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Eating Well for Vegetarian Athletes

When a vegetarian eating pattern is well planned it can meet your nutrient needs for training and competition. Below are some helpful suggestions to get enough energy and to replace key nutrients found in animal products.

Energy (Calories)

How many calories you need depends on factors like body size, sex and your specific sport and training level. If you find it hard to gain or maintain your weight, you may need to eat more frequent meals and snacks and enjoy high energy foods. Try these tips:

·         Sip on smoothies made with fresh fruit, plain yogurt and milk or fortified soy beverage. Add in a little wheat germ, ground flax or ground almonds for a nutrient boost.

·         Carry snacks with you. Homemade whole grain muffins, cheese, nuts, seeds and dried fruits like raisins and apricots are all energy-rich snacks.

·         Add sliced or mashed avocado to sandwiches and wraps in place of butter.


When you avoid animal products, you need to find another source of protein. Plant proteins aren’t as well digested or as complete as animal proteins, so choosing a variety of different types of protein foods over the course of the day is essential. Since plant proteins aren’t as well digested, it is recommended that vegetarian athletes consume more protein than non-vegetarian athletes: 1.3 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily (this is 10% more than recommendations for non-vegetarian athletes).
Take a look at the following table for the protein content of various plant foods.


Protein (grams)

Tofu, regular, firm or extra firm – 175 mL (3/4 cup)


Pumpkin and squash seed kernels – 60 mL (1/4 c)


Wiener, meatless – 1 (70 g)


Lentils (boiled) and beans, cooked or canned
(various types) – 175 mL (3/4 cup)


Peanut or nut butters – 30 mL (2 tbsp)


Fortified soy beverage – 250 mL (1 cup)


Mixed nuts (shelled) – 60 mL (1/4 cup)


Mixed-grain, whole grain bread - 1 slice (35 g)


Whole wheat pasta – 125 mL (½ cup) (cooked)


Rice, brown – 125 mL (1/2 cup) (cooked)


Source: Canadian Nutrient File, version 2010, Health Canada

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal products. If you don’t eat eggs or dairy products, include foods fortified with vitamin B12 like soy beverages and meat substitutes, such as veggie dogs or veggie burgers.

Calcium and Vitamin D

Calcium and vitamin D are important for healthy bones, teeth, muscles, nerves, and proper hormone function. Dairy products or fortified soy beverages, canned salmon or sardines (with the bones), and some fortified orange juices provide both nutrients.  Almonds, figs, beans, tahini, tofu set with calcium, turnip or collard greens, broccoli and kale also provide good amounts of calcium.
Vitamin D is made when the sun hits bare skin. In the late fall or winter in Canada, our bodies can’t make enough vitamin D from the sun. If you train indoors most of the time, you may be at risk for low vitamin D and supplementation may be necessary.  Experts recommend that ‘at risk’ athletes aged 19-50 years supplement with 200 IU of vitamin D daily. Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) in supplements or fortified foods (e.g. milk) is usually from an animal source. If you want a plant source of vitamin D in your supplement or fortified food (e.g. rice or soy milk), choose products made with vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol). Check the label.


Vegetarians need almost twice the iron of non-vegetarians because iron from plant foods is poorly absorbed. Training can increase your need for iron too. Iron deficiency leads to fatigue and can impair your performance. Here are some tips to getting enough iron:

·         Eat iron rich foods every day. Choose from beans, lentils, seeds, soy, and whole grain or fortified cereals, breads and pastas.

·         Include a source of vitamin C at meals and snacks to help your body absorb the iron from plant foods. Examples include citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, and broccoli.

·         Don’t drink tea or coffee during meals because they can inhibit iron absorption. Wait at least one hour after a meal to enjoy your tea or coffee.

Vegetarian athletes should have their iron checked periodically by their doctor to determine if a supplement is needed. Taking iron supplements without having your blood checked first is not a good idea. Too much iron from supplements can be toxic.


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