Vegetarian Diets for Athletes – Are They Healthy?

Millions of people living in America have adopted a vegetarian diet, and this number continues to increase as plant-based diets are highlighted for their health benefits as well as improvements in the variety of vegetarian options offered at supermarkets and restaurants.

Among those millions of people who have gone meatless are many high-level athletes, yet athletes at all levels (young athletes and their families, collegiate and professional athletes, and weekend warriors) may have questions about whether a vegetarian diet can actually support training and competition.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics put out a position statement on vegetarian diets in 2016, stating that well-planned vegetarian diets, including vegan diets can be healthful and provide adequate nutrition for all stages of life, including infants, children, adolescents, older adults, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and athletes.

That’s right – athletes don’t need meat to build muscle or perform well in their sport.  In addition, adopting a vegetarian diet may also provide health benefits over non-vegetarian diets, such as lower risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and lower inflammation levels.

There are several different types of vegetarian/ other meatless diets:

  • Vegetarians don’t eat meat products, and may or may not include dairy and eggs/egg products.
    • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians include both eggs and dairy products in their diet.
    • Lacto-vegetarians include dairy, but not eggs/egg products.
    • Ovo-vegetarians include eggs and egg products, but no dairy.
  • Vegan diets are different from vegetarian diets by excluding all animal products – meat, eggs, dairy, and sometimes honey is excluded as well.

In general, vegetarians who are meeting their calorie needs and eating a variety of healthy, plant-based foods will be able to meet their nutrition needs and perform well in their sport. There are a few areas that new vegetarian athletes should focus on:  

  1. Energy intake: Athletes who change their diet to eating more vegetables may find that they actually need to eat more food to meet their energy needs because plant-based foods can be lower in calorie (but not always!). Eating more frequently and making sure meals contain not only vegetables, but also good sources of protein (see below), healthy fats (nuts/seeds, avocados, olive oil, olives) and whole grains/starches (whole grain bread, pasta, brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, sweet potatoes and potatoes) is a good strategy for meeting energy needs.
  2. Plant-powered protein: There is a common misconception that vegetarians can’t meet their protein needs, but vegetarians who eat high-quality protein at each meal and snack can certainly meet their protein needs for the day. Athletes should be including beans/legumes (black beans, chickpeas/peas, lentils) nuts, seeds, soy protein, quinoa, seitan and if desired, eggs and dairy, at each meal and snack.
  3. Other nutrients: Athletes may want to focus on specific nutrients, such as iron, calcium, and possibly B12, among other important nutrients. Both iron and calcium can be found in plant-based foods, but B12 is only found in animal products, including dairy, and foods that are fortified with B12.

Athletes who aren’t considering a vegetarian diet can still reap many of the benefits of plant-based foods by eating more vegetables and swapping out meat protein for vegetarian protein sources, such as beans some days of the week.

For more information on vegetarian diets that promote athletic performance, check out the handouts below and be sure to make an appointment with the Sanford Sports Science Institute registered dietitian, Lizzie Kuckuk by calling 605-312-7878 or e-mailing her at Elizabeth.Kuckuk@SanfordHealth.org. By working with a registered dietitian, you can develop a nutrition plan that will help you meet your goals!

Great Handouts for Vegetarian Athletes