Vegetarian / Vegan Specific Nutrition - VESPA

Vegetarian / Vegan Specific Nutrition

To retain long term performance and health Vegetarians and Vegans have specific nutritional needs regardless of their macronutrient profile (high carb vs. high fat). This is due to the absence of key fat soluble vitamins, cholesterols and balanced combinations of proteins/amino acids found in commonly available animal based foods.

Many of these issues are commonly known and addressed in well formulated vegetarian/vegan diets and information is easily accessible on the web through, sites, blogs and forums because the Vegetarian / Vegan community tends to be very health conscious. Unfortunately there also exists a plethora of well-intended but mis-guided information which can potentially have significant negative impacts on health and performance.

The human body is incredibly adaptable and many plant based compounds can be converted to many, but not all, of the essential forms of nutrition not easily accessible in a Vegetarian / Vegan diet. For an athlete, however, the conversion rates are simply too low for anyone with any volume of exercise beyond the recreational level. Thus it becomes super critical for a Vegetarian and particularly Vegan athletes to make certain they are obtaining sufficient amounts of these key compounds for long term performance and health.

Most athletes who adopt a Vegetarian and/or Vegan diet for performance and health initially see significant gains in performance and overall well-being, which include dramatic reduction in weight, energy stability, and a host of other benefits. Our view, which is held by many and supported by the science to date, are these gains are principally due to a shift toward better food sources ( i.e. fresh whole foods vs. processed foods)  and not due to the exclusion of  meat/animal products. In short, they get the crap out of their diet. It should be noted athletes who successfully adopt the OFM lifestyle report the same benefits.

Over time, however, the performance/health picture is more complicated. The initial Vegetarian/Vegan “halo” can last as little as 3-4 months and as long as several years before performance and health declines set in. It is not uncommon for the decline to be precipitous because the body, in particular the liver and bones, have the capacity to store enough vitamins and minerals for years (In the case of Vitamin B12 the liver can store B12 for 3-5 years!).

One performance-based aspect of a plant based approach is often an athlete’s performance increases due to weight loss from sub-optimal nutrition. One gets light and fast but one also becomes frail. Certainly this may increase performance over the short-term, however, the long-term consequences of consistent performance and overall health cannot be ignored. There are countless examples of elite athletes who follow a plant based diet and, over time, suffer long-term declines in performance and health. While all this may sound like bashing, our goal is NOT to point out the shortcomings of a Vegetarian/Vegan diet but to clearly identify areas where potential deficiencies exist and mitigate them as much as possible so an athlete following this approach can achieve their health and performance goals.

Specific Nutrients:


Vitamin A: Due to consumer media driven “sound-bite science” most consumers have the commonly held mis-conception that beta-carotene is, effectively, Vitamin A. It is not. Beta-carotene is a precursor to retinol the active form of Vitamin A. While the human body can convert beta-carotene to retinol the rate of conversion varies in humans varies.Generally speaking, the conversion is far too low for an athlete who is training and competing beyond a recreational level and is actually probably also too low for a segment of recreational and sedentary Vegetarians/Vegans. This does not mean not consuming fresh foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkins/pumpkin seeds, squashes etc. which are high in beta-carotene, just understand there are limitations.

Vegetarians can obtain bio-available Vitamin A from such foods as egg yolks and diary. If you can easily access and afford pastured eggs and dairy even better.

Vegans: Supplement with a synthetic Vitamin A in the form of a synthetic (i.e. non-animal based) Vitamin A Palmitate. We also suggest when you do take your Vitamin A supplement you do so with fats/oils (coconut oil, olive oil) or fatty/oily foods (avocado, macadamia nuts) to maximize absorption. The fat/oil will trigger a bile secretion from the gall bladder. Bile is the key emulsifier which is key to absorption of proteins, fats, and the nutrition they contain.

