A vegetarian diet is one that does not include meat and relies more on plant-based sources of protein. With all the recent plant-based hype, many athletes wonder if a vegetarian diet is a good option for them, while others fear that they won’t be able to consume enough protein when following a vegetarian diet.
Athletes can have success and perform well on a vegetarian diet. However, it does take some extra planning and work to ensure that your body does indeed get all of the nutrients it needs. If you choose to follow a vegetarian diet, I recommend working with a sports dietitian to make a plan that works for your body. Teenage athletes following a vegetarian diet need to especially plan to make sure they are getting enough protein, iron, calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fats, and vitamin B12, and not eating too much sodium/salt.
Read on for more information about the benefits of vegetarian diets, what to eat on a vegetarian diet, how a vegetarian diet will affect sports performance and muscle mass, and risks of following a vegetarian diet.
What is the Difference Between Vegetarian, Vegan and Pescatarian?
So many names…what do they all mean?! There are slight differences between each of these dietary restrictions. Vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, or fish. Vegans do not eat any animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese, eggs or any foods that contain these ingredients. A pescatarian is one that follows a vegetarian diet, but does eat fish!
Is a Vegetarian Diet Good For Teen Athletes?
My general recommendation to athletes is to include more plant-based sources of protein in your diet when you can. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to strictly follow a vegetarian diet.
Following a vegetarian diet is totally a personal choice and you can absolutely be a successful athlete following a vegetarian diet, or not! If you choose to follow a vegetarian diet out of an obsession with health or a fear of eating meat, then it might not be a healthy option for you. I encourage parents to talk with their teens and understand why they are making the food choices they are, without shame or judgment.
A more practical option for some teens might be to decrease their intake of fatty meats, and choose more lean protein options and more ethically sourced animal products. I personally like to add sources of plant-protein to my meals so that I don’t have to get all my protein from meat.
Having a restrictive mindset is usually not helpful in the long-run, so teenagers should focus on making food decisions from a place of self-love, and self-care. They should be able to separate themselves from the food choices that they make, knowing that they are not “good” or “bad” for eating certain foods. If a vegetarian diet is something that brings peace of mind and makes your body feel good, go for it!
Athletes on a vegetarian diet do need to be aware of the foods that they are eating and they need to have a plan so that they get all of the nutrients their body needs. If you do choose to follow a vegetarian diet (or vegan diet), I highly recommend working with a dietitian to make a plan that meets all of your needs and helps you perform your best!
Benefits of Vegetarian Diets
There are pros and cons to any type of dietary pattern. However consuming a plant-based, vegetarian diet has been linked to many positive outcomes including:
- Lower risk of cancer
- Lower risk of heart disease
- Improved blood pressure levels
- Lower risk of Type 2 Diabetes
- Decreased risk of obesity
- Reduced arterial plaque formation
What Should a Teen Vegetarian Eat?
A teen vegetarian should make sure to eat a wide variety of foods from each food group. A healthy vegetarian diet can include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Beans and lentils
- Nuts and nut butters
- Low-fat dairy
If you feel stuck when planning your meals and snacks, think about ways to replace meat with other sources of protein. This is a simple way to make your meals more plant-based, even if you are not following a strict vegetarian diet.
Will a Vegetarian Diet Affect Physical Performance?
A well-planned vegetarian diet will not negatively affect performance as long as calorie needs and nutrient needs are met. If you are new to eating plant-based, it is important to have a registered dietitian evaluate your eating pattern and make adjustments as needed. They can also advise you on additional supplements that your body might need.
Risks of Vegetarian Diets for Athletes
There are several nutrients of concern when consuming a vegetarian diet. While athletes consuming meat might have an easier time getting some of these nutrients, vegetarian athletes might have to make a plan to meet all of their needs. However, even athletes consuming meat could still be deficient in some nutrients so I recommend that all athletes meet with a sports dietitian to make sure their diet is meeting all of their needs.
A sports dietitian and medical doctor can help determine if you need any additional supplements in addition to working with your diet.
Here are a few of the most common nutrients of concern for vegetarian athletes:
Meat is a good source of iron, but your body can adapt to better absorb plant-based and non-flesh animal sources of iron as well. Include foods like soybeans, spinach, eggs, beans, and fortified cereals to your diet to ensure that your body gets the iron that it needs! Additionally, Vitamin C (widely found in citrus fruits) helps increase iron absorption when eaten with iron-containing foods.
Calcium is essential for teenagers because they are in such an essential bone development phase. Those on a vegetarian diet can still consume dairy foods (milk, yogurt, and cheese), broccoli, kale, collard greens, almonds, fortified breakfast cereals, tofu, soy milk, and beans to meet their calcium needs. Vegans may have a harder time getting adequate calcium because they can no longer have dairy.
If you are consuming dairy that is fortified with vitamin D and/or are getting adequate exposure to sunlight on a regular basis, you are probably meeting your vitamin D needs. Some people in certain parts of the world are not able to get enough sunlight and frequently have low vitamin D levels. It is important to have lab work done to check your levels of this nutrient as well as others!
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Part of the reason it is recommended to eat fish multiple times a week is because it is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, a healthy fat source that especially helps decrease inflammation in the body. If you do not consume fish, you can get your omega-3’s from seeds (like chia and flax), and walnuts.
