Vegetarian Athletes: What to Eat

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. Accessed May 26, 2015.

Iron and more. The Vegan Society website. Accessed May 26, 2015.

Larson E. Eat better, perform better: sports nutrition guidelines for the vegetarian. The Vegetarian Resource Group website. Accessed May 26, 2015.

Larson DE. Vegetarian diet for exercise and athletic training and performing: an update. website. Accessed May 26, 2015.

Mangels R. FAQs about vitamin D. Vegetarian Journal website. Accessed May 26, 2015.

Spock B. Vegetarian diet for athletes. Toronto Vegetarian Association website. Published January 1, 1997. Accessed May 26, 2015. 

Vegetarianism: a winning formula for athletes. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals website. Accessed May 26, 2015.

Review Date: 
Monday, May 25, 2015
Nutrition411 Staff