Article by Ruth McKean, Sports Nutritionist

Nutrient Concerns for Vegetarian Athletes


You are unlikely to be deficient in protein if you include dairy-based products and/or eggs in your diet both frequently and in sufficient quantities. If you are an athlete you may require up to 150% more protein than the amount recommended for non-athletes. However, this increasedquite target is often met easily as athletes do eat more.

You are at greatest risk of inadequate protein intake if you are growing or consume lower quality proteins (i.e plant proteins). Plant proteins have lower digestibility, lower energy content and lower protein quality than meat proteins and therefore athletes and non-athletes may have to increase their protein intake to take account of this lower digestibility of plant proteins.

Ensuring a Balance of Proteins

There are millions of different proteins but all are built from the same 20 amino acids - the basic building blocks. The sequence of the amino acids determines the protein and its function. Our bodies can make amino acids although there are eight amino acids ("essential amino acids") are body can't make and must be supplied in our diets.

  • Plant foods do not contain all the essential amino acids needed by humans - for this reason plant proteins are often described as providing lower protein quality than animal proteins.
  • Animal proteins such as meat and fish have all the essential amino acids and therefore are described as high quality proteins.

It is therefore important to eat a range of plant protein sources to obtain the different amino acids to ensure your body has all its requirements.

For example, cereals (bread, rice and pasta) are low in an essential amino acid called lysine whilst legumes (beans) are low in a another amino acid but by combining them (beans on toast, tortilla and beans) the mixture can provide a mixture of amino acids similar to that of a complete protein found in animal products.

It was once thought that a vegetarian should combine plant proteins in each meal it is now agreed that amino acids needs to be balanced over a period of days rather than hours.

Athletes in Intense Training

If you wish to maximise your recovery then your post exercise meal should include mainly carbohydrate but also some protein. This is because some amino acids (though not all) boost the levels of insulin in the blood resulting in quicker clearance of the blood glucose (from the carbohydrate intake) and allowing a faster rate of muscle glycogen recovery.

Protein sources

  • Eggs
  • Legumes
  • Peanut butter
  • Milk
  • Nuts
  • Soyabean products e.g. tofu
  • Cheese
  • Yoghurt
  • Fish (an option if you eat fish as a vegetarian)

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