Vegetarianism and plant-based eating are all the rage nowadays. A well-designed vegetarian diet can be delicious and nutritious, but it will lack certain key nutrients that can keep you from performing at your best. By ensuring you pad your diet with the ten nutrients on this list, you’ll prevent the pitfalls that go with avoiding animal foods and be able to reach you athletic potential.
#1: EPA & DHA
EPA and DHA are omega-3 fatty acids that are best known for being available in fish. EPA and DHA are essential for brain function and play a protective role in stabilizing mood. In fact, lack of EPA and DHA may be one reason that a 2012 German study found that vegetarians had increased rates of depression and anxiety.
EPA and DHA also have a protective effect for athletes who are under intense physical stress because they counter inflammation and can accelerate recovery from intense training.
Vegetarians get virtually zero EPA and DHA directly from the diet. However, the body can manufacture both from another omega-3 fatty acid, ALA. ALA is available in flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. The one drawback to relying on seeds for EPA and DHA is that the conversion rate is terribly inefficient and doesn’t raise levels enough even for non-athletes to reach peak health.
Where To Get It: One solution is to supplement with a vegetarian source of EPA and DHA that is derived from microalgae. We recently added a vegetarian EPA/DHA to our supplement line, which you can find here. The reason fish are high in EPA and DHA is that they eat microalgae and the fatty acids are then incorporated into their cells, so supplementing with algae is simply going right to the source for your EPA and DHA.
#2: Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient found only in animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. It’s necessary for optimal brain and nerve function and is involved in the development of red blood cells.
Vitamin B12 is of special relevance for athletes because of the role it plays in energy metabolism via production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Additionally, B12 can affect strength and power performance because it maintains the sheath that coats nerve fibers. If these nerve fibers are altered, conduction of nervous signals is interrupted, causing reduced neuromuscular function.
Where To Get It: Lacto-ovo vegetarians rarely have trouble getting adequate B12 because it is present in eggs and dairy, but vegans and restrictive eaters are at risk of deficiency. Vitamin B12 can be gotten from a supplement or by frequently eating nori seaweed. Processed foods such as cereal, bread, and soy products, including tempeh and tofu, also tend to have B12 added to them.
Creatine serves as an energy reserve in the body for short-term, intense exercise, such as weight lifting or sprinting. Supplementation has the ability to increase athletic performance by 15 percent, while also boosting brain function. Stress depletes creatine stores in the brain, so getting extra can help you maintain cognitive function. Creatine is particularly effective at boosting brain function following sleep deprivation.
Creatine is derived from meat and fish, and although the body can produce a small amount of creatine, it is not enough for peak athletic performance or optimal cognition.
Because vegetarian’s muscles are effectively deficient in creatine, supplementing leads to a greater improvement than omnivores experience. For example, when both vegetarians and meat eaters took creatine in conjunction with a training program, the vegetarians had the highest training volume and work capacity, which translated into greater increases in strength and muscle.
Where To Get It: Supplementing with a relatively small dose of 3 to 5 grams of creatine a day can equalize the playing field with omnivores and radically improve muscle and brain function. There are many affordable creatine products on the market, but if you’re going for a vegan version (no gelatin in the capsules), Now Foods sells one.
Carnosine is a compound formed from two amino acids, histidine and beta alanine, and it is highly concentrated in the brain and muscle. Carnosine can boost intense exercise performance by buffering lactate production, which increases the acidity of the muscle and hinders its function. When you’re muscles burn from running up the stairs or doing overhead presses during training, that’s due to lactate buildup.
Carnosine is completely absent from the vegetarian diet and the only source for vegetarians is through uracil degradation from phospholipids—a pathway with very poor rate of production. Therefore, vegetarians may benefit from supplementing with beta-alanine—the precursor to carnosine.
Where To Get It: Because carnosine is found strictly in animal foods (fish, beef, and poultry are highest) being vegetarian can hurt your muscle buffering capacity and reduce athletic performance. Supplementing with beta alanine is the easy solution. Try between 1.6 and 6 g a day if you want to improve your athletic performance and optimize brain function.
#5: Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency is disastrous for health, increasing risk of osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, and muscle weakness. It’s particularly harmful for athletes whose rates of a serious injury increase when vitamin D is low. In one study of NFL football players, athletes who were deficient in D had significantly higher injury rates than those who had levels above 30 ng/ml, which is the baseline for “normal.” Notably, people with darker skin produce less vitamin D in response to the sun and the football players who were injured and D-deficient were overwhelmingly more likely to be black.
Performance-wise, low vitamin D is a performance-limiting factor since both strength and power are significantly reduced. On the other hand, when your levels are optimal, vitamin D is considered a performance-enhancing substance. For instance, when an athlete’s vitamin D levels are highest in the summer months, performance peaks, often reaching a low point in March, when levels are lowest without supplementation.
