The Vegetarian Athlete: Nutrients of Concern

Are you thinking of changing your eating habits and becoming a vegetarian?

Are you already a vegetarian and wondering if you are eating right?


Many people choose to cut out animal products from their diet. Some reasons include personal and religious beliefs, or concerns for animal welfare. Regardless of the reason, there are some important nutrients that can be missed. If your an athlete, being low in some nutrients can impair your overall sports goals and performance.

There are four different types of vegetarians: lacto, ovo, lacto-ovo, and vegan.

  • A lacto-vegetarian allows all dairy products into the diet.
  • A ovo-vegetarian allows all eggs and egg products into the diet.
  • A lacto-ovo-vegetarian allows both dairy and eggs into their diet.
  • A vegan diet restricts all products produced by animals.

Depending on the type of vegetarian you are (or will be), your nutrients of concern will vary. Being a vegetarian athlete simply takes more meal planning. But if done correctly, your diet can be just as nutritious as a non-vegetarian diet. Below we will go into detail about the top six nutrients of concern to be aware of.



IMG_7562Protein is needed to build and repair muscle. Protein needs increase with the level of training. Depending on your activity level, you may already meet your needs. Animal products are usually excellent sources of protein. When these are cut out, a vegetarian needs to make sure they eat protein rich foods at every meal. A dietitian can help review your diet to ensure your protein intake is adequate and meets your activity level.

Good sources: dairy products, pulses, tofu, soy products, nuts, and nut butters.

For a yummy plant based protein rich dish, check out my Edamame and Avocado Pasta Salad recipe.




Iron is needed for red blood cell (RBC) formation and transport of oxygen. People that engage in intense physical activity have higher iron needs than inactive people. Being iron deficient can decrease sports performance. This is especially true in female athletes. Iron losses occur through feces, sweat, menstrual blood, and exercise trauma.

There are two types of dietary iron: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme iron is animal based. Non-heme is mainly plant based. Non-heme iron is not absorbed as well as heme iron. Fun fact: vitamin C can increase iron absorption when consumed with iron rich foods.

Good sources: iron-fortified cereals, pulses, spinach and tofu.

*Only consume an Iron supplement if recommended by your physician and dietitian. Large doses can result in toxicity and liver problems.


Vitamin D:The Vegetarian Athlete: Nutrients of Concern

Vitamin D is crucial for bone health. Vitamin D can be formed in our skin by the sun. In Canada the UVB rays needed to produce vitamin D are not always available. Therefore, we need to get it through the diet.

Good sources: dairy, mushrooms and fortified foods like soymilk.



Like vitamin D, calcium is also found in dairy products and plays an important role in bone health.

Good sources: fortified foods such as tofu and soymilk, dairy, kale, broccoli, bok choy, and soybeans.


Vitamin B12:

The Vegetarian Athlete: Nutrients of Concern
Nutritional Yeast

Vitamin B12 plays a role in RBC production, protein synthesis, and tissue repair. Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products. It is not generally found in plant foods. Therefore, foods must be fortified with vitamin B12.

Good sources: dairy, eggs, nutritional yeast, and fortified foods.

Check out my tasty vegan recipe that uses nutritional yeast: Kale Glory Bowl.



            Zinc is needed for immune health and wound healing. Phytates found in plants can decrease zinc absorption. Fun fact: soaking and sprouting grains, beans and seeds can reduce phytate.

Good sources: whole grains, dairy, nuts, and legumes.


…So, how do I know what I’m missing?

An appointment with a dietitian can help you determine what nutrients are low in your diet. Often this will be completed through dietary analysis, and reviewing your lab work. Although a simple solution might seem to just take an oral supplement, this can result in more harm than good. Toxicities can result with high levels of any nutrient, and this can impair your sports performance (and negatively affect your health!).

If you want some help developing your vegetarian meal plan, or have any specific questions, contact myself or your local dietitian.

Important to always remember, better nutrition means better performance.



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