The 11 Best Supplements For Vegetarian Athletes

Here are the 11 best supplements for vegetarian athletes in case you don’t have time to read the whole article:

  1. Creatine Monohydrate
  2. Beta-Alanine
  3. Choline
  4. Taurine
  5. Protein Powder
  6. Carnitine
  7. Vitamin B12
  8. Vitamin D
  9. Zinc
  10. Iron
  11. Calcium

The Rise Of Vegetarian Athletes

It seems recently there has been a surge of athletes jumping aboard the plant based and vegetarian diet train.  People like ultra-runner Scott Jurek and USA cycling champion Dotsie Bausch are two that adhere to non-meat diets.

One of the most common reasons athletes try a vegetarian diet is to improve their health and “feel better”. Additionally, sticking to this type of diet gives athletes a rich source of fruits and vegetables, it’s humane, and it gives them copious amounts of carbohydrates.

While there are many benefits to being a vegetarian there are also some short comings as it relates to vitamin, mineral, and other deficiencies.

In this article we will discuss what those deficiencies are and how vegetarian athletes can add these supplements to their diet to improve athletic performance.

What Are The Top Supplements for Vegetarian Athletes

Creatine Monohydrate

Creatine is an amino acid that is naturally produced in the liver, kidney, and pancreas and stored in the muscles (95%), brain, eyes, kidneys, and testes (5%). It is the primary fuel for high intensity, short-duration exercise.

In an un-supplemented state, the body’s creatine pool is ~2 grams total, which is maintained through a combination of meat intake and organ synthesis. These 2 grams can be increased through creatine monohydrate supplementation and enhance athletic performance.

What foods is it found in?

1.4 to 2.3 of creatine is naturally found in beef, pork, shrimp, cod, herring, salmon, and Tuna per pound. Unfortunately, even this is not enough creatine to saturate muscle stores. To get the recommended amount of creatine to enhance athletic performance you would need to eat about 20 steaks a day!

Why vegetarians should consider trying it

As you can see from the above information, creatine is almost exclusively found in animal products. While 50% of creatine can be produced naturally in the bodies of vegetarians, the other 50% must be obtained through eating meat.

This is why vegetarian athletes can have significantly reduced creatine stores compared to athletes who consume a mixed diet

Benefits

  • Increases endurance and ventilatory threshold
  • Improves power output
  • Enhances anaerobic abilities (think sprinting).
  • May improve inter-cellular hydration

Dosage/Timing

Take 5 grams daily at any time. This will saturate muscle creatine stores in ~30 days.

Beta-Alanine

Beta-alanine is a modified version of the amino acid alanine. When ingested beta-alanine is converted to carnosine and stored in the cells.

Carnosine is an “acid buffer” in the body that is released when muscle acidity increases (i.e. from increasing exercise intensity).

Supplementing with beta-alanine can increase muscle carnosine levels by 60-80% and delay the onset of fatigue and protect the muscles from exercise induced lactic acid production.

What foods is it found in?

Beta-alanine is most abundant in beef, pork, poultry, chicken broth, and fish.

Why vegetarians should consider trying it

Like creatine, beta-alanine is found in animal products and in fact, no plant source contains beta-alanine. Research has also confirmed that vegetarians have 50% or less beta-alanine/carnosine in muscle tissue compared to individuals who include meat in their diet.

Benefits

  • Buffers muscle acidity
  • Combats lactic acid
  • Improves aerobic and anaerobic performance
  • Increase power and strength output

Dosage/Timing

3.2 – 6.4 grams daily. This amount will saturate muscle carnosine stores in ~28 days.

Choline

Choline is an essential nutrient in the human body but is produced in very small amounts. Therefore, choline MUST be consumed through the diet for optimal health AND athletic performance.

Choline is involved in various vital functions such as maintaining the structural integrity of cells membranes, metabolism, nerve impulse transmissions, and fat transportation.

As it relates to athletic performance, choline supplementation is heavily involved in producing efficient muscular contractions and can improve race times.

What foods is it found in?

Good sources of choline are found in liver, milk, eggs and peanuts.

Why vegetarians should consider trying it

Choline is a supplement I recommend almost every athletes supplement with. Not just vegetarians (although these individuals are probably more choline deficient than meat eaters).

