Vegetarian Beware -- 6 Common Nutrition Deficiencies

05.17.2013 / Blog Posts Health and Wellness

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I am happy to welcome back Christine Turpin for Part 2 of the Vegetarian Athlete.  Visit last week’s blog for Part 1.  The nutrients Christine discusses below are important whether you are a vegetarian or not.

Thanks to Christine for helping WOW Members be the healthiest fans in the NFL! 

Jane Jakubczak MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN
Washington Redskins Team Dietitian

Vegetarian fitness enthusiasts can achieve a high level of performance and adequate nutrition intake through proper planning.  Nevertheless, those who eat strictly plants (vegans) may be at risk for certain deficiencies.

IRON:  This nutrient is part of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in your blood.  Iron deficiency anemia is common among vegetarian athletes and is caused by poor eating habits and low iron intake.  Studies indicate low levels of iron decrease exercise performance. 

--Plant Sources of Iron: Soybeans, lentils, kidney beans, tofu, peas, dried fruit, whole enriched grains, dark leafy green vegetables, raisins, figs, watermelon, prune juice and blackstrap molasses.  Fortified cereals, sports bars and shakes contribute to the body’s iron stores as well.  Combine these foods with a source of vitamin C (i.e. 100% juice or whole fruits) to maximize the rate of iron absorption. 

ZINC: This nutrient protects the body from infections, as well as plays a role in wound healing, so low levels can be detrimental to exercise performance and health.   The body requires zinc for you to have the senses of taste and smell. 

--Plant Sources of Zinc:  Fortified cereals, wheat germ, baked beans, yogurt, chickpeas, oatmeal, almonds, peas, nuts, seeds, whole grains, tempeh and tofu.

VITAMIN B-12:  For vegans, this may be one vitamin worth supplementing in the diet.  Vitamin B-12 is necessary for the maintenance of cells in the blood and nervous system.  It’s also needed for many metabolic functions within the body.  Although, the best sources are found in animal products, a vegetarian can get ample amounts of B12 by focusing on getting their nutrients from a variety of sources.  

--Plant Sources of B-12:  Fortified breakfast cereals and meat substitutes (tofu, veggie hotdogs and burgers), nutritional yeasts and soymilk.

CALCIUM:  The primary role of calcium is to build and maintain strong bones and assist with nerve and muscle contraction.   Adults 19-50 years of age need 1,200 mg of calcium a day and those ages 51 and over need 1,300 mg a day.  The biggest source of calcium would be dairy sources.  Vegetarians eliminating dairy will need to read nutrition fact label to find good sources. 

--Plant Sources of Calcium:  Calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified beverages, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, kale, collard, mustard & turnip greens, almonds, tahini, texturized vegetable protein, blackstrap quinoa, molasses and legumes.

OMEGA 3s:  These are essential fatty acids that promote good heart health and combat inflammation.  Fish is a good source for these, but would only be an option for Pesca Vegetarians. 

--Plant Sources of Omega 3s:  Flaxseed, chia seeds, olive & canola oils, almonds, walnuts, soy foods and pumpkin seeds.

PROTEIN:  The protein needs of each athlete vary for the type, duration and intensity of the sport.   There is no evidence to suggest vegetarians need more protein than omnivores.  However, most plant based proteins are not absorbed as well as animal proteins so vegetarian athletes may need to ramp up their protein intake.  Most athletes and fitness enthusiasts can get proper protein requirements by making good food choices and supplementation is not necessary.   The bottom line is to eat a variety of whole foods!

--Plant Sources of Protein:  Legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds, nut butters, texturized vegetable proteins, soy protein, black beans, edamame and quinoa.

Fuel On!

Christine Turpin, RD, LDN, CSCS

Christine is owner of Nourish2Perform and consults with competitive and recreational athletes and law enforcement agencies. Nourish 2 Perform specializes in integrating fitness and dietary education to maximize performance for athletes of all ages, recreational exercisers and other professionals engaged in competition or physically demanding occupations. Visit for more info.

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