Eating Guide For The Vegetarian Runner

By Jen Rawson, RD

Vegetarian eating is on the rise. Currently, 7.1 per cent of Canadians consider themselves vegetarians, and 2.3 per cent consider themselves vegans. Vegetarians can meet all their nutritional needs via diet, however it does take a slightly more conscious approach. Simply removing meat without considering how to replace it adequately can lead to deficiencies which, for a runner, can lead to decreased performance. If you’re choosing a vegetarian diet, use this guide to ensure you are meeting all of your daily requirements.

What Are Protein Needs For Vegetarian Runners?

The protein needs of a runner vary based on frequency and duration of running. Currently, the RDA for protein in healthy adults is 0.8 g/kg (grams per kilogram body weight) per day. However, most experts recommend a higher amount for exercising individuals. For runners, this may range from 1.0-1.6g/kg, with the lower end being suitable for recreational runners and the upper end being suitable for competitive endurance athletes. Insufficient protein can lead to catabolism (break down of muscles) and impaired recovery from exercise. 

A primary concern with the vegetarian diet is whether protein requirements are met because a serving of plant-based protein sources contains approximately half as much protein as a meat portion. However, by carefully planning a variety of protein sources, including dairy, eggs, tofu, legumes, nuts, and whole grains into meals and snacks, a vegetarian can readily meet their needs. 

Food Sources of Protein

Food

Serving Size

Protein (g)

Meat, Fish, Poultry

2.5 oz

21g

Tofu

¾ cup

12

Eggs

2

14

Legumes (Beans, peas, lentils)

¾ cup cooked

12

Greek yogurt

¾ cup

18

Nut butter

2 Tbsp

4

Nuts/Seeds

¼ cup

3-8

Soy milk

1 cup

8

Bread

2 slices

8

Quinoa/Pasta/Rice 

½ cup cooked

3-4

High Protein Vegetarian Snack Ideas:

  • Muffin tin omelette
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Granola bars
  • Protein energy bites
  • Greek yogurt parfait
  • Whole grain toast with nut butter
  • Trail mix
  • Chia seed pudding
  • Smoothie made with cow or soy milk

What Other Nutrients Do Vegetarians Need to Be Aware Of?

Iron

There are two types of iron - heme and non-heme. Heme iron (found in meat and fish) absorbs better in the body than non-heme iron (found in plant-based foods). Therefore, vegetarians require almost double the amount of iron compared to an omnivore. 

Iron absorption also varies based on the foods consumed simultaneously. Vitamin C containing foods such as tomatoes, citrus fruits, melon, berries, broccoli, kale and cabbage increase absorption. Whereas coffee, tea, and calcium rich foods such as milk, cheese, and tofu can decrease iron absorption. To maximize iron absorption, vegetarians may want to pay special attention to pair iron-rich foods with vitamin C containing foods and save their coffee or tea for between meals. 

Iron-Rich Vegetarian Food Sources

  • Enriched grain products (cereals, bread, crackers, etc.)
  • Beans/lentils
  • Tofu
  • Spinach
  • Egg
  • Quinoa
  • Pumpkin seeds

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is only naturally found in animal products such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. However, many plant-based foods such as plant-based milk, meat alternatives, and tofu are fortified with Vitamin B12 to ensure dietary adequacy for vegetarians. All vegetarians should aim to eat 2-3 servings of Vitamin B12 containing foods daily to meet their needs. 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is produced by the body with exposure to sunlight. However, there are dietary sources of vitamin D as well. The highest dietary source of vitamin D is fish. If a vegetarian removes fish from the diet the other sources include eggs, fortified milk (cow or plant-based), fortified orange juice, and margarine. If you feel you are not eating Vitamin D enriched foods daily, speak with your Doctor or Dietitian about supplementing. 

Omega-3

The term omega-3 encompasses a category of long-chain unsaturated fatty acids made up of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). ALA is known as an essential fat because our body cannot produce it, whereas EPA & DHA is produced from ALA. However, this production is limited and therefore consuming dietary sources of EPA & DHA is beneficial. 

Vegetarian Omega-3 containing foods include sea vegetables such as nori and kelp, Omega-3 enriched eggs, ground flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil. Algae-based Omega-3 supplements may also be a consideration if you don’t consume at least 2 sources of omega-3 containing foods daily. 

Sample Menu for Vegetarian Runner (approximately 2400 calories) Click here to download.

Breakfast

  • ½ cup muesli with 1 cup plain greek yogurt, 1 Tbsp chia seeds and 1 cup berries

Snack

  • 2 boiled eggs with banana

Lunch

Spinach salad:

  • 2-3 cups spinach
  • ¾ cup chopped red peppers and tomatoes
  • Black peppers
  • ¼ cup Quinoa
  • ½ cup Black Beans
  • 2 Tbsp chopped walnuts
  • Salad dressing - olive oil, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar and honey
  • 1 serving whole grain crackers with 1 oz sliced cheese

Snack

  • ½ cup roasted chickpeas and 1 cup sliced carrots

Dinner

  • Tofu stir-fry on brown rice
  • ½ cup tofu
  • 2 cup mixed vegetables (broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage)
  • 1 cup brown rice
  • Teriyaki sauce
Snack
  • 1 cup soy milk

References:

Campbell B, Kreider R, Ziegenfuss T, LaBounty P, Roberts M, Burke D, Landis J, Lopez H & Antonio J. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2007; 4(8)

Thomas DT, Erdman KA, Burke LM. Nutrition and Athletic Performance Position of Dietitians of Canada, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016; 116(3):501-528

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