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The Meat-Free Athlete

June 3, 2013 | Bonnie L. Gasior

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If you choose a vegetarian diet for health, nutritional or personal reasons, you can still perform at the same high level as athletes who get their protein from meat. Pro athletes like Prince Fielder (vegetarian) and Andre Johnson (vegan) have ascended to elite status in their sports without eating any meat at all. If you’re an athlete who has chosen the vegetarian lifestyle, it’s important that you learn how to structure your meals with the right balance of carbs, proteins and fats to maximize your performance. Here are some tips to get started.


Energy-rich, complex carbohydrates should be a big part of any meat-free athlete's diet. Some great choices include:

  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Bulgur wheat
  • Potatoes
  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Whole grain breads
  • Oatmeal
  • Cereal
  • Beans

All of these foods also have healthy amounts of protein, which every athlete needs. To maximize your performance, avoid simple carbohydrates, such as sugar.


You can also get protein from nuts and seeds. Just eat them in moderation, as they tend to be high in fat (learn the 16 nuts and seeds you should be eating). Nut-based beverages, such as almond or soy milk, are great alternatives for those who choose not to consume dairy. Seeds, such as chia or sunflower, are delicious and nutritious additions to salads, muffins and yogurt.

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are most often associated with vegetarian diets. Athletes should focus on vitamin-dense vegetables, such as peppers, kale, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and carrots. Strawberries, kiwi, plums and cantaloupe are nutritional powerhouses that can be consumed at any time of day. Berries also make great snack food. Consider adding them to your breakfast or mix them in protein shakes.

Vegetarian Meal Plan

Loma Linda University's Department of Nutrition has created a food pyramid to help guide vegetarians. It calls for 0-2 servings each of dairy and vegetable oils; 0-1 of eggs; 1-2 of nuts and seeds; 1-3 of legumes; 3-4 of fruit; 6-9 of vegetables; and 5-12 of whole grains.

If you are new to vegetarianism, try this sample menu to make sure you’re getting all the right nutrients.

  • For breakfast, try a cup of cooked oatmeal, 1/2 cup of fresh blueberries, one poached egg, and a cup of green tea.
  • As a mid-morning snack, grab two tablespoons of unsalted almonds.
  • For lunch, consume one cup of cooked bulgur wheat, 1/2 cup of lentils, a banana and one cup of steamed broccoli.
  • A pre-game snack could include yogurt or a whole wheat bagel with a teaspoon of peanut butter.
  • Dinner could include a large salad with your favorite vegetables and a sprinkling of walnuts, dressed with a tablespoon of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
  • A ripe, crisp apple is a nice way to satisfy your sweet tooth without succumbing to less healthy options.

Feel free to experiment with your diet. As Joel Furhman and Deana M. Ferrari assert, "The optimal diet for the vegan athlete has not yet been defined" (233).

Vegetarian Guidelines

Avoid vegetarian “health food” that contains high levels of hydrogenated oils or saturated fats. Likewise, opt for raw, steamed or grilled food over fried varieties. Try to give yourself two to three hours to digest larger meals before physical activity.

Want to learn more about becoming a vegetarian athlete? Start with these four tips.


Furhman, Joel and Deana M. Ferreri. "Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete." Current Sports Medical Reports. 9.4 (2010): 233-241.


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