Vitamin B2 & B6: While these B Vitamins are available in sufficient amounts in a plant based diet the issue is one of bio-availability and balance of vitamins and minerals. Many plant based foods commonly cited as rich in these vitamins often do not contain them in a bio-available form. Cooking of vegetables and soaking of grains along with fermentation/fermented foods are all excellent strategies to obtain adequate levels of these Vitamins.

Vitamin B12: Because B12 cannot be derived from plant sources B12 deficiency is something Vegetarian/Vegan athletes need to be highly aware of and be actively  and effectively supplementing because there are no reliable, unfortified plant sources of vitamin B12, including tempeh, seaweeds, and organic produce. Vitamin B12 analogues found in plants are not a bio-available form of B12 and can actually exacerbate Vitamin B12 uptake.

Vegetarians can obtain plenty of B12 from eggs and dairy, however, current nutritional research recommends Vegans obtain their B12 from B12 fortified vegan foods and/or a bacterial derived B12 supplement such as certain yeast / yeast foods and bacterially-reduced foods like Miso & Natto.

Finally, because the liver has the capacity to store up to years of B12 needs in the liver many people do not recognize the need to proactively supplement with B12 until they show signs. 

Resources: Vitamin B12: Are You Getting It? by Jack Norris  /  What Every Vegan Should Know about Vitamin B12

Vitamin D: Vitamin D is one Vitamin most people, including many athletes, are deficient in and this can be particularly true with Vegetarians and Vegans because for Vitamin D to have efficacy Vitamin A and Vitamin K2 need to be present in sufficient bio-available amounts for Vitamin D uptake and conversion to the active form. So for Vegetarians/Vegans Vitamin D status is just as just as dependent upon Vitamin A & K2 as how much UVB light exposure whether from the sunlight, UVB lamps (UVB tanning beds or a Sperti Lamp) which are the most natural way to convert and make Vitamin D. Because most of us do not get enough exposure supplementing with Vitamin D supplements becomes necessary. Based upon current research Vitamin D3 (mostly animal based) is suggested to be a superior form over D2 (plant based). The only plant based (lichen) Vitamin D3 available is Vitashine

Vitamin K2: Like Vitamin B12 Vitamin K2 is only derived from animal and bacterial sources NOT plant-based sources of food. The human micro-biome does not have the capacity to produce significant levels of Vitamin K2 either. Because Vitamin K2 is so crucial to health active supplementation of a bacterial derived supplement source is key to a vegan athlete’s performance and overall long-term health. Look for a vitamin K2 supplement containing menaquinone-4 or menaquinone-7 (usually abbreviated to MK-4 or MK-7)


Calcium: When it comes to Calcium, once again, the concept of “BALANCE” needs to be stressed. Calcium status is not so much about how much you take in but how your body absorbs Calcium and utilizes it for a variety of cell and metabolic functions, not just strong bones. In today’s health conscious world it is just as easy to ingest adequate Calcium yet not absorb it properly and even become a problem. Calcium that is not properly metabolized can “out-compete” other minerals like iron, zinc and/or magnesium (“out-compete” is a vastly over-simplified terminology for a complex set of biological and/or metabolic processes) and create a deficiency in these and other minerals. Thus, it is not only important that Vegetarians consume the appropriate levels of Calcium in their diet but also in a way that maximizes absorption.

Three key Vitamins related to Calcium absorption are  Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and Vitamin K2. All need to be adequate and in the proper forms to optimize proper uptake of Calcium and all three need to be consciously addressed in a Vegetarian / Vegan diet because they are not commonly available (in the bio-available forms) from a plant based diet. Read the sections on this page on these Vitamins as they are just as important to proper Calcium uptake as Calcium itself.

