Navigating Sports Nutrition when you are Vegetarian or Vegan

Interested in following a more plant based diet? Already a plant based athlete and want to make sure you are meeting your general nutrition and performance needs? Today I will cover the nutrients of concern for each type of vegetarian diet, as well as where you can find those nutrients in our food supply. Not currently an athlete? No worries! This post can be helpful for anyone who is seeking to consume a more plant based diet and is unsure where to start.

Plant based diets can range from those who exclude all animal products (vegan) to those who include animal products less frequently (flexitarian). This leaves us with a wide range of potential for deficiencies of certain macronutrients and micronutrients that we need in our diet not just for everyday function, but for performance too!

Why do I need these macronutrients and micronutrients in my diet?

Each macronutrient, vitamin, and mineral plays a role in our bodies to in order to function properly. This means everything from having the energy to get through the day to functions related to athletics: muscle building and retention, energy production and focus, bone formation and retention, immune system function, injury prevention, and recovery.

What do I need?

It depends. As I mentioned previously, plant based diets can exclude all animal products or just some. This detailed article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition highlighted each diet and offered detailed needs for each group. I put it together in a simple chart. Take a look, what do you identify as or what do you think might suit you best?

Diet TypeDescriptionPotential Deficiencies Sport Related Issues?
FlexitarianOccasionally includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs, & dairy Vitamin D if sun exposure is poor.Low energy intake puts you at high risk for deficiencies and poor performance in general.
Pesco-VegetarianExcludes meat & poultry, includes fishVitamin D, Energy, ProteinPotential for iron deficiency
Lacto-Ovo VegetarianExcludes meat, poultry, and fish. Includes dairy and eggs only.Vitamin D, Energy, Protein, Omega-3's, Iron, Zinc, RiboflavinPotential for Iron Deficiency, reduced muscle creatine and carnosine stores
Lacto-VegetarianExcludes meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Includes dairy only.Vitamin D, Energy, Protein, Omega-3's, Iron, Zinc, RiboflavinPotential for Iron Deficiency, reduced muscle creatine and carnosine stores
Ovo-VegetarianExcludes meat, poultry, fish, and dairy. Includes eggs only.Vitamin D, Energy, Protein, Omega-3's, Iron, Zinc, RiboflavinPotential for Iron Deficiency, reduced muscle creatine and carnosine stores
VeganExcludes all animal products.Vitamin D, Energy, Protein, Fat, Omega-3's, Iron, Zinc, Riboflavin, B-12, Calcium, Iodine.Potential for Iron Deficiency, reduced muscle creatine and carnosine stores, low bone- mineral denisty, consuming enough energy.

So now that you know what type of vegetarian you are and your potential deficiency risks, what do you do? Find alternatives in our food supply! Rather than take a multi-vitamin and call it a day, we want to try to look for whole food sources first.
Why? While its true you can get what might be lacking from a supplement, when doing this your missing out on a few things:

  • Vital Energy. One of the top concerns for athletes and vegetarians/vegans in general is ensuring your getting enough energy (calories) in your day to fuel exercise AND your everyday needs. When we use supplement, it probably isn’t adding any energy to your diet.
  • Synergistic effect of the entire food. There is research to support that eating the whole food is often a better choice than the supplement as there may be beneficial nutrients or a synergistic effect in the whole food that we haven’t yet discovered or figured out how to capture in pill form.
  • The chance to also consume other nutrients. When we supplement let’s say, calcium, we miss an opportunity to not only fuel our activity, but also the chance to consume other nutrients with it. For instance, in an 8 ounce glass of soy milk we get calcium as well as energy, Vitamin D, Iron, Riboflavin, and protein. Not to mention it makes a great post-workout snack!

That being said there is definitely a time and place for supplementing. For instance, it is often difficult to get enough Vitamin D through food sources, especially if sun exposure or sun availability is poor where you live. Or perhaps you are vegan and don’t get enough calcium through plant sources alone.
Please note many of the nutrients of concern listed below are found in eggs, fish, and dairy so if you identify as a vegetarian who consumes these foods be sure to include them regularly as they are often times more readily absorbed and utilized by our bodies versus their plant counterparts. If you are strictly vegan or a vegetarian who does not consume eggs, fish and/or dairy, it is especially important to include the foods listed to assist you in meeting your macro and micronutrient needs!