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products- not in plant products. This means that those following a vegan diet with no animal foods at all will definitely need to supplement with vitamin B12. Dairy products and eggs do contain B12, but vegetarians should monitor their B12 levels to make sure they are still consuming enough. Low levels of B12 are often linked to feeling extremely tired and low on energy.
How to Gain Muscle on a Vegetarian Diet
The most important aspects of building muscle are eating a surplus of calories, eating adequate protein and consuming it at regular intervals throughout the day, and doing muscle-building activities, like weight training. All of these are possible and practical when following a vegetarian diet.
Although protein and other macronutrient needs will vary person-to-person, I usually recommend consuming about 20 grams of protein every 3-5 hours. If reaching 20 grams is challenging, using a protein supplement might be appropriate.
Keep in mind that not all protein powders and shakes are safe for consumption, especially for teenagers. I always recommend talking to a registered dietitian and your doctor before starting any type of supplement to make sure it is a good option for you. They can also point you toward a high-quality supplement that has been tested for safety and efficacy!
See my whey protein posts which includes vegan options: Is Whey Protein Safe for Teenage Athletes? Here’s What Dietitians Recommend
- Can a 15-Year Old Take Protein Shakes?
- How Much Protein Should Teenagers be Getting?
- The Best Protein Snacks for Teenagers
- Is It Okay for a Teenager to Drink Protein Shakes
- Dietitian Recommended Protein and Energy Bars for Teens
Tips for Athletes Following a Plant-Based Diet
Following a plant-based diet might bring its fair share of challenges. Thankfully, many restaurants and grocery stores are providing more plant-based options, but high vegetarian-friendly protein meals and snacks might not always be offered everywhere you go. If you are struggling to eat enough calories or protein while following a vegetarian diet, here are some general tips to make things a little easier:
- Keep high protein snacks with you at all times! You never know when your schedule will change or when you will get hungry, so instead of ignoring your hunger cues or having to go search for a vegetarian option- keep some on hand!
- Ask a dietitian about using a protein powder. Protein powder can be added to oatmeal, drinks, smoothies, sauces, baked goods and more to boost the protein content!
- Experiment with different protein sources. Try different types of beans and legumes, experiment with new ways of eating soy foods, add nuts and nut butters as toppings, and try out lots of recipes until you find out what works for you. You should enjoy the foods that you eat!
- Remember that there are other sources of protein that are vegetarian-friendly, but not necessarily vegan-friendly. Including a moderate amount of milk, greek yogurt, eggs, and cheese can increase your protein intake as well as your calcium intake (which helps strengthen bones).
- Include carbohydrates, protein, and fat at each eating occasion. Healthy fats can be a great way to increase calories for athletes with very high energy needs!
Sample Meal and Snack Ideas for Vegetarian Athletes
Here are a few vegetarian meal ideas. Portion sizes should be adjusted as needed to meet calorie and macronutrient needs of the individual! Oh and don’t forget to hydrate with water and add in electrolyte beverages as necessary!
- Oatmeal with peanut butter and berries and a glass of chocolate milk
- Scrambled eggs, toast with jam, half a banana, and a glass of milk
- Fruit smoothie with protein powder (if approved by your doctor or dietitian), and flax or chia seeds
- Protein bar with an apple and an english muffin
- Egg sandwich with cheese and a glass of 100% orange juice
- Avocado toast with a fried egg, peaches, and milk
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich, carrots with hummus, and a few strawberries
- Edamame, wheat thins, fruit salad, and celery with peanut butter
- Grilled cheese sandwich with a fruit smoothie (made with greek yogurt)
- Lentil soup with a fruity side salad (berries, candied walnuts and a vinaigrette dressing)
- Nuts, grapes, chex mix, celery with hummus
- Salad with grilled tofu, peppers, onions, tomatoes, avocado, cucumber, and a roll on the side
- Quinoa bowls with beans and veggies
- Burritos or quesadillas with black beans and cheese with a side of lettuce, sour cream, and salsa
- Chef Salad with hard boiled eggs, veggies, cheese, black beans, corn, and dressing
- Black bean burgers with lettuce and tomato with peppers and hummus on the side
- Tofu stir fry with vegetables, served over rice
- Baked potato with bean chili, cheese, sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes, etc.
- Hard boiled egg and orange slices
- Fruit smoothie made with greek yogurt
- Nuts and dried fruit
- Crackers, cucumbers, and hummus
- Protein balls made with oats, peanut butter, chia seeds, flax seeds, honey, etc.
- Apple slices with almond butter
Vegetarian diets can be a healthy option for teenage athletes who can do a good job planning their meals and nutrients! Eating more plant-based meals can be a great way to improve your health, even if you do not fully exclude meat, poultry, and fish. If eating a vegetarian diet feels overwhelming, just experiment with adding in more plant-based proteins and then go from there.
Eating should be nourishing and bring joy to your body and mind!
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Position of the AND: Vegetarian diets. Eatrightpro.org. Published December 2016.
Hermann M. Menu ideas for vegetarian teens. Eatright.org. Published October 9, 2019.
Klemm S. Food sources of 5 important nutrients for vegetarians. Eatright.org. Published October 15, 2021.
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