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Friday, March 10, 2017

Can a Vegetarian Diet Meet the Nutritional Needs of Athletes?

Are vegetarian diets able to properly fuel your training? Based on the latest position paper on Vegetarian Diets from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a well-planned vegetarian diet can meet the nutrition needs of an athlete.  Studies on the athlete population comparing the differences in performance between vegetarians and non-vegetarians are limited. With that said, more studies are needed in this area. So while it may or may not give you a competitive edge, vegetarian diets can be nutritious and still give you all the nutrients you need as an athlete as long as you replace meat and animal products with the appropriate foods. Vegetarian diets often contain more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans and legumes. This means, this diet contains more antioxidants and phytochemicals to help you recover and reduce inflammation, more fibre and less saturated fats.

Based on the number of health benefits associated with a vegetarian diet, which include the treatment and prevention of chronic diseases and achieving a healthy weight, more people are adopting this type of eating. Keep in mind, a great start to improving your health is incorporating more well-balanced vegetarian meals into your diet and starting to decrease the amount of meat you consume.

So how exactly do you go about planning a well-balanced vegetarian diet? Below I will talk about some key nutrients you will want to pay attention to and where to get them.

Firstly, it’s important to keep in mind that vegetarian diets vary greatly! There are a variety of subtypes ranging from those that just exclude meat and poultry but include eggs, dairy and/or fish and vegans who will exclude all animal products.  The more limited your diet, the more you have to be concerned about the following nutrients and even potentially looking into supplements.


Most vegetarians meet the recommendations developed for the general population, but athletes have greater needs. The protein recommendation for vegans are even higher than non-vegans in orders to meet requirements for all the essential amino acids.

Even if you are meeting your total protein needs, in order to maximize the use of protein for muscle growth and repair it is crucial to spread protein intake evenly throughout the day. Aim to include a protein rich food at each meal and snack. Several studies suggest having 0.25g/kg of your body weight of protein at meals and snacks, as this is the maximum your body can use at one time.

Here are some ways to include vegetarian proteins into your meals in place of meat:

Beans and Legumes
  • Replace ground meat with lentils in pasta sauce, lasagna, and tacos
  • Mash chickpeas or black beans to use in a wrap instead of deli meat

Tofu, Tempeh and Edamame
  • These are all made from soybeans and are complete sources of protein. You can use tofu to make an "egg" scramble, add either of these to stirfrys and eat edamame as a snack

Protein Powder
  • You may need to look at including a dairy or soy protein powder post workout for adaptation and growth

Nuts and seeds
  • Have trail mix as a snack, add to salads or pair nut butters with apples

Leucine (Essential Amino Acid)

Leucine is one of the branch-chained amino acids (BCAAs) that is associated with muscle growth. If you are looking to build lean muscle mass and you are a vegan, your diet may not be as high in this essential amino acid since it is mostly found in animal products compared to plant foods. Aside from meat and chicken, dairy (milk and Greek yogurt), whey protein, soy and soy protein powder are good sources of leucine. For vegans, a BCAA supplement may be necessary.  

Carbohydrates & Total Energy Intake

Vegetarians tend to better meet their carbohydrate needs compared to non-vegetarians. We know how important carbohydrates are for fuelling and performance, so this can be beneficial.

It’s important to note that when choosing more plants based foods while eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, fibre content may be quite high. This can increase feelings of fullness and make if difficult for those with very high training volumes and young athletes undergoing growth and development to meet their needs.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Long chain Omega 3 Fatty Acids come in the form of EPA and DHA, which is found in fatty fish (the highest sources being salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring and trout). We also consume ALA from plant foods, which our body will then convert to EPA and DHA. Because this process is not very efficient, it is important for vegan and vegetarian athletes to get more ALA than the recommended 1.6g/day. 

You can get ALA from flax seeds, chia seeds, hemps seeds, walnuts and their oils. More info about Omega 3 Fatty Acids and how to include them in your diet can be found in my previous blog about Anti-InflammatoryNutrition

Studies show that in healthy individuals, Omega 3 needs can be met with ALA intake. However, some people have greater needs and may not be able to convert ALA to EPA and DHA as efficiently. In that case, there are vegan algae based Omega 3 supplements. Speak to a doctor or dietitian whether this is required and will be beneficial for you.  

Vitamin B12

Lack of Vitamin B12 is more of a concern for vegans because B12 is primarily found in animal products, like meat and dairy. Adults over 40 should also pay attention to B12 intake since our ability to absorb B12 decreases as we age. Nutritional yeast is a great vegan source of Vitamin B12.  It has a cheesy flavour and can be used to make cheese sauces, or sprinkled on salads and stirfrys.  I have a recipe on my blog for a Vegan Fettuccini Alfredo that you can find here. Fortified milk alternatives like soy, almond and cashew milk can also contribute to your needs.  


Athletes, especially runners, have greater iron needs. Our ability to absorb iron from plant foods is less than that from animal sources. Because of this, vegetarians tend to have lower iron stores. When you do consume foods with iron, increase the absorption by pairing these with iron enhancers. Iron enhancers are foods high in Vitamin C such as oranges, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, red peppers, strawberries and kiwi. Great sources of iron for vegetarians and vegans include cereals that have been fortified with iron, legumes and beans, TVP (texturized vegetable protein), nuts, apricots and cooked spinach.


Zinc, a mineral important for growth and development, wound healing and our immune system, can be found in foods like soy products, legumes, grains, cheese, seeds, and nuts. Similar to iron, the zinc from plant foods may not be as easily absorbed as zinc from animal products. However, certain preparation methods like sprouting grains (such as sprouted grain bread) or soaking nuts and seeds can improve this.


Calcium from plant sources is not as readily absorbed because of the oxalate content. Some lower oxalate food sources of calcium that vegetarians and vegans should aim to include in their diet are kale, turnip greens, Chinese cabbage and bok choy. Calcium-set tofu, fortified milk alternative beverages, white beans, almonds, figs and tahini (ground sesame seeds) are other good options.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin, is mainly found in animal products like salmon, sardines, egg yolks and milk. You can read much more about this Vitamin here. I recommend many of my clients to take a supplement because most people have difficulty meeting their needs through diet or sun exposure. 

Everyone’s needs are individual but these are some key nutrients to consider. Contact me if you would like personalized nutrition recommendations, meal plans or a detailed diet & nutrient analysis. I can look at your current intake, analyze which nutrients you may be lacking, and provide personal recommendations to fix this.

Andrea Docherty is a Registered Dietitian and Sports Nutritionist and Owner of Andrea Docherty Nutrition in Windsor, ON.  To learn more about her and her practice, visit