Q&A: Vegetarianism and sports performance with Caraigh McGuinness

Caraigh McGuinness is a fitness fan studying nutrition at University. She’s also a recent conversion to a vegetarian diet. In this Q&A, we chat with her about her lifestyle switch, the impact it’s had on performance, her nutrition tips and more.

The interview

Hey Caraigh, thanks for joining us! Briefly introduce yourself…

Hi, I am Caraigh. I am a final year Nutrition student at Liverpool Hope University.

You’ve recently become a vegetarian, what was your main reason for this?

Before becoming a vegetarian, I rarely ate or bought meat. I would only really opt for a meat dish when eating out or for special occasions. I thought, how could you possibly turn down a Christmas dinner?

After studying and reading up on the health benefits of vegetarianism, I challenged myself with following a plant-based diet for January (2020). Various studies have shown that following a plant-based diet can result in a reduced risk of heart disease, strokes, certain cancers, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Have you felt any difference since?

I would say I have felt a difference in myself since turning vegetarian. There are other factors such as training intensity, sleep, and recovery. Although, I find myself having more energy and motivation. My recovery period when training has reduced, and I haven’t built up any injuries from training (just yet).

Studies have shown that due to the high content of antioxidants and phytonutrients present in a plant-based diet, there is reduced inflammation and oxidative stress in the muscles of vegetarian or vegan athletes. Therefore enhancing recovery!

So, you play a lot of sport and do a lot of exercise; how do you feel your performance has been impacted by going vegetarian?

In my own opinion, I would say it has improved. It is a common misconception that you need animal products to build muscle. However, if you obtain your product from plant-protein sources (such as nuts, pulses, grains), you do not need meat to develop optimum strength or fitness.

You have just completed your nutrition degree at Liverpool University. For those who don’t know what nutrition really means or includes, how would you summarise it? 

Nutrition is a broad and topical subject in today’s society. In my course, we were taught the science behind nutrients such as fats, carbohydrates, protein, minerals, vitamins and water. We now research how these nutrients affect our bodies in relation to health and disease. An important part of a nutrition degree is to be able to translate this scientific evidence into easy and practical advice that the public can take onboard.

I personally think sports nutrition is massively undervalued and misunderstood topic for most people who exercise. How would you rate the general perception of the impact of good nutrition?

I agree! I believe the significance of fuelling and re-fuelling correctly should be highlighted for individuals when training. Think of your body as like a car – our car needs fuel to start, to drive and to get us where we want to be. A car also needs a specific type of fuel, either petrol or diesel, to run efficiently. Just like a car, our bodies should be fuelled appropriately with foods to train and compete.

What are your top three nutrition tips for before, during and after exercise?

Before: 30mins before exercise try to eat something light and wholesome – I always go for a banana!

During: Keep hydrated! Frequent sips of water or hypo/isotonic drink.

After: Re-fuel ASAP, aim to have a meal that contains a 3:1 of carbohydrates to protein (for example, wholegrain toast with peanut butter).

At the Eton Dorney Lakside Half Marathon 2020

What are your thoughts on a vegan diet?

A well-planned vegan diet can provide all the necessary nutrients for the body. Just like vegetarians, following a vegan diet should not harm performance if followed correctly. For vegans, it is important to make sure vitamin B12 is included in the diet. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal sources, however, it can be found in breakfast cereals or dairy alternatives such as soya or oat.

Thanks Caraigh!