Vegetarian and Vegan Diets: ‘Enough’ for Athletes?

Athletes have increased calorie needs


Contributor: Katherine Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD

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Last year’s news of pink slime in ground beef has caused many to think twice about eating meat again. But what about athletes? Is it safe for athletes to follow a meat-free diet? The answer is yes.

The American College of Sports Medicine and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are in agreement that a vegetarian or vegan diet can provide adequate nutrients to support an athlete.

Athletes have increased calorie needs

The concerns with an athlete following a vegetarian or vegan diet have been:

  •  Vegetarian and vegan diets are typically low in calories while athletes have increased calorie needs depending on the frequency, duration and intensity of their physical activity.
  • Vegetarian and vegan diets don’t provide essential nutrients, which are primarily found in animal sources. This includes protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12, which are all crucial to support muscle synthesis and recovery, bone density and oxygen transport.

Types of vegetarian diets

There are two types of vegetarian diets. If a balanced diet is consumed, both of these diets can provide adequate intake of protein, vitamins and minerals without major concern for deficiencies.

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians exclude meat, poultry and fish, but include eggs and dairy products.
  • Lacto-vegetarians exclude meat, poultry, fish, and eggs, but include dairy products.

What is a vegan diet?

A vegan diet, excludes all animal products, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy and honey. A vegan diet is known as a plant based diet because the components of the diet are all derived from plants, for example whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Athletes who follow a vegan diet or are considering a vegan diet need to choose nutrient-dense foods that provide adequate fuel from carbohydrate, protein, and fat, plus necessary vitamins and minerals to support oxygen transport, recovery and immunity.

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Choose nutrient-dense foods

  • Plant-based protein sources include beans, lentils, split peas, quinoa, nuts, seeds and soy products such as tempeh, tofu, soybeans, soy milk and nuts.
  • Plant-based iron-rich foods include beans, lentils, whole or enriched grains, spinach, dried fruit and nuts. Pair plant-based iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods to enhance absorption. This includes citrus fruits, berries, melons, peppers, broccoli and tomatoes.
  • Plant-based calcium-rich foods  dark green leafy lettuce, fortified tofu, milk alternatives-soy, almond, rice, or hemp, nuts and beans.
  • Plant-based vitamin D-rich foods include fortified milk alternatives-soy, almond, rice, or hemp, fortified orange juice, cereal, margarine, or UV radiated mushrooms.
  • Vitamin B12 sources include fortified foods like cereal, soy milk and nutritional yeast.

Whatever diet athletes choose, it is important to pay close attention to the details so they are getting all of the protein and nutrients they need—because ultimately, it will provide the fuel necessary to be successful in their sport.


Katherine Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD, is a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics for Cleveland Clinic Sports Health. To schedule an appointment, call 877.440.TEAM.

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