Vegetarian Athletes: What to Eat

January 11, 2017   /
Nutrition411 Staff

It is a proven fact that diet can definitely impact athletic performance, and a vegetarian diet can certainly provide all of the energy and nutrients that individuals need to power themselves through their next workout or competition. However, just like all diets, a vegetarian diet takes some planning. Most vegetarian diets can meet the nutritional needs of athletes by including a wide variety of foods. The following tips can help ensure that you perform at your optimal ability.


  • Protein requirement for endurance athletes:
    • 1.2-1.4 grams (g)/kilogram (kg)/day
    • May need an increase of as much as 1.6-1.7 g/kg/day in times of intense exercise 
  • Protein in some plants is not completely digested:
    • Vegetarians and vegans may need to eat more to ensure that they are getting enough protein.
  • Even though most vegetarians easily meet the requirement for protein, vegans, strength-trained athletes, or athletes with very intense training regiments or low-food intake may want to:
    • Use nutritional shakes and protein supplements to meet their needs, or
    • Focus on improving their protein intake through careful dietary planning 


  • Carbohydrate requirements:
    • 5-7 g of carbohydrate/kg/day for general training (usually)
    • 7-10 g of carbohydrate/kg/day (likely)
  • Most athletes should aim to have 60-65% of their total caloric intake from carbohydrate, although the total amount can vary depending on body weight.
  • Most of the calories that athletes consume should come from complex carbohydrates, such as:
    • Brown rice
    • Fruits
    • Oatmeal
    • Vegetables 
    • Whole-wheat breads
    • Whole-wheat cereals
    • Whole-wheat pastas


  • A diet with too much emphasis on carbohydrates can crowd out necessary fat consumption
  • Good sources of fat include:
    • Avocados
  • Nut butters
    • Nuts
    • Olive oil
    • Olives
    • Seeds

Vitamins and minerals

  • Deficiencies: Vegetarian athletes are most likely to become deficient in the following vitamins and minerals (deficiencies more common in females):
    • Calcium
    • Iron
    • Riboflavin
    • Vitamin B12
    • Vitamin D
    • Zinc
  • Nonheme iron: Most plant foods contain nonheme iron, which is not as well absorbed as heme iron:
    • Iron and vitamin C: Pair iron-rich foods with foods containing vitamin C, such as citrus.
    • Iron and calcium: Do not pair foods containing iron and calcium, which interferes with iron absorption.
  • Phytic acids: The absorption of zinc from plant foods is hindered by the presence of phytic acids, making the zinc less absorbable than the zinc found in animal-based foods.
  • B12: This vitamin is found only in animal foods, making fortified foods necessary for vegetarians and vegans.
  • Vitamin D: This vitamin exists naturally in animal products and is synthesized from exposure to sunlight.
  • Spinach: Although high in calcium, spinach is not a good source of calcium because of the presence of oxalates, which makes for poor absorption of calcium.
Nutrient Vegetarian/Vegan Food Sources
  • Almonds
  • Bok choy
  • Bread
  • Broccoli
  • Calcium-fortified orange juice
  • Chickpeas
  • Collard greens
  • Currants
  • Figs
  • Flour
  • Fortified soymilk
  • Kale
  • Legumes
  • Milk and milk-based foods (if lacto-vegetarian)
  • Mustard greens
  • Oranges
  • Tahini
  • Texturized vegetable protein
  • Tofu
  • Black molasses
  • Cashews
  • Chickpeas
  • Dried apricots
  • Pistachios
  • Sesame seeds
  • Spinach
  • Tahini
  • Wholemeal bread
  • Fortified cereals
  • Hard cheese (if lacto-vegetarian)
  • Legumes
  • Miso
  • Nuts
  • Wheat germ
  • Whole-grain products
  • Tofu
  • Avocados
  • Broccoli
  • Dairy products (if lacto-ovo vegetarian)
  • Dark-green leafy vegetables
  • Eggs (if lacto-ovo vegetarian)
  • Enriched breads
  • Enriched whole-grain cereals
  • Nuts
  • Sea vegetables


References and recommended readings

How to keep bones healthy. The Vegan Society website. http://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-health/vitamins-minerals-and-more/team-healthy-bones. Accessed May 26, 2015.

Iron and more. The Vegan Society website. http://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-health/vitamins-minerals-and-more/iron-and-more. Accessed May 26, 2015.

Larson E. Eat better, perform better: sports nutrition guidelines for the vegetarian. The Vegetarian Resource Group website. http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/athletes.htm. Accessed May 26, 2015.

Larson DE. Vegetarian diet for exercise and athletic training and performing: an update. scienzavegetariana.it website. http://www.scienzavegetariana.it/medici/vegathletes.htm. Accessed May 26, 2015.

Mangels R. FAQs about vitamin D. Vegetarian Journal website. http://www.vrg.org/journal/vj2009issue2/2009_issue2_vitamin_d.php. Accessed May 26, 2015.

Spock B. Vegetarian diet for athletes. Toronto Vegetarian Association website. http://veg.ca/content/view/278/113/. Published January 1, 1997. Accessed May 26, 2015. 

Vegetarianism: a winning formula for athletes. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals website. http://www.peta.org/features/vegetarian-athletes/. Accessed May 26, 2015.