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, if they include 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
    • Can increase to 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:
    • Whole-wheat breads
    • Whole-wheat pastas
    • Whole-wheat cereals
    • Oatmeal
    • Brown rice
    • Fruits
    • Vegetables


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

Vitamins and minerals

  • Deficiencies: Vegetarian athletes are most likely to become deficient in the following vitamins and minerals (deficiencies more common in females):
    • Vitamin D
    • Riboflavin
    • Calcium
    • Vitamin B12
    • Iron
    • 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


Vegetarian/Vegan Food Sources


  • Milk and milk-based foods (if lacto-vegetarian)
  • Kale
  • Collard greens
  • Mustard greens
  • Broccoli
  • Bok choy
  • Legumes
  • Figs
  • Currants
  • Almonds
  • Chickpeas
  • Oranges
  • Tofu
  • Fortified soymilk
  • Texturized vegetable protein
  • Tahini
  • Calcium-fortified orange juice
  • Flour
  • Bread


  • Pistachios
  • Cashews
  • Chickpeas
  • Dried apricots
  • Sesame seeds
  • Tahini
  • Black molasses
  • Spinach
  • Wholemeal bread


  • Legumes
  • Hard cheese (if lacto-vegetarian)
  • Whole-grain products
  • Wheat germ
  • Fortified cereals
  • Nuts
  • Tofu
  • Miso


  • Enriched whole-grain cereals
  • Enriched breads
  • Dark-green leafy vegetables
  • Broccoli
  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Sea vegetables
  • Dairy products (if lacto-ovo vegetarian)
  • Eggs (if lacto-ovo vegetarian)


References and recommended readings

Larson DE. Vegetarian diet for exercise and athletic training and performing: an update. Available at: Accessed August 3, 2009.

Larson E. Eat better, perform better: sports nutrition guidelines for the vegetarian. Available at: Accessed August 3, 2009.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Vegetarianism: a winning formula for athletes. Available at: Accessed August 3, 2009.

Spock B. Vegetarian diet for athletes. Available at: Accessed August 3, 2009.

Vegan Society. Calcium. Available at: Accessed August 3, 2009.

Vegan Society. Iron. Available at: August 3, 2009.

Vegan Society. Vitamin D. Available at: Accessed August 3, 2009.

Review Date: 
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Megan Mangano, RD, CSSD