Vegetarian diets are associated with several health benefits, but whether a vegetarian or vegan diet is beneficial for athletic performance has not yet been defined. Based on the evidence in the literature that diets high in unrefined plant foods are associated with beneficial effects on overall health, lifespan, immune function, and cardiovascular health, such diets likely would promote improved athletic performance as well. In this article, we review the state of the literature on vegetarian diets and athletic performance, discuss prevention of potential micronutrient deficiencies that may occur in the vegan athlete, and provide strategies on meeting the enhanced caloric and protein needs of an athlete with a plant-based diet.
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Vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, and nutritarian diets are healthful options for serious athletes. To maximize performance, recovery, endurance and resistance to illness, enhanced intake of beans, greens, seeds, nuts, whole grains, and other colorful plant products are recommended. These same suggestions also are important for the nonvegan athlete. Excellent nutrition to maximize long-term performance and athletic life is much more than macronutrient adequacy and adequate protein intake; it is micronutrient density and adequacy as well. Supplemental protein is an option but not needed for most athletes who carefully construct their diet, paying attention to the higher-protein plant foods. Rather, added B12, vitamin D, zinc, DHA, and possibly taurine are more likely to be helpful.