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Vegetarian Diet for Athletes: A Complete Guide

Vegetarian Diet for Athletes can provide all the nutrients needed for athletes to perform at their best. With proper planning, vegetarian athletes can meet their increased calorie, protein, iron, calcium, and other nutrient needs. This complete guide covers the benefits, challenges, meal plans, helpful tips, and frequently asked questions about following a vegetarian diet as an athlete.


Plant-based diets have been growing in popularity, especially among athletes. Tennis champion Venus Williams, boxer Mike Tyson, and track star Carl Lewis are all renowned vegetarian athletes. A vegetarian diet is one that lacks meat, fish, and poultry. There are several types of vegetarian diets:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products
  • Lacto vegetarians eat dairy products but avoid eggs
  • Ovo vegetarians eat eggs but avoid dairy products
  • Vegans avoid all animal products including eggs, dairy, honey, and gelatin

With proper meal planning, vegetarian diets can provide all the nutrients athletes need to perform their best [1]. In fact, many studies show that vegetarian diets can benefit athletes by improving cardiovascular health, reducing inflammation, managing weight, and more [2]. The key is to ensure adequate intake of calories, protein, carbs, vitamins, and minerals like iron, calcium, and vitamin B12.

Benefits of Vegetarian Diets for Athletes

Several key benefits make vegetarian diets a smart choice for many athletes:

  • Weight Management – The high fiber and low saturated fat content of vegetarian diets based on whole foods make them effective for losing or maintaining a healthy weight [3]. Since extra weight can impair performance, this is a major draw.
  • Heart Health – Vegetarian diets have been shown to reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease like high blood pressure and cholesterol [4]. Improving cardiovascular health enhances aerobic fitness.
  • Reduced Inflammation – Plant foods contain antioxidants that can help reduce inflammation from high training volumes [5]. Less inflammation allows for better recovery.
  • Increased Energy – Certain vegetarian diets have been found to increase endurance and oxygen uptake compared to typical Western diets [6].

With these performance and recovery benefits, it’s no wonder many successful athletes have opted to go veggie.

Challenges of Vegetarian Diets for Athletes

However, vegetarian athletes do face some specific nutrition challenges:

  • Calorie Needs – Athletes have higher calorie needs, so getting enough can be tricky on low-energy density vegetarian diets [7].
  • Protein Requirements – Athletes require more protein for muscle repair and development, so Getting enough high-quality vegetarian protein takes planning [8].
  • Key Nutrient Gaps – Athletes on restricted diets may miss out on nutrients like iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin B12 that aid performance [9].
  • Team Meals – Traveling for competition and eating team meals makes sticking to a vegetarian diet difficult. Building a supportive network is key.

With smart meal planning, these challenges can be easily overcome. Let’s look at some meal-planning strategies for vegetarian athletes.

Meal Planning Guidelines for Vegetarian Athletes

Constructing a properly balanced vegetarian diet plan is crucial for athletes. Here are some key nutrients and tips to focus on:

  • Whole Foods – Emphasize minimally processed whole grains, produce, beans/legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils. These provide quality carbs, protein, fat, and micronutrients.
  • Adequate Calories – Make sure to eat enough energizing calories to fuel training and maintain weight. Smaller meals every 3-4 hours can help. Smoothies or juices are an easy way to pack in more calories.
  • Protein at Each Meal – Include a source of vegetarian protein like beans, tofu, eggs, Greek yogurt, protein powder, nuts, or seeds with every meal and snack. This ensures adequate protein to support muscle repair after training sessions [10].
  • Iron-Rich Foods – Getting enough iron can be tough for vegetarian athletes, so emphasize iron-rich foods like lentils, pumpkin seeds, spinach, and raisins [11].
  • Calcium Sources – Dairy, leafy greens like kale and collards, calcium-set tofu, almonds, chia seeds, figs, and blackstrap molasses provide important calcium for vegetarian athletes [12].
  • Vitamin B12 – Either take a Vitamin B12 supplement or eat fortified foods like plant milk, nutritional yeast, cereals, and meat analogs to get this essential nutrient [13].

Read also: Bulking Diet for Vegetarian Bodybuilders

[Provide a sample meal plan for vegetarian athletes here]

Tips for Vegetarian Athletes Eating on the Go

Traveling for competition or a hectic schedule makes sticking to a vegetarian diet extra challenging for athletes. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Pack Nutrient-Dense Snacks – Bring portable snacks like trail mix, protein bars, roasted chickpeas, jerky, cut fruit/veggies, nuts, and nut butter in your gym bag.
  • Research Restaurant Options – Look at menus online ahead of time to pick vegetarian-friendly restaurants and see healthy options when eating out with teammates.
  • Request Meatless Meals – Ask for dairy-free and meatless meals when team meals or travel accommodations are arranged by others. Most are willing to accommodate dietary needs if they know ahead of time.
  • Stock Up on Shelf-Stable Items – Keep items like plant-based protein powder, canned beans, soups, nut kinds of butter, dried fruit, whole grain pasta, and frozen veggie burgers on hand for quick meals when you can’t shop.
  • Make Smoothies – Blend plant-based milk, banana, protein powder, spinach, peanut butter, oats, ground flax, and frozen berries for an on-the-go nutrient-packed meal or snack.

Frequently Asked Questions on Vegetarian Diets for Athletes

Here are answers to some of the most common questions vegetarian athletes have about meeting their nutrition needs:

Is it safe for athletes to follow a vegetarian diet?

Yes, vegetarian diets can safely meet all the nutrient needs of athletic training with proper meal planning. Many successful professional and Olympic athletes have been vegetarian [14].

How can vegetarian athletes get enough protein?

Consuming a variety of plant-based protein sources like beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, edamame, nuts, seeds, and protein powders throughout the day. Combining proteins ensures all essential amino acids are provided [15].

What is the best vegetarian diet for athletes?

Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets including eggs and dairy may be the easiest to meet nutrient needs, but well-planned vegan diets can also fully support athletic training and performance [16].

How can vegetarian athletes increase calorie intake?

Eat frequent small meals and nutrient-dense snacks throughout the day. Include healthy fats like nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, and smoothies. Choose energetic carbs like quinoa, sweet potatoes, and fruits [17].

What foods can help vegetarian athletes recover?

Tofu, edamame, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, chia/flax seeds, quinoa, oatmeal, bananas, tart cherry juice, and dark chocolate have nutrients to help muscles recover [18].

How can vegetarian athletes get enough calcium?

Include leafy greens, calcium-fortified plant milk and juice, calcium-set tofu, almonds, figs, sesame seeds, broccoli, oranges, kale, okra, and blackstrap molasses [19].

What supplements should vegetarian athletes consider taking?

A B12 supplement is recommended for vegetarians. Some may also need iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, EPA/DHA omega-3, or protein powders. Consult with a sports dietitian [20].


In summary, vegetarian diets can absolutely provide all the nutrients athletes need to perform and recover, with proper meal planning. Athletes considering going vegetarian should meet with a sports dietitian to develop an individualized meal plan. Excellent vegetarian nutrition resources are also available from sites like and With some nutrition knowledge and preparation, the vegetarian diet can be optimal fuel for athletic success and health.

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