Here are the top food sources for nutrients of concern. Please note there are dairy, egg, & fish sources for those who fit within the vegetarian categories that include them and as always, CHECK YOUR LABELS to ensure you are purchasing what you need; not every product you see on the shelf is fortified or contains the nutrient you are looking for:

Protein: fish, eggs, milk, MOST milk alternatives & yogurts, cottage cheese, cheese, beans, peas, lentils, edamame, tofu and other soy products such as veggie burgers or crumbles, tempeh, nuts & seeds and nut & seed butters, oats, quinoa.

Fat: fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel, sardines, nuts, seeds and nut/seed butters, avocado, olives, olive, canola, avocado, hemp, or sesame oils.

Vitamin D: fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel, sardines,  Vitamin D Fortified Foods: milk, soy milk, yogurt, cheese, orange juice, fortified cereals, and mushrooms, cod liver oil, egg yolks, sunshine.

Omega-3’s: fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel, and sardines, microalgae oil, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seed, seaweed.

Iron: canned salmon with edible bones, eggs, beans, peas, lentils, edamame, nuts, seeds, whole or enriched grains, enriched/fortified cereals and pastas, leafy green and root vegetables, dried fruits such as prunes. Pro-Tip!: pair with a vitamin C source for absorption such as citrus fruit, tropical fruits, bell peppers, and berries. Avoid tannins (such as coffee, tea, cocoa) during that particular meal.

Zinc: eggs, milk, cheese, beans, peas, lentils, nuts such as almonds, seeds such as hemp, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds, oats, fortified cereals, whole grains, wheat germ, wheat bran, and hard cheeses. Pro-Tip!: pair with citrus fruit or consume the above options with protein for optimal absorption.

Riboflavin (B-2): milk, yogurt, eggs, salmon, whole grain and fortified breads and cereals, fortified tofu, spinach, almonds, asparagus, bananas, grapes, dark green leafy vegetables, and mushrooms.

B-12: yogurt (regular or fortified dairy alternatives), milk (regular or fortified dairy alternatives), fortified breakfast cereals, eggs, fortified energy bars, cheese (regular or fortified soy), fortified nutritional yeast, fortified soy meat analogs

Calcium: dairy or calcium fortified dairy alternative products such as milks, and yogurts, calcium-set tofu, low-oxalate green leafy vegetables: kale, collards, turnip greens, mustard greens, bok choy, and napa cabbage, okra, texturized vegetable proteins, calcium fortified fruit and vegetable juices, black strap molasses.

Iodine: iodized salt, seaweed, cranberries, prunes, potatoes, cod, milk, shrimp, egg, enriched bread, and canned tuna.

What if I am interested in plant based but am also new to all of this?

Take it step-by-step. Take a look at the chart and decide what sounds like a good fit for you. If you are not ready to go full vegan, but know you want more plants in your diet, don’t feel like you have to give it all up at once. Start small! Think of changing one meal or snack per day to plant based or even one meal a week! Check out Meatless Monday for some meal inspiration:

How do I know how much I need?

You can find your micronutrient needs here (scroll down to DRI Tables!):
For Macronutrient intakes, please know your needs will be higher than listed in the macronutrient section!! Consult a Registered Dietitian for more information.

So, how do I put this all together?

I am glad you asked!  You can create your own meals using the updated Fuel Your Day Plate I created specifically for plant based athletes. Not only are there plant based options in the create your own, but I also list top sources for each nutrient of concern in the AND in the sample day on the back. Please note they are NOT calorie or daily requirement counted!! These are simply to show you an idea of what a nutrient packed, plant based meal might look like.  You may need more, you may need less energy wise AND nutrient wise.

Download the handout by entering your email address below!

Disclaimer: This post is for informational & educational purposes only. This post should not be taken as medical advice or used as a substitute. While I am a Registered Dietitian I am not your Registered Dietitian. You should always consult with your own medical provider or Registered Dietitian before putting this information into action on your own.

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