Nutrition Tips for Vegetarian Athletes

Get Enough Protein and Iron in Your Vegetarian Diet

high protein foods
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If you are a vegetarian athlete and don’t eat meat, it can take a bit more planning to get adequate protein for muscle building and sports training. Vegetarians must take extra care to avoid deficiencies of iron, zinc, and B12, which can hurt exercise and strength training performance.

The following tips will help vegetarians who want to get the most from strength training programs.

How to Get Adequate Protein in Your Diet

The current American College of Sports Medicine protein recommendations for optimal muscle building in a strength athlete 1.2 to 1.7 g·kg-1 body weight·d-1 (0.5-0.8 g·lb-1 body weight·d-1). There is no scientific evidence that more than 2.0 grams of protein per kg of body weight has any additional benefit in muscle strength or size.

You can get enough protein by including plenty of low-fat dairy products and protein-rich plant sources, like soy, in your diet. The following protein sources may work for vegetarians:

  • Milk, 8 oz, 8 grams
  • Tofu, 3 oz, 15 grams
  • Yogurt, 8 oz, 8 grams
  • Cheese, 3 oz, 21 grams
  • Peanut butter, 2 tbsp, 8 grams

How to Get Adequate Iron

Heme iron is a type of easily absorbed iron that is found in animal protein. If you eat fish or chicken, you will get this type of iron, but if you eat no meat, you will need to find other sources of iron. Our bodies don't absorb non-heme iron—the kind found in vegetables—as easily as the iron that comes from animal foods. Non-meat eaters, especially female athletes, must pay attention to their dietary iron needs. Good sources of non-heme include wholegrain cereals, leafy green vegetables, figs, lentils and kidney beans, and some dried fruits.

How to Get Adequate Vitamin C

Vitamin C in fruits, vegetables, and other foods help vegetarians absorb non-heme iron from other foods, so it’s a good idea to eat a combination of foods at each meal. Consider eating citrus fruits with an iron-fortified whole grain cereal or have a citrus fruit juice with beans.

How to Get Adequate B12

Because vitamin B12 is available only from animal products, it is one of the most common nutrients missing from the diets of vegetarian athletes. To get enough B12 (you require only a small amount, 2.4 micrograms per day) try to eat B12-fortified foods like soymilk, and cereal. You can also get enough B12 if you consume eggs, cheese, milk or yogurt.

Avoid Foods That Interfere With Iron Absorption

Some foods contain substances that block the absorption of iron in the intestine. Coffee, whole grains, bran, legumes, and spinach all interfere with iron absorption and should be combined with vitamin C to increase iron absorption.

Talk to Your Doctor About Supplements

Although dietary supplements should not be used to make up for a poor diet, there are times when they can help prevent some deficiencies. Ideally, you should discuss the use of any supplements with your healthcare team.

All athletes are encouraged to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of foods, but vegetarian athletes can rest assured that they don’t have to eat meat in order to get adequate nutrition for strength building. If you have concerns about your nutritional status, is recommended that you talk with your doctor or a registered sports nutritionist to review your eating plan and make recommendations.

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Article Sources
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  • D. Enette Larson-Meyer, PhD, RD, FACSM. Vegetarian Sports Nutrition: Food choices and eating plans for fitness and performance, Human Kinetics

  • Nutrition and Athletic Performance - American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: March 2009 - Volume 41 - Issue 3 - pp 709-731