Additional Resources: Jack Norris’s site

Iron: Vegetarian/Vegan athletes should be able to obtain sufficient iron from their diet even though heme-iron is not present in the diet (unless consuming fish/seafood). Heme-iron is the most easily absorbed/bio-available form but one only available from animal based foods. A few things to keep in mind are to consume iron rich plant based foods with foods which contains high levels of Vitamin C and cook with a cast iron skillet to maximize absorption. If Vegetarian, be mindful of how much dairy is consumed as high levels of Calcium can lower Iron uptake. Be very mindful of your iron status if you have IBS, Crohn’s or Celiac’s Disease as these conditions impair iron absorption.  Resources:

 Zinc: Zinc is one mineral that is found in only small amounts in plant sources (unless fortified). Furthermore Zinc is not stored in the body in appreciable amounts like other minerals. Another factor is if levels of other minerals, like Calcium, are high due to supplementation or a diet high in dairy diet zinc may be “outcompeted” for absorption. Finally, because many plant-based diet foods, i.e. plants, contain phytates, what little zinc available in plant-based foods can be bound further exacerbating absorption of zinc.


Additional Resources:   /   /

Iodine: It is worth mentioning that Vegetarians/Vegans also are cognizant of their Iodine / Thyroid status due to many plant-based athletes combining a lot of carbohydrates with many food sources which are high in phytates and goitrogenic vegetables like cruciferous vegetables particularly raw cruciferous vegetables. This combination can potentially wreak havoc on the Thyroid and adrenal system.

Additional Information/resources: / /

Other factors: Phytates, phytic acid etc. are ubiquitous in plants and seeds. They are Nature’s way of protecting the plant and particularly the seed from consumption. Essentially, because plants cannot flee from herbivorous/omnivorous animals, including humans, phytates are basically “Chemical Warfare” to thwart consumption. Because of the RAW Vegan Movement many well-intentioned people have propagated mis-guided information on the internet on the benefits of consuming raw, unprocessed foods, many of which contain significant levels of phytates. Anyone adopting a plant-based diet needs to be highly aware of phytates and how to mitigate them to allow for proper absorption of  minerals. Cooking is, by far, the most effective way to mitigate the potential downside impacts of phytates found in vegetables while soaking is an excellent strategy for nuts, seeds and grains

Additional Resources: /  / 

Fats & Oils:

Some general guidelines specific to athletes following a Vegetarian/Vegan diet.

Read “Which Fats & OIls” on this site for a general overview.

Additionally, because a lot of animal derived Fats & Oils are not available and because Saturated Fats have been unjustifiably demonized Vegetarians and Vegans tend toward consuming oils high in polyunsaturated oils. Polyunsaturated Oils are relatively unstable compared to monounsaturated and saturated fats & oils. This means they oxidize /go rancid easily. In your body become ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species often known as Free Radicals). So be aware and tend toward consumption of foods and oils which are relatively high in monounsaturated fats like avocados and fresh California Olive oil, increase your intake of saturated fats/oils which means cocounut and/or MCT oil and limit your intake of polyunsaturates. Obtaining the proper level of polyunsaturated fats/oils is important especially for balanced Omega 3 & 6 intake too much can have a negative impact. In other words, more is not better and can be worse.


Essential Omega 3 fatty acids: This is one area where most vegetarians and vegans are misled to believe the Omega 3 fatty acids found in plant derived sources like flax, borage etc. is an essential omega 3 fatty acid. It is NOT. The Omega 3 fatty acid found in plant is ALA (Alpha Linoleic Acid)  and not the Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) found abundantly in fish, shellfish and grass/range fed ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, deer, elk, antelope etc.). 

While the human body can convert ALA to EPA which can then be converted to DHA, however, the conversion rate is considered too slow for optimal human health & performance so supplementing with a microalgae derived Omega 3 EPA & DHA supplement is recommended.


Other Resources: 

Based upon observation a vegetarian or vegan athlete may consider supplementation of MAP / Master Amino Pattern. If utilized we suggest to take MAP with your meals rather than alone.

Finally we are not the only source. Look around and look for consistent threads….here is a great post by Denise Minger which is quite consistent with what we are saying here: