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Understanding the needs of the vegetarian athlete

Understanding the needs of the vegetarian athlete


by Jill Castle, MS, RDN, CDN

About four percent of American children and teens claim they are vegetarian, according to a 2014 poll by Harris Interactive for the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG). Specifically, between the ages of 6 and 17, approximately two percent of children and teens say they are vegetarian (eating a diet that excludes meat, fish, and poultry), and six percent say they don’t eat meat.

Young athletes who are vegetarian largely cut out animal products—meat, dairy, and eggs—from their diet, although some vegetarian athletes eat dairy, eggs and fish. For vegetarians, the overall dietary focus is eating an abundance of such plant foods as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans. This diet can be a nutritious way to fuel your young athletes, provided it includes wholesome foods and adequate nutrients to cover the demands of growth and sport. The goals for young athletes who are vegetarian are to achieve normal growth and development, to stay in good health, and to compete to the best of their abilities.

There are several types of vegetarians:

Lacto-vegetarian: One who eats no animal flesh, but does consume milk. The at-risk nutrients for this vegetarian are iron, zinc, and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).

Lacto-ovo vegetarian: One who eats no animal flesh, but does consume milk and eggs. The nutrients of concern with this diet are iron and zinc.

Pescetarian: One who eats no animal flesh or animal products, but does eat fish. Nutrients of concern include iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamins D and B12.

Vegan: One who does not consume any foods of animal origin. The at-risk nutrients are protein, iron, zinc, DHA, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.

Flexitarian: One who follows a vegan diet, but occasionally consumes meat, fish, poultry, or dairy. This flexibility allows the requirements for all nutrients to be met with thoughtful planning.

Following a vegetarian diet may lower the risk for heart disease, reduce levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, lower blood pressure, drop the risk of type 2 diabetes, reduce weight, and minimize the risk of certain cancers. These health benefits seem to be related to the increased consumption of plant foods, which are good sources of micronutrients, antioxidants, fiber and phytochemicals, rather than to the elimination of animal products.

The ability to ward off common colds and other diseases—that is, having a strong immune system—is a compelling reason for some athletes to go vegan. After all, getting sick less translates to fewer training disruptions. Improved immunity is linked to the high micronutrient load associated with vegan diets. Nutrients called antioxidants are, in part, responsible for supporting the immune system, and several nutrients, including beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E, are powerful anti-oxidant nutrients. If you want to bump up the antioxidant levels in your athlete’s diet and curtail frequent illness, try adding more fruits and vegetables to the diet, particularly the foods that are high in antioxidants: black currants; berries; pomegranate; sour cherries; oranges; kiwi; all colorful vegetables (green, red, orange, yellow, etc.); pistachios; and sesame seeds.

Endangered Nutrients

If your athlete is vegan, or any form of vegetarian, you will need to pay attention to some critical nutrients. Often young athletes ignore this aspect of being vegetarian, but given their age and the nutritional demands of growth and sport, these nutrients are a top priority:

Protein. Protein needs are similar in vegan and non-vegan athletes. Vegans can get protein from grains, vegetables, tofu, beans, nuts, and seeds, but they may have to eat more of these foods to glean the amounts of protein that animal sources can supply. As long as vegan protein sources are varied throughout the day, protein needs, particularly amino acids, should be easy to meet. Occasionally, vegans may use isolated protein powders like pea or soy protein to bump up their overall intake of protein, especially if their whole-food sources are marginal as in the young athlete who won’t eat beans, or the teen athlete who drinks low protein milk substitutes. Whole-food sources of protein are ideal. Larger athletes with higher protein needs, such as teen football players, may need a protein powder supplement to meet their daily protein needs while they are on a vegan diet.

Calcium. Calcium is found in certain vegetables, such as bok choy, kale, watercress, and arugula, as well as in nuts, especially almonds, and seeds such as sesame and chia. Because children aged 9 to 18 years need more calcium than at any other time in their life for bone development (1,300 mg per day), seeking out calcium sources and including them routinely in the diet is critical. Other top plant sources of calcium include collard greens, spinach, kidney beans, tofu, calcium-fortified orange juice, calcium--fortified cereals, and alternative milks such as soymilk that are calcium-fortified.

Iron. As you know, young athletes are susceptible to iron deficiency – especially girls, due to iron losses associated with exercise and menstruation. For any athlete, iron deficits can diminish athletic performance. Iron from plant foods is harder to absorb than iron from animal flesh. However, iron absorption can be improved by consuming a vitamin C source, such as citrus juice, along with plant sources of iron. Include quality iron and vitamin C sources daily, such as spinach tossed into a strawberry smoothie, or citrus vinaigrette drizzled atop a kale salad. Top plant sources of iron include spinach, asparagus, chard, broccoli rabe, bok choy, firm or soft tofu, lentils, soybeans, other beans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, raisins, and iron-fortified breakfast cereals.

Beans and grains, while a good source of iron, also contain phytates, which are antioxidant compounds that inhibit the absorption of iron in the body. The best way around them is to eat a vitamin C source when eating beans or grains, which will enhance iron absorption and reduce their inhibitory effects. For example, a pasta meal with white beans and tomatoes promotes iron absorption due to the presence of tomatoes (a vitamin C source) in the meal.

Zinc. The primary source of zinc in the American diet is animal products. Although there are plant sources of zinc, such as beans, whole grains, and nuts, they may not be well absorbed due to their phytate content (see above). For this reason, a vegan athlete’s need for sources of zinc is about 50 percent higher than a non-vegan athlete’s. Meeting the zinc requirement from food alone can be a challenge for a vegan athlete, so a multivitamin/multi-mineral supplement may be warranted. Top plant sources of zinc include black beans, other beans, tofu, cashews, bean-based veggie burgers, fortified breakfast cereals, peas, pumpkin seeds, and hemp seeds.

Vitamin B12. Deficiencies of vitamin B12 can cause anemia and may even lead to permanent central nervous system damage. Vitamin B12 is found largely in animal foods, so the vegan athlete will need a reliable source—a fortified food such as nutritional yeast, fortified soy products or cereals, soymilk, B12-fortified meat analogues, or a vitamin B12 supplement. If your athlete eats dairy and eggs, his or her vitamin B12 intake may be fine.

Vitamin D. Most of the fortified food sources of vitamin D are unavailable to vegans who eliminate dairy products and eggs. Of course, athletes who live in a sunny climate year-round and spend time outside without sunscreen may make enough vitamin D in their skin. However, for general health and wellness, a vitamin D supplement is not a bad idea. Aim for at least the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) (600 International Units [IU] per day). Plant food sources of vitamin D include vitamin D–fortified orange juice, mushrooms, soymilk, and some vitamin D–fortified cereals.

DHA. Fatty fish is the richest food source of DHA, so if your athletes are vegan, they may not be getting enough DHA in their diet. The jury is still out on whether athletes should supplement their dietary intake of DHA, but I support routinely including a source of this fatty acid, whether from eating fish twice weekly or taking an algae-based DHA supplement.

Tips for Feeding Your Vegan Athlete

Don’t let your young athletes manage a vegan or vegetarian diet on their own. While the desire to be independent with this diet approach may be strong, most young athletes don’t have the knowledge of nutrition to eat properly. Here are some simple tips to keep in mind:

1. Serve a variety of food each day. Be willing to explore and experiment with different plant foods, especially those that are packed with nutrition. Include hummus, bean dips, and roasted beans. Don’t fear tofu—get creative with stir fry, tofu-enriched smoothies, and breakfast scrambles. Find ways to include dark greens and other colorful fruits and vegetables every day. Make whole grains your go-to, as these are richer in nutrition than their refined or white-wheat counterparts.

2. Find a routine dairy source or an alternative. Whether it be cow’s milk, soymilk, hemp milk, or a cheese or yogurt alternative, make sure that each day your athletes get three cups of dairy or a nondairy alternative that is fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Tap into other foods that are good sources of calcium and vitamin D. Your young athletes’ bones depend on it.

3. Pop in the protein. Include at least one vegetarian protein source at each meal and with most snacks.

4. Eat with structure and routine. Sometimes a vegan diet can be very filling because it is chock-full of fiber. The result? Your young athletes don’t “have room” for the calories or range of nutrients they need. You can deal with this by offering frequent meals and snacks at regular intervals, such as every 3 to 4 hours, which will allow your athletes plenty of opportunity to eat without becoming overly full and meanwhile get the calories and nutrients they need.

5. Details, details—they matter. Pay attention to the nutrients of concern I outlined earlier, including vitamin B12, zinc, iron, calcium, vitamin D, and DHA. If you can cover these, you will have a healthy vegan athlete.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete by Jill Castle, MS, RDN, CDN. Kids have their own nutritional needs - especially athletic kids. Yet most young athletes aren't eating properly to compete. Eat Like a Champion will help their parents tailor diets for training, competition, and even off-season. Buy Eat Like a Champion on Amazon:

Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete by Jill Castle   

© 2015 Jill Castle   

All rights reserved.

Published by AMACOM Book

Division of American Management Association

1601 Broadway, New York, NY 10019

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