Can an Elite Athlete Survive on a Vegetarian Diet? By guest expert Gloria Cabrera APD

Vegetarians, vegans and everyone else near and far! The final segment of our 4-part series is finally here and Gloria will walk us through the “how to’s” of becoming a healthy vegetarian athlete and reassures us that being a healthy athlete doesn’t always require meat! Planning your meals is essential to ensure that you are consuming nutrients you need for health and training, and yes, the long-list of vegetarian gold-medalists does exist!  Over to you Gloria…

Have you ever wondered if you can be a vegan and win a gold medal at the Olympics?

Most would laugh at the very idea, but did you know that there have been a number of plant-based gold medalists? Think Lizzie Armitstead, Edwin Moses and Bode Miller! There was even an Australian called Murray Rose who won gold medals in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics! So it’s been done!

I know what you’re thinking – ‘but what about protein…?’ . While it is possible to be a vegetarian and win medals, both vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike require a number of nutrients often in higher proportions than the less active population.  Some of these like protein, can be a bit more challenging to obtain on a vegetarian diet, but not impossible! Let’s take a closer look.

Dietary Factors that impact Sports Performance

Just because you’re a vegetarian doesn’t mean your sporting dreams are doomed! In fact, whether you eat meat or not, if your diet isn’t well balanced, providing all the essential nutrients you need daily, you really can’t expect to get far. Protein is often quoted as the nutrient that vegetarians won’t get enough of but there are many plant-based sources of protein (read: ‘A Healthy Vegetarian Diet – Achievable or Impossible). There are also many other dietary considerations other than protein, some of which include:

  • Meeting energy (kilojoules/calories) needsElite Athlete
  • Getting sufficient carbohydrates pre, post and during activity. Insufficient carbohydrate intake can lead to low glycogen (carbohydrate) stores, leaving you flat and lacking the energy to sustain your activity!
  • Sufficient vitamins and minerals from the diet and through supplements
  • Adequate fluids as well as staying hydrated pre, post and during training or the sporting event
  • Meal timing pre and post activity. Being hungry or failing to replenish depleted carbohydrate, protein and fluid stores or needs impacts performance.

Nutrients to Monitor on a Vegetarian Diet

While it’s possible to be an elite athlete on a vegetarian diet, there are some dietary factors that require a little planning to ensure targets are met, here are a few:

Low Energy

Intense training can really burn through energy (kilojoules/calories), so it’s important to eat enough to meet energy needs. This can be trickier on a plant-based diet. Ensure adequate carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats are consumed each day as well as pre and post exercise meals and snacks are available and consumed on time.


While carbohydrates are easy enough to get on a vegetarian diet, protein is a little more challenging especially if dairy and eggs are omitted. Additionally active people require more protein than their less active counterparts. Protein is essential to maintain and repair muscle mass but also to complement carbohydrate intake, allowing it to enter the bloodstream at a steady rate, thus delaying the onset of hunger and sustaining energy levels. If protein needs aren’t met, muscle tissue can be catabolized leading to a decline in strength and performance. Good sources of protein in a vegetarian diet include dairy, eggs, legumes e.g. chickpeas, soybeans, and kidney beans, tofu, tempeh, plant-based protein powders (pea, soy, rice based) nuts and seeds.vegetarian-protein


Iron is essential for red cell formation and oxygen transport. Iron deficiency can lead to anaemia resulting in tiredness, fatigue and a drop in performance. Rebuilding levels can take several months so it’s important to prevent deficiency. Good sources of iron include legumes e.g. soybeans and lentils, tofu, fortified soy products or breakfast cereals, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, blackstrap molasses, spinach, silverbeet, dried apricots and raisins (consuming sources of vitamin C at the same meal can aid absorption). Those who train hard may require supplements to meet needs.


Zinc is essential for cell division and metabolism, as well as tissue repair post exercise. Zinc is abundant and easier to absorb in animal products but it is also found in many plant-based foods like tofu, tempeh, legumes e.g. chickpeas and kidney beans, nuts e.g. almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, peanuts and cashews, and seeds e.g. sunflower seeds and chia seeds.


A combination of hard training and insufficient calcium supply can result in low calcium levels. Calcium isn’t just needed for healthy bones and teeth – it’s also essential for muscle contractions, which is crucial for the training athlete! Calcium is found in dairy products but also fortified non-dairy milks and yoghurts, tofu, sesame and chia seeds, almonds, figs, oranges, spinach, bok choy and kale.

Vitamin B12

Like iron, vitamin B12 is essential in red cell formation (also essential for our nerves and DNA) and deficiency can result in anaemia. It can be difficult vegetarians who omit dairy and eggs to meet their vitamin B12 requirements. Vitamin B12 fortified products like fortified non-dairy milks, breakfast cereals and meat substitutes should be included in the diet but a B12 supplement may also be necessary.


Riboflavin is essential for cell growth and the production of energy, which impacts athletic performance. Dietary intake of riboflavin can be limited for vegetarians who avoid all animal products and soy also. Plant-based sources of riboflavin include fortified breakfast cereals, grains, vegetarian meat substitutes, soy milks/yoghurts/cheeses and yeast extract spreads such as Vegemite.

While meeting nutritional needs on a vegetarian or vegan diet may take a little more organization and preparation, it’s not mission impossible! Spend some time planning your diet to ensure you meet nutrient needs. Regular blood test to check for vitamin and mineral levels is essential and at times supplementation may be necessary to prevent deficiencies and enable peak performance. 

Profile picAbout the Author: Gloria Cabrera is an Accredited Practising Dietitian & Nutritionist (APD, AN). Her passion is food, nutrition, cooking, fitness. She is currently studying personal training and plant-based cooking. She has worked in the weight loss industry for over 9 years developing programs, products & recipes. She consults privately seeing clients for weight loss, pre & post bariatric surgery nutrition, and a number of health conditions e.g. diabetes, heart disease and food intolerances. Follow Gloria on Facebook: Gloria at Nutrition SavvyTwitter  or Instagram 



1 Comment

Leave a Reply