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Runner’s Plate: The Non-Meat Eating Endurance Athlete, What to Know + a Veggie-Filled Recipe!

Posted Nov 06 2012 8:41am

Whether for the health benefits; environmental or ethical reasons; or a combination of all three, following a vegetarian or vegan diet is an increasingly common lifestyle choice among Americans, including many endurance athletes. Some meat eaters question the ability of endurance athletes get all of the essential nutrients necessary for performance and good health; however, experts generally agree that, with careful planning, all nutrition needs can be met with a plant based diet. While there is not enough research to show that avoiding meat or animal products will lead to improved athletic performance, endurance athletes like Brendan Brazier and Scott Jurek have certainly shown us that it’s possible to achieve more than most athletes ever dream of, while following a plant-based diet. If you’re choosing to avoid meat and/or all animal products, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Protein: The American diet is probably overfilled with protein, so much so that many people believe we need more protein than we actually do. The average adult needs around 0.8-1.0g/kg body weight (or about ½ g per pound of weight), so a 150 lb person needs about 75 grams of protein per day (that’s a 2 eggs, 1 cup Greek yogurt, 1 cup beans, 1 cup cooked quinoa, and 2 slices of whole wheat bread with 2 tbsp peanut butter). Endurance athletes’ primary fuel for exercise is carbohydrate; however, protein is important for repairing and building lean muscle mass after exercise, and thus, may need slightly more protein than the average person. Both the American College of Sports Medicine and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommend that endurance athletes eat between 1.2-1.4 g/kg (or about 0.6-0.7g per pound). These organizations also assert that vegetarian and vegan endurance athletes may need to eat slightly more protein than their meat-eating counterparts because some plant-based protein is less biologically available. While few plant-based sources of proteins are actually complete proteins, the human body has the amazing ability to use the protein you eat throughout the day from different sources and combine it to create the proteins your body needs for all of its daily functions, as well as to build and repair muscles. The key is to eat a variety of different protein sources; don’t obsess over counting the number of grams of protein you eat per day.

Vegetarian sources of protein: beans of all kind, tofu, tempeh, seitan, whole grains (particularly quinoa, amaranth, barley, and brown rice), nuts and nut butter (but watch the portion sizes as they are high in fat and calories), eggs, milk, yogurt, and cheese.

Iron: Iron’s most important role is binding oxygen to red blood cells, which allows it to travel to the muscles. Thus, iron is particularly important for endurance athletes, and in higher demand. I previously wrote about the possible need for iron supplements, particularly for female athletes. As a reminder, plant sources of iron are not as readily used by our body as meat sources of iron (heme-iron). Female athletes are at higher risk for iron-deficiency because due to menstrual cycles. If you’re a non-meat eating endurance athlete (male or female), I recommend you have your doctor check your iron levels at your next check up. If you’re low, you may benefit from a supplement. The largest drawback to iron supplements, however, is that they can cause constipation. If you are deficient and don’t want to take a supplement, try having a bowl of iron-fortified cereal such as Total or Farina for breakfast, and pile on those kidney beans (or other beans) and dark, leafy greens at lunch and dinner.

B12: Also important for red blood cell formation, B12 is primarily found in animal protein. If you avoid all meat and dairy products, not to worry. Most fortified breakfast cereals and other fortified grains (like sandwich bread) include 100% of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA).

Vitamin D: This vitamin is important for bone density because of its role in calcium metabolism. Many Americans, meat eating or not, are vitamin D deficient, particularly in the winter months since the greatest source of vitamin D is the sun! However, two of biggest food sources of vitamin D come from animal products – salmon (or other fatty fish) and fortified milk. So, if you avoid these foods and live in a place that is lacking year-round sunshine, get your vitamin D levels checked and talk to your doctor or a dietitian about a supplement.

Other vitamins and minerals to watch for: According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, vegetarian and vegan athletes may be at risk for zinc and calcium deficiencies. However, there are many plant-based sources of all three. Calcium can be found in dark leafy greens; beans; tofu; some nuts and seeds; and some fortified cereals, milks (soy, almond, rice), and orange juice.  Beans and grains are filled with zinc, and riboflavin is found in most whole grains.

The biggest takeaway for non-meat eating endurance athletes? Eat a variety of foods and listen to your body.

Baked, Stuffed Eggplant

*Adapted from the recipe Stuffed Eggplant Provencal from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant


  • 2 medium eggplants
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, peeled and chopped
  • 1 cup baby bella mushrooms, diced
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1 cup chopped chard (red, Swiss, or rainbow)
  • ½ cup pine nuts
  • ¼ cup golden raisins
  • 1 tsp of each: dried marjoram, thyme, sage, and rosemary
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp whole-wheat bread crumbs
  • 1 cup marinara sauce (store-bought or make your own)
  • Salt and pepper

Optional (can leave out or use soy based cheese to make this a vegan dish):

  • 2 oz fresh mozzarella, cut into small pieces
  • ¼ cup grated parmesan


  1. Preheat oven to 450
  2. Slice eggplants in half, lengthwise. Brush with olive oil (use about 1 tbsp for all 4 halves), place face down on a greased baking sheet (or cover a baking sheet with foil), and bake for 15-20 minutes (until insides are soft, but still slightly firm.
  3. In the mean time, heat remaining olive oil in pan. Sautee onion until they begin to soften (about 5 minutes), add garlic and sauté for another minute.  Then add carrot, celery, mushroom and pepper, and sauté for another 5 minutes. Add chard and herbs and heat just until it begins to wilt.
  4. Turn off heat and stir in raisins and pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. When eggplant are done, let cool for 5 minutes. When able to handle the eggplants, use a fork to push the flesh of the eggplant to the sides, leaving a hole in the middle for stuffing. Stuff each half with ¼ of the veggie stuffing.
  6. Top each with ½ tbsp  bread crumbs, ½ oz of fresh mozzarella, and 1 tbsp of parmesan (if using).
  7. Place back on baking sheet and bake for 25 minutes.
  8. Top with ¼ cup tomato sauce (heat prior to topping) and serve.


Do you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet? What are your nutrition concerns when it comes to avoiding meat?

(Sarah is a future registered dietitian and is completing a nationally recognized dietetic internship at The Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston  She also holds an MS in Nutrition Communication from Tufts University Friedman School in Boston. Sarah is a certified spin instructor, a new triathlete, and an avid runner who regularly participates in road races from 5k to a 1/2 marathons.  Follow her on Twitter  @SpinnerSarah  and at her personal blog  Food and Fitness Friend .)


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