Life as a vegetarian athlete can be challenging, especially when traveling. But a vegetarian lifestyle can support optimal health and athletic performance if the challenges are understood.
Athletes who consume a balanced and wide variety of foods in moderation from all the different food groups are most likely to obtain all the essential nutrients in adequate amounts. The risk of a nutrient deficiency increases when the intake of certain foods is avoided. The risk of deficiency increases as the number of restrictions increase. The term “vegetarian” encompasses a spectrum of restrictions (see sidebar) but the general emphasis is on avoiding foods that originate from animals, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. These animal foods are rich sources of nutrients, including energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals. The wise vegetarian knows how to replace these nutrients in their diet.
Plant foods tend to be less energy-dense than animal foods, so there is a risk that the athlete will not consume enough energy. While fruits and vegetables are nutritious sources of vitamins and minerals, they tend to be very low in energy and protein. The foundation of a vegetarian athlete’s diet should be whole grains, like oats, wheat, rice and corn. Whole grains are essential because they provide the starchy carbohydrates that will power the athlete’s rigorous training program, while also contributing some protein, vitamins, and minerals. Sweet potatoes would also be beneficial.
If sufficient calories are being consumed, and at least half of these calories are coming from grains, then the athlete’s protein needs are also close to being met. Sufficient protein can be assured by consuming a small serving of plant foods that are widely recognized as being protein-rich, such as beans, peas and nuts, a couple times each day. There are many different kinds of beans: soy, red kidney, black, navy, garbanzo, lima, butter, lentils, and chickpeas. There are also many kinds of nuts: peanuts, almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts.
Excluding dairy products from the diet misses an opportunity to consume foods that are calcium-rich, as well as protein-rich. Boys and girls between the ages of nine and 18 should consume 1,300 mg of calcium each day. Men and women over 18 should try to consume 1,000 mg each day. Navy (white) beans are a calcium-rich plant food, but only contain about 130 mg of calcium per cup. In comparison, a cup of cow’s milk contains approximately 300 mg. Soy milk and some fruit juices can be vegetarian alternatives, since they are often supplemented with calcium to amounts that are equivalent to cow’s milk. Calcium supplements are a perfectly acceptable alternative. Most calcium supplements from reputable suppliers are equally beneficial.
Red meat is the richest source of highly digestible iron in the diet of most Americans. Plant foods tend to be low in iron, and the iron is poorly digested. For that reason, vegetarians are advised to consume twice as much iron as meat eaters. Girls and women (premenopausal) who do not consume red meat are advised to consume 30 mg of iron each day. Male vegetarians should consume 18 mg each day. (Iron is the only nutrient with significantly different recommendations for men and women.) Red beans, spinach, and raisins are some vegetarian foods that are relatively high in natural iron, but they only contain about 4 mg of iron per cup. Many breakfast cereals are supplemented with iron, usually 8 mg per cup. For many female vegetarian athletes, an iron supplement is the best way to achieve adequacy. The best source is usually acquired in a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement. These typically contain 18 mg of iron, but check the label.
In addition to calcium and iron, foods of plant origin also tend to be poor sources of zinc, iodine, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and creatine. It would be wise and perfectly acceptable in a vegetarian lifestyle for an athlete to routinely consume a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement, as well as calcium and creatine supplements. Purchased from a reputable supplier, these are safe nutritional supplements that can compensate for the nutrients that are usually low in a diet that excludes animal products. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are excellent sources of many (but not all) nutrients. So, wise food selection and judicious use of nutritional supplements can enable vegetarian athletes to have optimal health and achieve their full athletic potential. •
Learn the Terms
Vegan - Excludes all animal products from diet.
Lacto-Vegetarian - Dairy products are only animal products allowed in diet.
Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian - Eggs and dairy products are only animal products allowed in diet.
Lacto-Ovo-Pesci-Vegetarian - Eggs, dairy and fish are only animal products allowed in diet.
Semi-Vegetarian - Eats only “limited” amounts of all animal products.
To achieve a nutritious mix of carbohydrates and protein, mix a whole grain food such as wheat, corn or rice with a bean or nut food. This is sometimes referred to as “mixing complementary proteins.”
Rice + beans,
including soy (tofu)
Corn (tortillas) + beans
Bread + peanut butter
Breakfast cereal + soy milk
Originally published in May 2011