How will a vegetarian diet affect my athletic performance?

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Judy Caplan
Nutrition & Dietetics

There are many great vegetarian athletes. You do not have to eat animal products to build endurance or strength. If you eat a balanced vegetarian diet, especially one that contains dairy products, eggs, and cheese, you can be at the top of your game! Make sure you eat plenty of whole grains, seeds, nuts, and healthy monounsaturated fats. Also include plenty of legumes and fresh produce. Soy and whey protein powders can add extra protein if needed.

Donna Feldman
Nutrition & Dietetics
The good news about being a vegetarian athlete is that you could get a competitive edge. Giving up meat means you have to fill in your diet with other foods. If those are plant-based foods, you could end up eating a healthier diet, with more carbs to fuel your work outs. More plant foods also means more fiber and many more vitamins, antioxidants and minerals that help athletes stay fit and healthy. But you do need to pay attention to a few important nutritional issues that could suffer from cutting out meat.

First off, you need to pay attention to protein intake. Cutting out meat means cutting down on protein. While athletes don't need massive amounts of protein, they do need an adequate intake, sufficient to support muscle repair and growth. Vegetarians who eat dairy products and eggs should have no trouble getting more than enough protein, if some of these foods are consumed at every meal. Cheese, milk, yogurt and eggs are all high protein. Plant foods that are high protein include beans and nuts. Soy-based foods are also good protein sources. There are plenty of ways to include these foods in meals and snacks, in a variety of dishes and flavors so you won't get bored.

In addition to protein, vegetarian athletes need to pay attention to intake of certain nutrients usually found in meat. Those include iron and zinc, as well as omega-3 fats found in salmon and sardines. Minerals like iron are also found in vegetables, such as greens and legumes. Good news for vegetarians: recent research shows that iron from plant foods can be well-absorbed. Some dairy foods are fortified with omega-3 fats, and you can get plant omega-3s from walnuts, canola oil and flax.

Finally, an important issue for vegetarian athletes is to remember to eat a balanced diet. This might sound strange, but plenty of people give up meat and think of themselves as vegetarian, while still living on processed foods, with few fruits and vegetables. Sports drinks and meal bars are technically vegetarian, but they certainly aren't healthy. The best plan for any athletes is to eat a well-balanced diet first.
Vegetarian diets will not typically affect performance. However, like all people, you need to eat a healthy, balanced diet to ensure that you are getting ample amounts of vitamins, minerals, fats, carbohydrates, and protein to fuel yourself for performance.

One concern with a vegetarian diet is the quality of protein in your diet. The American Dietetic Association recommends that vegetarians eat approximately 10% more protein than meat eaters because many nonmeat proteins are not as easily broken down as meat proteins. As a result, less protein is available to the body for building, repairing, and other vital functions. For a vegetarian athlete, a recommended quantity of protein to include in your diet is 1.3 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. (One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds.)

This answer provided for NATA by the Appalachian State University Athletic Training Education Program.

Continue Learning about Vegetarian Diets

Vegetarian Diets

When you look at vegetarian diets, it's hard to do so without understanding that many of the practitioners believe that it is not only healthful, but more to practice vegetarianism. This is true even if the diet may include occasi...

onal meats or fish as in the Macrobiotic diet with it's Zen beliefs, or the Indian Ayurvedic diet, which finds milk and dairy central to good health along with plants. Anyone considering a vegetarian diet should learn about the food values of different vegetables, and consider getting advice on whether or not to supplement the diet with vitamins and minerals, particularly if you have special nutritional needs like growing children or pregnant or lactating women.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.