Updated 25 February 2014

Sports nutrition for vegetarians

Can a vegetarian diet sustain optimal sports performance? Caryn Davies, registered dietician, makes the case for competitive vegetarianism.

Are you a vegetarian athlete and worried that you may not be getting enough protein for strength building?

Not eating meat, puts vegetarians at risk of deficiencies in iron, zinc and B12, which are all important nutrients for exercise and strength training performance.

With a little bit of planning, however, it is entirely possible to fuel your body for success. Many vegetarian athletes, including superstars Martina Navratilova and Carl Lewis, have proven over the years how a well-chosen vegetarian diet can give you the competitive edge.

A balanced diet is ideal for athletes and a vegetarian lifestyle can offer an adequate balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat for sportsmen and women.  It is an overall energy restriction, rather than the restriction of certain foods which could compromise strength and stamina during sport.

Looking at the dietary needs of athletes from a scientific perspective, carbohydrates are required for energy, specifically endurance training whilst protein is required for muscle building and repair.

Adequate protein intake

Precise recommendations for athletes are all relevant to the individual’s body size as well as the type and intensity of sport. Recommendations for protein and carbohydrate are made in terms of number of grams per kilogram of body weight. In comparison to non-athletes, for whom protein requirements are 0.8g/kg body weight/day, the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests a protein intake of 1.4-2g/kg/day for sportsmen and women.

According to registered dieticians Liesbet Delport and Paula Volschenck, (in their book Eat Smart for Sport, Tafelberg 2007) adult female athletes (weighing between 50-75kg), engaging in 1 hour of daily exercise, need approximately 10-12 protein units in the daily diet.

The following table gives insight into the ease at which adequate protein can be obtained from a well-planned vegetarian diet:

KEY: 1 protein unit is equivalent to 7g protein in the diet and 1 fat unit is equivalent to 5g fat in the diet:

High Protein Vegetarian Foods Protein Units Fat Units
Breakfast Food Ideas
2/3 cup raw oats 1 1
2 cups cooked oats 1 1
½ cup Jungle oat bran 1 <1
½ cup Pronutro, wholewheat , original (dry porridge) 1 <1
½ cup Pronutro, wholewheat, original  with 188ml milk 2 1
1 cup All Bran Flakes 1 <1
1 cup Nature’s source muesli 1 2
½ cup baked beans 1 <1
1 egg 1 1
1 cup skim milk 1 <1
1 slice low GI seed loaf ½ ½
Lunch Food Ideas
1 pita bread 1 ½ <1
1 ¼ cup sweet corn, fresh 1 <1
½ cup lentils 1 <1
½ cup chickpeas 1 <1
¼ cup fat-free cottage cheese 1 <1
Fry’s Meat Free Cottage Pie 2 <1
Dinner Food Ideas
½ cup barlotti/cannellini beans 1 <1
1 cup green peas (frozen) 1 <1
11/4 cups spinach cooked 1 <1
1 cup cooked quinoa 1 <1
1 cup brown/white  rice cooked ½ <1
1 cup Fine Form tagliatelle 1 <1
1/3 round feta cheese 1 1
Fry’s Asian Spiced Burger 2 1
1 hamburger roll ½ <1
Extra Food Ideas
3 TBS sunflower seeds 1 3
2 heaped TBS raw almonds 1 3
2 TBS chia seeds ½ 2
175ml low fat plain yoghurt 1 ½
125ml soya yoghurt ½ <1

Food Information sourced from The South African Glycemic Index & Load Guide (Steenkamp & Delport; GIFSA 2007)

Also evident from this table is the fact that plant proteins are generally very low in fat, which is not true for most animal proteins. Fat in the diet of sportsmen and women is not desirable in excess.

Healthy fats, like the type of fat found in nuts and seeds are great, but a high fat diet can simply add weight to the body without adding strength.

Ultimately, the basic business of an athlete is to work harder and sweat more, which means that they need to eat more and drink more. Fundamentally nothing else is different, but their food choices are considerably more meaningful if they want to perform to their best ability.

Why not experience the power in plant protein and give it a try?

Daily Menu Example for Sporting Vegetarians: (11 units of protein)

Breakfast:  Brekkie Beans on Toast with Milky Coffee (2 protein units)
  • ½ cup baked beans on 1 slice low GI seed toast
  • ½ cup milk
Lunch: Corn & Chickpea Salad Pita (4 protein units)
  • 1 pita bread
  • Salad filling: ½ cup corn kernels, ½ cup chickpeas, 1/3 round feta cheese, lettuce, tomato, cucumber)

Dinner: Fry’s Veggie Burger with Salad & Seeds  (3 protein units)
  • 1 burger bun
  • 1 Fry’s Asian Spiced Burger
  • Salad of choice with 1½ TBS sunflower seeds
Snack: Plain Yoghurt with Nuts & Honey (2 protein units)

  • Combine 175ml plain yoghurt with 1-2 tsp honey and 2 TBS raw almonds

Fry’s Family Foods press release

Man eating vegetables from Shutterstock)


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