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Vegetarianism and Athletes

By Bob Seebohar | Feb. 01, 2010, 12 a.m. (ET)

The term vegetarianism is used loosely among athletes, from those who just do not eat red meat to those who do not eat any animal products at all.  Here are some of the more common categories of vegetarian diets:

  • Lacto-vegetarian: no animal foods at all but includes milk and milk products (yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese)
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: no animal foods at all but includes eggs, milk and milk products.
  • Vegan: no animal foods at all.

Effects of Vegetarianism

It is important for athletes to acquire all of the nutrients that are needed to support normal growth and health along with performance.  Athletes who follow any type of vegetarian diet seem to have a lower risk of developing diseases such as diabetes and heart disease when they get older and while there isn't too much support about improving performance, since vegetarian diets are usually high in carbohydrate, performance is typically improved.

Here are some specific concerns for athletes who are following the vegetarian way of eating:

  1. Total energy.  Most vegetarian diets are high in carbohydrate rich foods such as fruits, vegetables and grains and have a lot of fiber which are very filling.  This could result in not eating enough calories to support training and competition.  Good strategies to include more calories in the daily nutrition program are to eat nuts, peanut butter, soy products and meat substitutes.
  2. Protein.  If vegetarian athletes do not eat any type of meat or dairy foods, their protein intake could be low.  Younger athletes in particular need more protein to support their growing stages along with their increased needs for playing sports.  Higher non-meat protein foods include nuts, tofu and soy milk with other adequate protein sources found in beans, nut butters and hummus.  Yogurt is another good option (plain or Greek) if the athlete consumes this.
  3. Iron.  Vegetarian athletes are at greater risk for having low iron stores.  Iron is needed to help the muscles get oxygen and low amounts of iron could cause fatigue and poor performance.  Female athletes more than males are affected because of the monthly blood loss from menstruation.  Be sure to include good non-animal sources of iron including spinach, quinoa, blackstrap molasses, lentils, tofu, tempeh, cashews and iron fortified cereals.  Drinking orange juice with these foods can help the body absorb more iron.
  4. Calcium.  For those vegetarian athletes who do not drink milk or any dairy foods, calcium will be low.  Young athletes may still be developing bone mass so getting enough calcium is very important for healthy bones in the future.  Alternate sources of calcium rich foods include fortified cereals, tofu, soy milk and green leafy vegetables.
  5. Vitamin B12.  There is no active form of this vitamin in any plant foods and because vitamin B12 is involved in the breakdown of foods to energy, low amounts can be detrimental for performance.  Vegan athletes are at risk of developing anemia from deficiency of this vitamin and this can lead to fatigue.  Fortified foods are the top choice and include cereals and soy products.

It is very possible to following any type of vegetarian eating program and still be healthy and perform well.  The trick is to add more variety and choose many options of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, soy products and meat alternatives.

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a sport dietitian and elite triathlon coach. He traveled to the 2008 Summer Olympics as the U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Dietitian and the personal Sport Dietitian for the 2008 Olympic Triathlon Team. He has served as head coach for Sarah Haskins, 2008 Olympian, was a performance team member (sport dietitian and strength coach) for Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon bronze medalist. He is the current coach of Jasmine Oeinck, 2009 Elite National Champion.

Bob's new book, Metabolic Efficiency Training: Teaching the Body to Burn More Fat, will teach athletes how to structure their nutrition and training program throughout the year to maximize their body's ability to use fat as energy and improve body composition.  For more information and to order the book, visit or contact Bob at