January 2, 2020

Yes, You Can Be a Vegetarian and an Athlete Too

Eating right is key to maintaining your athletic performance

Woman athlete cutting up fruit for a smoothie

You can be a vegetarian AND an athlete.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

This fact has been supported by a number of organizations, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine.

The tougher question is – how can I become vegetarian and not compromise my health or athletic performance?

Dietitian Katherine Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD discusses what vegetarian and vegan athletes should know.

Restricted diet, restricted nutrients

Athletes who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet usually have two concerns.

One is that vegetarian and vegan diets are typically low in calories. But athletes have increased calorie needs depending on frequency, duration and intensity of their physical activity.

Second, vegetarian and vegan diets tend to restrict essential nutrients that are primarily found in animal sources: Protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc and omega-3 fats.

These nutrients are crucial to support muscle synthesis and recovery, bone density and oxygen transport. So it’s important that athletes who eat vegetarian and vegan diets make sure they’re getting enough of the right foods.

What is a vegetarian or vegan diet?

There are two types of vegetarian diets:

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

Both of these diets can provide adequate intake of protein, vitamins and minerals without major concern for deficiencies if you eat a balanced diet.

A vegan diet excludes all animal products, dairy products and eggs. Sometimes it can present a special dietary challenge for athletes.

Animal products are complete protein sources, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids our body cannot produce. Amino acids are crucial for muscle repair and rebuilding, bone health and immunity.

A vegan diet is limited to plant-based protein sources, of which only a few – soy, quinoa, buckwheat, and hemp– are complete sources of protein.

Vegan athletes also require slightly more protein in their diet since the higher fiber from the plant-based protein intake slightly inhibits protein absorption.

Athletes who follow a vegan diet or are considering a vegan diet should pay close attention to what they eat.

Make sure to choose nutrient-dense foods that provide adequate fuel from carbohydrate, protein and fat, plus the necessary vitamins and minerals to support oxygen transport, recovery and immunity.

Here are some food ideas for athletes eating a vegetarian or vegan diet:

Advertisement

Plant-based protein sources

  • Beans, lentils, split peas, quinoa, nuts, seeds and soy products such as tempeh, tofu, soybeans, soy milk and dry roast edamame.

Plant-based iron-rich foods

  • Beans, lentils, spinach, tofu, tempeh, iron-fortified cereals and breads.
  • To enhance absorption, pair plant-based iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits, berries, melon, peppers, broccoli and tomatoes.
  • Avoid combining iron-rich foods with tea, coffee or calcium-rich foods.

Plant-based calcium-rich foods

  • Dark green leafy lettuce, broccoli, fortified tofu and almonds.
  • Milk alternatives, such as those made from soy, almond, rice or hemp.

Plant-based vitamin D-rich foods

  • Fortified foods, such as non-dairy milk, orange juice, cereals and mushrooms.

Plant-based vitamin B12 sources

  • Fortified foods such as cereal and soy milk and nutritional yeast.

Plant-based zinc sources

  • Beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, oatmeal, soy and fortified cereal.

Plant-based omega-3 fatty acid sources

  • Walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds.

Post-workout

Choose balanced meals and snacks to fuel you before and during exercise without any gastrointestinal distress. Your food choices should also support recovery after your workouts.

If you plan to start a vegetarian or vegan diet, beware that the increased amount of fiber you consume may cause some gas, bloating or diarrhea. Introduce fiber slowly and allow plenty of time for meals to digest before you exercise.

Proper post-exercise meal/snack choice is vital for all athletes, but especially vegans.

After exercise, muscle protein synthesis is enhanced by consuming about 10 grams of a complete protein source. Vegan athletes can consume quinoa or a soy-based food or pair a plant based protein source with a whole grain within two hours after a workout.

Examples include: 10 oz. soy milk, 1 cup soy yogurt, a soy protein shake, a stir-fry with ½ cup edamame, 1 cup quinoa; or combinations like natural peanut butter on whole wheat toast, lentil soup with whole grain roll, beans and whole grain rice.

If you’re considering a vegetarian or vegan diet, be sure to take the time to assess what you eat to ensure you’re choosing properly balanced meals. If you need help, seek guidance from a sports dietitian.

Related Articles

Buddha bowl of tofu, cucumbers, broccoli, lettuce and garbanzo beans
December 6, 2023
How To Make a Vegetarian Diet Work for a Healthier Heart

Giving up meat can have a significant effect on lowering cholesterol

spoon full of beetroot powder over sliced beets
June 25, 2023
Can Beetroot Powder Improve Athletic Performance?

The supplement can boost endurance and offer other benefits, including for sexual health

Father and child preparing a salad in kitchen.
January 30, 2023
The Advantages of a Vegetarian Diet

A nutrient-packed diet driven by fruits and veggies can lower certain health risks

vegan wraps on a plate
July 10, 2022
How To Lose Weight as a Vegetarian

It’s possible to drop a few pounds as long as you watch what you eat

Young gymnast puts chalk on hands in a gym setting
August 9, 2021
Athletes and Mental Health: Breaking the Stigma

Why aren’t mental health issues taken as seriously as physical issues?

A grouping of food like eggs, bananas, avocado, shrimp and salmon
May 24, 2021
What Is the Flexitarian Diet?

What to know about this semi-vegetarian lifestyle

Vegetarian protein alternatives of tofu beand edamame
January 28, 2021
13 of the Best Vegetarian and Vegan Protein Sources

Turn to these foods for plant protein

woman suffering from knee pain
December 21, 2020
8 Aches and Pains You Shouldn’t Ignore

Good pain or bad? Know the different kinds and when to seek help

Trending Topics

glass of cherry juice with cherries on table
Sleepy Girl Mocktail: What’s in It and Does It Really Make You Sleep Better?

This social media sleep hack with tart cherry juice and magnesium could be worth a try

Exercise and diet over three months is hard to accomplish.
Everything You Need To Know About the 75 Hard Challenge

Following five critical rules daily for 75 days may not be sustainable

Person in foreground standing in front of many presents with person in background holding gift bags.
What Is Love Bombing?

This form of psychological and emotional abuse is often disguised as excessive flattery

Ad