The Vegetarian Athlete. Is There Such A Thing?

The Plant-Based Athlete Diet

A vegetarian diet for endurance athletes is really not all that different from a normal and healthy diet, minus the meat of course. If you’re already eating lots of nutritious, whole foods as it is, there really aren’t all that many adjustments you need to make to go vegetarian. You can take it as far as you want, and some vegetarian and vegan athletes tend toward raw and gluten-free diets, citing even greater energy gains. There are different degrees of health in even vegetarian diets. is a great vegetarian and vegan athlete resource!

The Philosophy: Healthy but Accessible

There are some fantastic books out there that promote what I consider to be an “ideal” diet, from the standpoint of athletic performance. Vegan, high-raw, alkaline eating is great but, it’s tough. Lots of strange ingredients, low-temperature cooking, and very little starchy goodness for the pasta lovers among us, are included. For meat-eaters looking to make a change, the gap between this type of diet and their current one is huge.

I’d like to offer an alternative, a diet that is vegetarian, that’s substantial enough to support endurance training, and that’s delicious and accessible to new vegetarians. I’ll be the first to admit you can do better nutritionally, but I believe that it’s more important to have a diet you’ll stick to first. Once you’re used to eating vegetarian or vegan, that’s when it’s time to consider taking it to the next level.

Where to Get Protein?

Protein is in all types of different foods besides meat, but generally in lower quantities. It takes some effort to make sure you get some protein in every meal, but it’s not that hard. While it is possible to eat a high-protein vegetarian diet, if your goal is to get the amount of protein recommended by many traditional diets for athletes, you’ll have a tough time doing it.

Having heard that many endurance athletes thrive on diets with lower amounts of protein, than is traditionally recommended, many people take a chance on it, and have never felt better in their lives. If your vegetarian diet is pizza and potato chips, then you won’t get enough protein. But if you eat a wide variety of foods and make smart choices to include some protein at every meal and ensure that you’re getting a balanced amino acid profile, chances are you’ll feel better than ever.

Staple Foods

This list represents some common foods that will help you meet the needs of the vegetarian diet for endurance athletes. Certainly there are many more foods one could include; the idea here is to list those that can be found in common grocery stores and whose tastes aren’t too foreign. The key here is to have an open mind to new foods.

–          All kinds of veggies, cooked and raw

–          Vegetable sprouts

–          All kinds of fruits, usually raw

–          Beans and other legumes: lentils, chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, adzuki beans

–          Starchy vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes

–          Brown rice

–          Pasta (whole wheat)

–          Whole wheat bread, pitas, and bagels

–          Other grains and seeds: bulgur wheat, buckwheat, faro, millet, quinoa, flaxseed, hempseed, chia seeds

–          Hummus (now who doesn’t LOVE hummus? Seriously…)

–          Nuts, nut milks, nut butters: almonds, cashews, walnuts, almond milk, hazelnut milk, peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter (make sure you watch the fat content in some of these nut products)

–          Oils: grapeseed, olive, canola, coconut, flaxseed (unheated), hemp (unheated)

–           Agave nectar (as workout fuel, not an all-purpose sweetener)

–          Protein powder (hemp protein is a minimally-processed type)

–          Soy products (limited): tofu, tempeh

–          Tea and coffee (limited)

–          Cheese (limited, non-vegan)

–          Eggs (limited, non-vegan)

Who knew that an athlete could be healthy vegetarian too!

Caloric Breakdown

Take your favorite endurance diet numbers and adjust without meat. Endurance diets tend to be high in carbohydrate anyway, making a vegetarian or vegan approach especially well-suited. The book Food for Fitness, written by Lance Armstrong’s former coach Chris Carmichael, has recommendations that most vegetarian athletes adhere to:

–          65% carbohydrate

–          13% protein

–          22% fat

If you aim to hit these numbers with a vegetarian diet, you should do well. And you’ll find that it’s not all that hard to do.

How Much Should You Eat

About as much as it takes to feel comfortably full, but not stuffed. As endurance athletes, we have the luxury of eating more calories than more sedentary people. We need more calories, in fact. If your goal is weight loss, or if you train more or less than most people so, your needs will be different than most. Depending on your workout regimen, figure out what size meals work for you.

The Vegan Food Guide pyramid. Most vegetarian/vegan athletes will have higher energy needs compared to this. But, this shows the foundation for the lifestyle.

Eating Around Workouts

How you eat before, during, and after your workouts is especially important on any diet. Guidelines and recipes for unprocessed, vegetarians’ workout foods especially come in handy at this point.

Try and avoid these foods before a workout:

–          Spicy foods

–          High-fat foods

–          High-protein foods

Here are some smart post-workout snacks:

–          Protein shake with a banana

–          Peanut butter and banana on rice cakes

–          Hummus and pita

–          Yogurt and fresh berries

No more than 25% of your post-workout snack should come from protein, make sure you avoid too much fiber and high-fat foods as well.

So there you have it: A practical vegetarian diet for endurance athletes. Not that much to it, is there?

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