of intense exercise. Lactate buildup coincides with increased muscle acidity, hindering function. When you’re muscles burn from running up the stairs or doing overhead presses during training, that’s due to lactate buildup.
Studies show that omnivorous strength and power athletes, such as sprinters, have higher muscle carnosine content than aerobic athletes, suggesting that training and greater type 2 muscle fiber content increase the ability to store carnosine. Studies also show that vegetarians are deficient in carnosine, with an average 26 percent lower muscle carnosine content than meat eaters.
Carnosine is completely absent from the vegetarian diet and the only source for vegetarians is through uracil degradation from phospholipids—a pathway with very poor rate of production. Therefore, vegetarians can benefit from increasing their intake of beta-alanine—the precursor to carnosine.
To date, there are no studies testing the effect of beta alanine supplementation in vegetarians, but we do know that individuals who are classified as high-responders (those who experience a significant increase in muscle carnosine content from supplementation) tend to experience large performance and body composition benefits compared to low responders.
In one study of female rowers, those who were high responders improved rowing speed, aerobic capacity, and anaerobic threshold substantially more than low responders. High responders were able to continue their effort for a longer period at a high-intensity during the middle of the race (after the first 500 meter split of a 2,000 meter race), suggesting delayed fatigue and greater ability to cope with the pain of acidosis.
Take Away: Because carnosine is found strictly in animal foods (fish, beef, poultry are highest) being vegetarian can hurt your muscle buffering capacity and reduce athletic performance. Supplementing with beta alanine is the easy solution. Try between 1.6 and 6 g a day if you want to triple your athletic performance and optimize brain function.
#3: Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient found only in animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. It’s necessary for optimal brain and nerve function and is involved in the development of red blood cells.
Vitamin B12 is of special relevance for athletes because of the role it plays in energy metabolism via production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Additionally, B12 can affect strength and power performance because it maintains the sheath that coats nerve fibers. If these nerve fibers are altered, conduction of nervous signals is interrupted, causing reduced neuromuscular function.
In the general population, a B12 deficiency is also linked with psychiatric disorders, Alzheimer’s, heart disease risk, poor brain function, and fatigue.
Meat eaters and lacto-ovo vegetarians rarely have trouble getting adequate B12, but vegans and restrictive eaters are at risk of deficiency. Vitamin B12 can be gotten from a supplement or nori seaweed. Processed foods such as cereal, bread, and soy products, including tempeh and tofu, tend to have B12 added to them.
Take Away: Although vitamin B12 deficiency is not a problem for most athletes, vegans must supplement for peak health and optimal performance. Vegetarian sources of B12 are eggs, dairy, seaweed, soy, cereal, and bread (check the ingredient list to make sure since not all brands are fortified).
#4: EPA and DHA Fish Oil
EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids that are best known for being available in fish, however, they are also available in grass-fed meat. EPA and DHA reduce inflammation, play a role in cognition and mood, and can accelerate recovery from intense training.
For example, one review found that trained athletes may benefit more than untrained individuals from optimizing DHA and EPA intake. In one study, trained athletes who supplemented with 3 grams of EPA and DHA daily had less waste production in response to intense eccentric exercise than a placebo group.
Scientists believe optimizing EPA and DHA levels can lead to less DOMS muscle soreness, improve protein synthesis, and enhance energy use and fat metabolism. EPA and DHA are especially recommended for athletes who are under extreme physical and environmental stress, such as volleyball athletes on a calorie-restricted diet or distance runners competing at high altitudes or in extreme heat or cold.
Vegetarians get virtually zero EPA and DHA directly from the diet, however, the body can manufacture both from another omega-3 fatty acid, ALA. ALA is available in flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. The one drawback to relying on seeds for EPA and DHA is that the conversion rate is terribly inefficient and doesn’t raise levels enough even for non-athletes to reach peak health. Vegetarian athletes or anyone who doesn’t eat fish and grass-fed meat frequently are unlikely to get enough EPA and DHA.
Omnivores can supplement with fish oil or eat fatty fish, such as salmon, two to three times a week. Vegetarians can supplement with algae and increase intake of ALA, either by supplementing, eating walnuts, or adding ground flax and chia seeds to the diet.
Take Away: Everyone can benefit from getting adequate EPA and DHA in the diet. Vegetarians are especially susceptible to low levels, which may impair recovery and peak adaptations from training.
Carnitine is a compound that plays a critical role in energy production, transporting fatty acids into cells to be burned for energy. Its name is derived from the Latin word carnus, which means “flesh” because it is only available in meat.
Vegetarians and people with type 2 diabetics or who have a deranged metabolism are at risk of carnitine deficiency. For these populations, supplementing with carnitine can improve fat burning and metabolic function, for better body composition, improved insulin sensitivity, and less inflammation.
Interestingly, even in meat eaters who are not deficient in carnitine, supplementation can improve exercise performance and muscle function. One study found that when trained triathletes took 2 grams of carnitine twice a day for 24 weeks, they increased cycling performance by 11 percent compared to a placebo.
The athletes also increased work output by 35 percent and burned more fat for fuel, while sparing glycogen. Lactate and RPE levels were significantly lower than the placebo group, indicating that carnitine supplementation reduced fatigue and allowed the athletes better training tolerance.
Other benefits of carnitine supplementation include less lactate buildup and greater androgen receptor content, both of which will help to mediate a faster recovery.
In addition, other studies show carnitine supplementation can improve cognition and motivation by improving neurotransmitter levels associated with focus and drive.
Beef is by far the richest source of carnitine, providing between 87 and 162 mg in a 4 oz. serving. Chicken has 3 to 5 mg in 4 ounces and cod contains 4 to 7 mg in 4 ounces. Other meat and dairy products contain small amounts as well.
Take Away: If you are a vegetarian or don’t eat beef, supplementing with carnitine may enhance athletic performance. Be aware that studies show that for omnivores to benefit from increasing carnitine intake, long-term supplementation is necessary (the study done on triathletes mentioned above was a 6 month study). Try 2 to 4 grams a day.