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Vegetarian Eating for Athletes

Athlete Scenario

I have been a vegetarian for over two years because I believe that not eating meat has many advantages. However, my new coach is concerned that I am not getting enough protein and iron. Aware of his concerns, I wonder whether I am getting adequate nutrients. How can I remain a vegetarian while satisfying my nutrient needs and enhancing my performance?


Strategies for Athletes following Vegetarian Eating Style:

  • Meet daily needs for protein and essential amino acids by eating a variety of plant-based protein sources.
  • Include plant-based iron-rich foods in meals and snacks to facilitate oxygen transport in the body and promote optimal respiratory function during exercise.
  • Consume foods high in vitamin C with iron-rich foods to boost iron absorption.
  • Select foods high in calcium and vitamin D to build strong bones and reduce risk of stress fractures.
  • If you are vegan (avoids all animal products), choose vitamin B12-fortified foods or take a vitamin B12 supplement daily.

Performance Foods for Vegetarian Athletes:

  • Plant-based protein foods: legumes, tofu, texturized vegetable and soy protein, quinoa, nuts and seeds
  • Plant-based iron-rich foods: legumes, nuts, seeds, whole and enriched grains, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit
  • Calcium-rich foods: dairy products, dark green leafy vegetables, fortified tofu, fortified soy milk and fruit juices, legumes, nuts
  • Vitamin B12 sources: dairy products, eggs, nutritional yeast, fortified foods (soy milk, cereal, meat analogues)

Tips to Take With You

  1. Consuming a variety of plant-based foods will help vegetarian athletes meet their carbohydrate, protein, vitamin and mineral needs.
  2. Choose a wide array of plant-based foods that contain protein.
  3. Vegetarian athletes may be at increased risk for iron depletion and iron deficiency.  Routine assessment of iron status is recommended for most athletes.

References & Sources

Written by SCAN registered dietitians (RDs). The key to optimal meal planning for athletes is individualization.  For personalized nutrition plans contact a SCAN sports dietitian or Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) by accessing “Find a SCAN Dietitian” at www.scandpg.org | 800.249.2875.


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