Vegans and vegetarians who avoid milk and milk products may find it difficult to consume a diet with adequate calcium. Low calcium intake may be a risk factor for low bone density and a high risk of fracture. Athletes with low-dairy intake should emphasize the following calcium-rich plant foods: calcium-fortified soy milk and fruit juices, fortified tofu and tofu products, and dark leafy greens. Whole grains, legumes and nuts can also contribute calcium, but in lesser amounts. Also look for products fortified with vitamin D, another important nutrient for bones and overall health.
Vitamin B-12 is important for red blood cell development and DNA synthesis, among other things. It occurs naturally only in animal sources and, therefore, is absent from a vegan diet. However, some foods are fortified with vitamin B-12, including some breakfast cereals, soy milk, nutritional yeast and meat substitutes. Still, it may be recommended by primary care clinicians that athletes on a vegan diet take a vitamin B-12 supplement or a multivitamin containing B-12 to ensure needs are met. For those following a modified vegetarian diet, dairy products and eggs will contribute to vitamin B-12 intake.
Some athletes may experience challenges in meeting their dietary needs for these and other vitamins and minerals, such as zinc, particularly if energy intake is inadequate. While it's completely possible for an athlete to meet all nutrient needs with a plant-based diet, it will take some planning, especially for athletes new to a vegetarian diet.
If you want to begin following a vegetarian diet, but have questions or concerns about getting started, consult with a sports dietitian to help guide the way. It will also be helpful to monitor your body weight to determine if energy needs are being met and to keep an eye on your iron status to catch iron deficiency in its early stages.
American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109:509-527.
American Dietetic Association. Vegetarian Eating for Athletes. Nutrition Fact Sheet 2010; Issue 13.
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