5 Nutrients to Pay Attention to for a High-Performance Vegetarian Diet

When you look at Kyrie Irving, Serena Williams, Tom Brady, and the many other athletes who are vegetarian today, it's clear you can eat mostly plants and still perform at a very high level. But those athletes have something that makes this way easier for them: 24/7 access to a sports dietitian who makes sure they are getting all the nutrients they need and chefs to cook and prepare the meals for them. Fortunately, you can still perform at a very high level on a vegetarian diet without a personal nutritionist scoping out every meal and a chef preparing all your food.

We’ll leverage scientific data to shed light on what nutrients non-pro athletes need to be on top of their game. If you follow a vegetarian diet, be mindful of these five nutrients.

Protein

Training causes our muscles to break down. Protein is key to help them repair and rebuild so that we show up to our next workout or competition strong and ready to give it our all. Additionally, protein helps us feel fuller longer and may even reduce snacking on high-fat, high-sugar foods. It's a fallacy that vegetarians can't get enough protein. Beans, lentils, dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, and whole grains all provide fair amounts of protein per calorie. Aim for 30 grams of protein at every meal. This amount is shown to maximally stimulate protein synthesis, which is science talk for muscle building and repair. Protein shakes will make your life a lot easier when it comes to getting adequate protein right after exercise or if you need a little boost at any given meal to hit that 30-gram mark.

Creatine

Our bodies naturally produce a small amount of creatine every day and store it in our muscles where it's used to produce energy to fuel workouts and everyday life. Since meat is the main dietary source of creatine, vegetarians often have lower creatine stores. Consuming extra creatine to offset this may not only help plant-based eaters build muscle and increase strength, but it may also boost brain function. In two studies, taking a creatine supplement improved memory and intelligence test scores in vegetarians. Take 5 grams of creatine monohydrate daily.

Zinc

This mineral is kind of a jack-of-all-trades and plays a role in numerous bodily functions, including protein synthesis, cellular metabolism, and immune function. Unfortunately, plant-based sources of zinc are less bioavailable than meat sources, in part because many plant sources of zinc contain phytates. Phytates can inhibit the absorption of zinc. Because of this, vegetarians may require up to 50 percent more daily zinc than non-vegetarians, or 16.5 milligrams for men and 12 milligrams for women. To help break down the phytates and boost zinc absorption, consider soaking and sprouting sources of zinc such as beans, legumes, seeds, and whole grains. You can also take a zinc supplement (see my other article on chelated mineral supplements).

Vitamin B12

This one can be especially tough for people following a vegan diet. B12 is vital for forming red blood cells, maintaining a healthy nervous system, and metabolizing fat and protein. And, it is exclusively found in animal sources. Although the liver stores enough B12 to last you a few years, if you've been eating strictly vegan for several years, you may be deficient. Taking a supplement and consuming sources such as nutritional yeast and fortified cereals can help. Eggs and dairy are other sources, for those who consume them.

Long-chain Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fatty acids get a lot of attention for supporting heart health, keeping your brain in prime

condition, and reducing inflammation. But there are different types of omega 3s. EPA and DHA are long-chain omega-3 fats that are found in fish and fish oil supplements; ALA is a short-chain omega-3 fat found in plant sources like walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds. Long and short-chain omega-3s act differently in our bodies; the long-chain ones are responsible for all the benefits you hear about omega-3s.

Unfortunately, our bodies aren’t very effective at converting ALA to EPA or DHA. That’s not a reason to avoid nuts and seeds, just don’t rely solely on them for omega-3 intake. For plant-based long-chain omega-3s, consider an algae-based supplement. Green algae are rich in DHA, which your body can easily convert to EPA as needed.
Michael Roussell, PHD

Michael Roussell, PHD

Author, Speaker, and Nutritional Consultant - https://mikeroussell.com/

Dr. Mike Roussell is known for transforming complex nutritional concepts into practical nutritional habits that his clients can use to ensure permanent weight loss and long-lasting health. Mike holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Hobart College and a doctorate in nutrition from Pennsylvania State University. He now serves on the Advisory Board for Men’s Health Magazine. In addition, having published over 500 articles on health and nutrition and appearing in over 150 TV segments as a nutrition expert, he has authored and/or served as the consulting nutritionist for 10 books.