Athletes elect to follow vegetarian diets for health, environmental, ethical, philosophical, religious/spiritual and aesthetic reasons, which can include the dislike of meat. Although vegetarian diets are well-accepted in the public health arena, some coaches and professionals express concern that vegetarian athletes may not receive the proper nutrition required for optimal training and performance. In truth, vegetarian athletes, from recreational to elite, can meet their energy and nutrient requirements on the various types of vegetarian diets.
Meeting energy needs is a nutrition priority for all athletes. Inadequate energy intake negates the benefits of training, compromises performance and may result in health complications that include a loss of muscle mass and/or bone density, and an increased risk of fatigue, injury and illness. Energy requirements vary among individual athletes according to the specific sport, intensity and periodized training activities at which athletes participate (which are likely to vary from day to day and across the season). Other influencing factors include sex, age and body composition. Some vegetarian and vegan athletes may not meet their energy needs due to the high-fiber and low-energy density of plant-based diets combined with elevated energy needs and/or hectic schedules that prohibit adequate time to eat. Athletes with high-energy needs should be encouraged to eat frequent meals and snacks (i.e., ~5-8 meals/snacks/day) and adequately plan so food and snacks are readily available.
Athletes at all levels of competition can meet their energy and nutrient needs on a vegetarian or vegan diet that contains a variety of foods, including grain products, fruits, vegetables, protein-rich plant foods, and (if desired) dairy products and eggs. Depending upon food preferences, eating patterns and exercise intensity, however, the diet of some athletes may contain suboptimal amounts of certain key nutrients, including total energy, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, vitamin D, iron, zinc, iodine, riboflavin and vitamin B12.
If your are or know a recreational or elite athlete looking to learn healthy eating habits that will fit their energy needs? Download our Free High Performance 5 Day Veggie Breakfast meal plan today.