It’s an age-old question—can you succeed in sports while following a vegetarian diet? Many athletes, such as Joe Namath, Martina Navratilova, Carl Lewis and Robert Paris, have had success with vegetarian diets, proving that it can sustain elite performance (with special considerations).
The thing that most vegetarian athletes struggle with is getting enough protein (learn more about protein). Nutritionists recommend that athletes consume between .5 and .7 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Even the lower end of this range is higher than the recommendations for non-athletes, because athletes need more protein for muscle growth and recovery.
Most people get their protein through meat, fish and other animal products. For a vegetarian, these are off the menu. Depending on the type of vegetarian you are, you may decide to eat fish or eggs. Strict vegetarians can get their protein from beans, pulses and legumes, as well as from meat substitutes like quorn, soy and tofu. The downside to these meat alternatives is that they are higher in carbs, and the soy-based products contain anti-nutrients and phytoestrogens that may be detrimental to health. If you don’t rely solely on these products, you will be in the clear.
Another protein option is protein powder. You can have whey or casein if you choose, but hemp, brown rice and pea protein will suffice. Also, you can get an extra 30 to 40 grams of protein each day by eating green, leafy vegetables and grains.
Learn more about vegetarian sources of protein for athletes.
One nutrient vegetarians don’t struggle with is carbohydrates. In fact, due to the extra reliance on grains, pulses and cereal products, most vegetarian diets are high in carbs.
Although high levels of carbs may be an issue for athletes trying to lose weight, they’re put to good use during workouts and games. To make sure they’re used for energy and recovery, eat the majority of your carbs before and after exercise. Also, stick to nutrient-dense sources like sweet potatoes, brown rice, quinoa and oats rather than bread, sugary cereals and white pasta.
Like carbs, fat intake doesn’t need to be overcomplicated. Nuts are the best source for vegetarians, because they contain high amounts of protein along with healthy fats. Extra-virgin olive oil is also a great source of healthy fats (but it doesn’t provide much energy or other nutrients).