Where To Get It: The body makes vitamin D in response to bright sun exposure, but synthesis is reduced if you wear sunscreen or sunglasses. And if you’re not outside daily for at least an hour in the sun, chances are your body won’t make enough.
Animal products like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy also supply vitamin D, but the quantity is low compared to human needs, meaning that deficiency rates are sky high in everyone, not just vegetarians.
Vitamin D3, which is the most absorbable source, is derived from lanolin, which comes from wool, so it is not suitable for serious vegans. The only alternative is vitamin D2, which is produced from yeast. Unfortunately, it is a far less effective form, and a much higher intake is often required.
Iron is necessary for the body to transport oxygen to tissues, so it’s obviously a critical nutrient for every athlete. Iron is also important for metabolism because all the cells in our body burn dietary calories to create energy through a process that requires iron. When iron stores get low, this process gets compromised and general fatigue can occur.
Where To Get It: Vegetables, beans, and other vegetarian foods contain non-heme iron, which is poorly absorbed by the body compared to heme iron that is found in meat. This is the reason many vegetarians, especially women who lose iron every month during their cycle, are at risk of iron deficiency.
It’s possible to improve absorption of non-heme iron by eating iron-rich plant foods with vitamin C-rich foods such as tomatoes, bell peppers, lemons, strawberries, oranges, grapefruit, kiwi, and pineapple. There are also iron supplements, however, these are known to be constipating and may cause oxidative stress. One alternative is Floradix Iron with Herbs, which is vegetarian and is not associated with the same side effects as other iron supplements.
Taurine is an amino acid found only in animal foods. It plays a key role in your stress response and ability to regulate cortisol levels. By helping to raise levels of the neurotransmitter GABA, taurine will allow you to manage anxiety so that your thoughts don’t spiral out of control. Taurine is also involved in blood glucose regulation, fighting oxidative stress, and managing blood pressure.
Studies show sufficient taurine levels improve athletic performance by helping athletes to manage both physical and mental stress. Supplementation may also lead to less DOMS muscle soreness by eradicating free radicals that damage tissue and improving the water content in muscle fibers.
Where To Get It: For lacto-ovo vegetarians, taurine is available in eggs and milk, but for vegans or anyone with a low intake of dairy, supplementation is indicated. Studies suggest up to 6 grams a day of taurine can support health and athletic performance. Vegetarian taurine supplements are available through Now Foods and Solgar.
Zinc is an essential nutrient that is necessary for immunity, protein synthesis, and hormone production—all factors that make a deficiency harmful for athletes. For example, adequate zinc is necessary for the body to repair tissue and eliminate oxidative stress that is the result of intense training. It is also necessary for hormone balance: In one trial of elite athletes, supplementing with zinc sulfate prevented the drop in thyroid hormone and testosterone that results from exhaustive exercise.
Where To Get It: Although many vegetarian foods contain zinc, the bioavailability is poor because the naturally occurring phytates in plant foods impair absorption. Soaking beans, grains, and seeds can reduce phytate levels and improve zinc availability but serious athletes may also want to supplement—Garden of Life is one brand that sells a Vegan zinc product.
#9: Protein—Esp. Leucine
Sufficient dietary protein is necessary for repairing damaged tissue and for enhancing brain function and motivation via its ability to support neurotransmitter levels.
Where To Get It: It’s completely possible for vegetarians to get sufficient protein, however, it should be noted that plant-based eaters will likely need more total protein than omnivores because the body can’t used vegetable-derived protein sources as efficiently as animal protein. Simply, you may need to bump up your daily total protein goal if you’re getting your protein from vegetarian sources.
In addition, you’ll be hard pressed to get optimal levels of the amino acid leucine, which appears to be the most powerful stimulator of protein synthesis. Seeds, soy, and some vegetables, like watercress do contain leucine, but the concentration is small compared to whey protein or eggs. Supplemental leucine can be found online in vegan BCAA supplements.
Carnitine is a compound that plays a critical role in energy production, transporting fatty acids into cells to be burned for energy. Its name is derived from the Latin word carnus, which means “flesh” because it is only available in meat.
Although the body can synthesize carnitine from amino acids, production may not keep up with energy needs if you are a hardcharging vegetarian athlete. Supplementing may improve fat burning, metabolic function, and insulin sensitivity. It may also reduce inflammation.
Athletic performance can benefit from carnitine supplementation even in omnivores: One study found that when meat-eating triathletes took 2 grams of carnitine twice a day for 24 weeks, they increased work output by 35 percent compared to a placebo, burning more fat for fuel and sparing glycogen. Lactate and RPE levels were significantly lower than the placebo group, indicating that carnitine supplementation reduced fatigue and allowed the athletes better training tolerance.
Where To Get It: Vegan sources of carnitine are available in supplement form from Now foods. Be aware that studies show that performance benefits may only occur after long-term supplementation (the study done on triathletes mentioned above was a 6 month study). Try 2 to 4 grams a day.