Being a vegetarian and a competitive athlete is becoming far more common, even at sports’ highest levels.
All-time great tennis player Martina Navratilova credits a plant-based diet as the reason she was able to win majors into her late 40s. NBA champions Glen Davis, James Jones and John Salley are also vegetarians, as was Ironman Hall of Famer Dave Scott when he was training for his six Ironman World Championships. And five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, 300-pound NFL lineman David Carter, American champion Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris, U.S. Women's Indoor National Team Player Lauren Gibbemeyer and U.S. Men's Indoor National Team player Dustin Watten are not only vegetarian, but vegan.
Regardless if you participate in an endurance, strength or even combat sport, eating a vegetarian diet and still performing to their potential can be done. Figuring out what exactly to feed a plant-based athlete isn’t always easy in the beginning, but following these tips will help you cover all your nutritional bases.
Tip No. 1: Get Enough ProteinThe macronutrient vegetarians need to deliberately seek out most is protein. While plant and vegetable proteins repair muscle the same way animal proteins can, the American Dietetic Association (ADA) recommends vegetarian athletes increase their protein intake 10% to help account for plant proteins that don’t get fully digested by the body. For endurance athletes, this makes the daily protein recommendation 0.55-0.64g per pound of bodyweight and 0.73-0.77g per pound of bodyweight for more strength-based athletes.
Vegetarian athletes can account for this inherent deficit by consuming beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains and lentils. For athletes who are ovo-lacto vegetarians (meaning they still eat some non-meat animal products), eggs and dairy are abundant sources of protein. Shakes can also be an easy and tasty way to supplement the protein normally consumed through meat. A shake recipe almost any athlete will enjoy involves blending ice, frozen fruit, chia seeds, peanut or nut butter, and protein powder with milk, coconut milk or water.
Tip No. 2: Diversify the DietFor new vegetarians, it can be easy to find a few foods that ‘work’ then become overly-reliant on them. While convenient, eating the same handful of meals can lead to deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals. These deficiencies can be harmful to your health and athletic performance, causing fatigue, poor bone density, and the inability to properly repair and strengthen muscle.
The simplest way to make up for the lack of zinc, magnesium and other micronutrients the modern diet leaves even many non-vegetarians deficient in is to ‘eat the rainbow.’ Simply, this just means to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and avoid sticking to the same week in and week out. Perhaps more than any other micronutrient, vegetarians should take particular care to eat food containing Vitamin B12, which is not found in plants but can be taken in by eating B12-fortified foods such as cereals, soy milk, vegetable stock, and eggs and dairy products if you are is an ovo-lacto vegetarian.
Tip No. 3: Estimate What You're Eating
Except for maybe 1 percent of the most-devoted athletes, you might not have the dedication to count calories, macronutrients, or plan and record your meals. But even just getting a rough estimate of your protein, fat, carbohydrate and calorie intake while also keeping an eye on your mood, energy level, weight and athletic performance can give a good estimate as to which areas your diet is sufficient and deficient.
If you are a young athlete, you may be on a routine schedule, and your meals are either prepared or eaten at home. Your parents can help log what you are eating (asking you when needed to fill in the gaps), then determine macronutrient and calorie counts on a site or app like MyFitnessPal or Cronometer. Logging these daily counts and and talking about how you feel for even just two to three weeks can go a long way in figuring out how to make small adjustments to your diet and help you feel and perform your best.
Tip No. 4: Be Mindful of The GI Index
It’s important to remember that not all vegetarian foods are created equal. Many of the foods most readily available to vegetarians also rank high on the glycemic index, a scale measuring how much influence carb-heavy foods have on the body’s blood sugar.
High GI foods are better immediately following an endurance workout as they are quickly absorbed by the body. At any other time, however, these foods spike the body’s blood sugar and promote hunger as well as fat storage. Conversely, low GI foods are digested more slowly. This leads to feeling full longer and less unwanted weight gain.
For quick reference, here is a table showing the glycemic load for several common vegetarian foods. A load of 10 or below is considered low, while anything 20 or above is considered high and should be eaten sparingly.
Food, Glycemic Load (Serving Size)
Hummus, 0 (30g)
Peanuts, 1 (50g)
Carrot, 4 (80g)
Apple, 5 (120g)
Black beans 7 (150g)
Whole wheat bread 9 (30g)
White wheat flour bread, 11 (30g)
Oatmeal, 13 (250g)
Brown rice, steamed, 16 (150g)
Spaghetti, whole grain, 17 (180g)
Instant oatmeal, 21 (30g)
Sweet potato, 22 (150g)
Bagel (white), 25 (70g)
Raisins, 28 (60g)
White rice, boiled, 29 (150g)
Russet potato 33 (150g)
The glycemic indices and loads for more foods can be found at Health.Harvard.edu.
Tip No. 5: Making A Calculated Transition
If you are merely just interested in the idea of vegetarianism or want to try it out and see how it affects your athletic performance, it might be easier to make it a gradual transition as opposed to a wholesale, overnight change.
If you eat meat every day, a first step could be to try and incorporate ‘meatless Mondays’ (or any other day) as a first step in experimenting with recipes and the new logistical challenges that come with making the switch. From there, veggie-only days could be expanded to two days a week and so on, until a groove is hit where it becomes easier to not have to think about preparing meatless dishes.
Note: A sample meal plan for a teenage athlete, and sources for this article can be found on the TrueSport website.
TrueSport supports athletes, parents and coaches by partnering with organizations throughout the country to promote a positive youth sport experience that gives young athletes the tools to be leaders in life.