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The Vegetarian Athlete

Any athlete, regardless of sport, intensity of training, gender, or age can successfully choose a vegetarian diet without risking nutrient shortages or deficiencies. However, such a lifestyle choice will require careful planning to maintain adequate energy for training and to reduce the risk of associated vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

The key to a successful vegetarian diet is understanding which plant foods contain similar nutrients as the foods you are no longer consuming, and which nutrients may be at risk.

Nutrients at risk for the vegetarian athlete

  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Vitamin B-12
  • Calcium
  • Omega 3s
  • Protein

Nutrient Information and Sources

If you do have a known deficiency, it is important to consult your physician to determine appropriate dietary supplements regimen.

Zinc - Necessary for protein synthesis and supporting immune function, this mineral can be found in whole grains, fortified foods as well as nuts and seeds

Vitamin B-12 - B-12 is necessary for protein synthesis and aids in energy metabolism, but it is only found in animal products, so vegan athletes should look for foods fortified with B-12 or consume a multi-vitamin that contains B-12.

Iron - The most bio-available form (heme) is found in meat, but vegetables contain a form of iron (non-heme) that can promote optimal iron stores if consumed regularly.

Common Sources of Iron


Serving Size

Iron (mg)

Beef, round tip (cooked)

3 oz.

2.5 H

Chicken, breast (roasted)

3 oz.

0.9 H

Shrimp (cooked moist heat)

3 oz.

2.6 H

Kidney beans, canned

½ cup

2.6 NH

Tofu, reg

3 oz.

6.4 NH

Calcium - Recommended Adequate Intake (AI) for athletes between ages of 19 and 50 years is 1000-1,500 mg. Athletes not eating dairy can find calcium in fortified foods, soy as well as some veggies and legumes.

Common Sources of Calcium


Serving size

Calcium (mg)

Skim milk

1 cup


Low-fat yogurt

1 cup


Cottage cheese

2 cups


Soy milk

1 cup


Broccoli (raw)

1 cup


Kale (cooked)

1 cup



1 cup


Omega 3s - This essential fatty acid which promotes good heart health and inflammation can be found in high concentrations in nuts/seeds like almonds, walnuts, flax and sunflower seeds.

Protein - Depending upon the individuality of the sport, phase of training, etc, most athletes will need 1-2 g protein/ kg body weight.

Common Sources of Protein


Serving size

Protein (g)

Peanut butter

2 tbsp



¼ cup


Sunflower seeds

¼ cup



½ cup


Soy milk

1 cup


Beans (black, kidney etc)

½ cup



½ cup


Quinoa, cooked

1 cup


Courtesy of the United States Olympic Committee