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Race Fueling

Nutrition For Triathletes: Adding Protein Into A Vegetarian Diet

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Is it possible to live a vegetarian lifestyle and still get enough protein for your training needs? Professional triathlete and nutritionist Pip Taylor answers question.

Q: My girlfriend has recently become vegetarian. We both eat reasonably healthy, I think, but I am trying to encourage her to eat some meat again or at least some chicken or fish as I don’t think she can be getting enough protein with the training she is doing. Am I right, or am I destined for tofu?

A: Vegetarian diets are adopted by people for a variety of reasons—religious or cultural beliefs, environmental concerns, moral beliefs regarding animal rights, personal taste or for health reasons—and these attitudes may also change with age, health status, financial status or other influencing factors.

The term “vegetarian,” though, encompasses an array of classifications and different types of diets; some are quite restrictive and others exclude only some types of animal products. Without getting into the complexities, some of the categories that can fall under the vegetarian banner include vegan, which excludes all animal foods, dairy, eggs, even honey and other animal products; lacto-vegetarian, which excludes animal products and eggs but includes milk and milk products; lacto-ovo-vegetarian, which excludes animal foods but includes eggs and milk; macrobiotic, which means no animal foods, eggs or milk and only unprocessed, organic and unrefined foods; and fruitarian, which is basically what it sounds like. Then there are the part-time vegetarians who perhaps only eat one type of meat, eat meat only occasionally or only eat meat if it is cooked, grown or prepared in a certain way. “Selective eating” would probably apply more than “vegetarian” in those instances. But this is not an article on questioning decisions, morals or eating behaviors, or to try to give a name to eating behaviors. The question is whether selective eating or vegetarianism is able to provide the necessary nutrients for a hard-working athlete.

The fact is that vegetarian diets can be great and can be terrible, nutritionally speaking—I am making no judgments on flavors here. In order to find out if you are lacking, you first need to know how much of something you need and then what the sources are.

Photo: John Segesta
Photo: John Segesta

So how much protein does an athlete need? Protein requirements of athletes are higher than those of their sedentary counterparts at around 1.2-1.7 grams per kilogram. However, these levels are normally well exceeded, even by vegetarians, unless an extremely caloric-restrictive diet is being followed. Vegans, though, may have more difficulty in meeting these levels without conscientious effort.

Particularly in the Western World the meat-centric view is that animal foods are the main—if not the only—protein sources. However, vegetarians have access to many options to fulfill protein needs. Tofu and tempeh are the obvious ones, but other soy- or wheat-based protein foods are also available as well as legumes, nuts and seeds. Beyond these, grains, cereals, breads, sports bars and protein drinks also provide significant amounts of protein, and some are fortified in addition. Quinoa is one grain in particular that is naturally high in protein. For non-vegan vegetarians, eggs and dairy are also an important dietary component.

As a guide, the following foods listed provide roughly 10 grams (0.35 ounces) of protein. A 130-pound person would need about 70 to 100 grams, or 2.5–3.5 ounces, of protein per day.

1.2 oz/35g cooked lean lamb/pork/beef

1.4oz/40g cooked chicken

1.7oz/50g fish

7oz/200g tofu

1 cup low-fat milk

7oz/200g yogurt

2 small eggs

¾-cup cooked legumes

2oz/60g nuts

1.5 tablespoons peanut butter

3 cups cooked rice

4 slices bread

But total protein is not the whole story; protein quality is important, too. Protein is composed of long chains of amino acids, some of which can be made by the body (non-essential amino acids) but eight of which must be provided by the diet (essential amino acids). Animal products are a fantastic source of all the essential amino acids, whereas plant proteins may be limited in one or more amino acid. The best idea is to combine different types of vegetable proteins to complement each other, so mix it up at meal time and include more than one plant-based protein source.

While protein may steal the headlines as the obvious potential shortfall in a vegetarian diet, the fact is that protein needs can be easily met. It is other nutrients that vegetarians may be more at risk of missing out on—nutrients that animal products are rich in such as iron, calcium, zinc, riboflavin and vitamin B12. In order to ensure all of these essential nutrients are in adequate supply, it might be best to consult a nutritionist and carefully plan a diet. Rather than being concerned about your girlfriend’s protein needs, I would be more concerned that as a female vegetarian athlete she would find it very difficult to maintain adequate iron stores in particular and may need the direction of a physician or dietitian to monitor iron levels.

As long as you are prepared to put some time and effort into your diet, something that everyone is encouraged to do, there is no reason an athlete cannot be vegetarian and extremely successful. There are plenty of examples of great athletes across all sports to take the lead from, such as, the famous triathlete Dave Scott; tennis champ Martina Navratilova and even track star Carl Lewis. And yes, there is far more to the world of vegetarianism than tofu. If you’re creative, you can discover a whole world of flavors. Whatever your dietary preferences, quality and variety are key.