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. 

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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:

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  • 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:

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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.

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