Children's Hospital Colorado

Is a Vegetarian Diet OK for Young Athletes?

A collection of vegetables including a yellow pepper, lettuce, eggplant, and carrots.

Adolescence is a time of experimentation and growth and this often happens within the realm of eating. Teenagers may decide to become vegetarians for various reasons including animal rights, religious reasons and/or perceived health benefits. Parents should engage their young athlete in a conversation regarding motivations for starting such a diet to ensure it is not being used as a means of weight control.

Types of vegetarian diets

Being a vegetarian is not ‘one size fits all’ or the same for every person. There are many types of vegetarians and it is important to recognize the differences among them. Below is a table that outlines the different types of vegetarian diets.

Vegetarian Type Animal Proteins Allowed Animal Proteins Excluded
Semi-vegetarian May allow all or certain animal proteins in limited amounts Variable
Lacto-ovo vegetarian Dairy and eggs Meat, fish and fowl
Lacto-vegetarian Dairy Eggs, meat, fish, fowl
Vegan None All


Food choices to keep vegetarians healthy

Because the vegetarian diet excludes certain foods, protein and certain vitamin and mineral intake can be low. If the vegetarian is thoughtful about their food choices, however, the diet can also be made complete. The more restrictive the vegetarian is, the more thoughtful they will need to be about incorporating the following nutrients:

Protein

Protein intake is important for young athletes because it helps build and repair muscles. Good vegetarian sources of protein to keep your young athlete strong include:

  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds
  • Beans and lentils
  • Whole grains
  • Tofu and soy milk
  • Protein analogs (i.e. veggie burgers)
  • Protein bars

Calcium and Vitamin D*

Calcium and vitamin D build and maintain strong bones. Specifically, calcium is involved in many processes that send messages to the nerves and muscles so that the body can move. Learn more about calcium and vitamin D deficiency.

Vegetarian sources for calcium and vitamin D include:

  • *Dairy foods and eggs (depending on vegetarian type—see the table above)
  • *Fortified foods and beverages such as soy, rice and almond milks, orange juice, cereals and protein bars. Note: check the label for vitamin D and calcium.
  • Vegetables, like broccoli, kale and Bok Choy
  • Sesame seeds, almonds and dried beans

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 helps maintain healthy blood cells and the nervous system. B12 deficiency can lead to a certain type of anemia that can cause such symptoms as fatigue, which can affect a young athlete’s performance. Great vegetarian sources of vitamin B12 include:

  • Dairy and eggs (depending on vegetarian type—see the table above)
  • B12 fortified foods (be sure to check labels, as it is not in all brands)
  • Meat analogs (i.e. veggie burgers, soy burgers and soy chicken analogs)
  • Rice, soy and almond milk
  • Cereals and protein bars

Iron

Iron helps carry oxygen throughout the body, including muscles where it can be stored. Low iron in the body can mean a tired athlete. To avoid fatigue, vegetarian sources for iron intake for young athletes can include:

  • Legumes, enriched cereals and breads
  • Nuts, blackstrap molasses (thick syrup) and prunes
  • Dark green vegetables

Guidance for young vegetarian athletes

Athletes can be vegetarians, but they need to be mindful of their diet’s potential inadequacies. It’s always a possibility that the young vegetarian athlete may require a vitamin/mineral supplement to ensure the diet is complete. Also seeing a registered dietitian is a good step to help the athlete maintain the nutrition necessary for their sport while choosing a vegetarian lifestyle. For more information about a vegetarian diet, check out this list of helpful resources.

Learn more about sports nutrition.

Written by: Lauren Furuta, MOE, RD, Clinical Nutrition, Children’s Hospital Colorado. To find out more about nutrition schedule an appointment at 720-777-6600. We are happy to consult with parents or referring providers before a patient is seen at Children’s Colorado.


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