This is because the research has demonstrated that 90% of the population is choline deficient.

Benefits

  • Decreases fatigue
  • Enhances focus
  • Promotes faster recovery
  • Improves race times

Dosage/Timing

1-2 grams 45-60 minutes before training or racing. Choline can be supplemented as choline bitartrate or a more bioavailable form like Alpha-GPC.

Taurine

Taurine is a pseudo amino acid that contains a Sulphur and nitrogen group. It plays a role in reducing exercise induced stress and cortisol. It is also involved in regulating blood glucose and maintaining blood pressure.

In athletes, taurine supplementation can combat mental and physical stress, remove free radicals, help repair damaged tissue, and increase water content in muscle tissue.

What foods is it found in?

The main dietary sources of taurine are meat, fish, milk, and eggs.  Smaller amounts are found in some plants.

Why vegetarians should consider trying it

Because most natural taurine sources are not vegetarian/vegan friendly.

Benefits

In addition to the benefits listed above, taurine supplementation can also:

  • Increase endurance performance
  • Promote the formation of new blood vessels
  • Reduce muscle breakdown
  • Reduce lactic acid formation
  • Increase insulin sensitivity
  • Lower blood lipids

Dosage/Timing

500 – 2000mg 30-60 minutes before exercise.

Protein Powder

Protein powders are one of the more popular supplements for good reason. They help athletes conveniently meet daily protein requirements when too little is consumed through the diet.

Protein powders come in many forms such as whey concentrate, whey isolate, whey hydrolysate, casein, egg, and beef (gross).

Vegetarian protein powder usually come from rice, peas, hemp, and chia.

What foods is it found in?

All whey proteins are derived from milk while the vegetarian options are self-explanatory.

Why vegetarians should consider trying it

Vegetarian athletes should consider trying a plant based protein powder because more than likely they are not consuming enough protein through their diet on a daily basis to optimize muscle repair and recovery (some studies suggest 2 – 2.5 grams per kg body weight daily).

What’s important to note here is plant based protein powders do not have as good of an amino acid profile compared to milk based protein. Especially the BCAAs which promote muscle protein synthesis.

When choosing a plant protein powder make sure it has a complete amino acid profile and at least 2.5 grams of leucine per serving. You may need to take more than 25 grams of the protein powder to meet this threshold.

Benefits

  • Promotes muscle repair
  • Enhances recovery time
  • Builds muscle
  • Can be used as an energy source when carbohydrate stores are low
  • Improves body composition

Dosage/Timing

25 – 30 grams of protein per serving to meet daily requirements which are 2 – 2.5 grams of protein per kg body weight.

Carnitine

Carnitine is an amino acid that is found in nearly every cell of the body. It plays a big role in energy production and also helps transport fat to the mitochondria (to be used for energy).

Carnitine also can boost exercise performance and improve focus/cognition.

Carnitine can be made from amino acids in the body but may become depleted more quickly (less energy production) if you’re a vegetarian athlete.

What foods is it found in?

Carnitine is most abundantly found in beef, milk, codfish, and chicken. Minuscule amounts are found in whole wheat bread and asparagus

Why vegetarians should consider trying it

A vegetarian’s diet is deficient in carnitine ESPECIALLY as it relates to athletic performance improvements.

One study found that athletes who supplemented daily with 2 grams of carnosine for 24 weeks increased work output by 35% compared to placebo.

Benefits

  • Reduces markers of muscle damage
  • Minimizes soreness
  • Decreases free radical production
  • Increases endurance performance through use of free fatty acids
  • Helps glucose uptake
  • May improve VO2 max

Dosage/Timing

600 – 2500mg of carnitine (as l-carnitine l-tartarte) immediately post exercise

Vitamin & mineral deficiencies in vegetarian athletes:

In addition to the supplements listed above, research has demonstrated that vegetarian athletes are commonly deficient in the following vitamins and minerals:

  1. Vitamin B12
  2. Vitamin D
  3. Zinc
  4. Iron
  5. Calcium

If the vegetarian athlete is found to be lacking these key nutrients, a good multi-vitamin is recommended.

About the author:

Matt Mosman (MS, CISSN, CSCS) is a research scientist, endurance athlete, and the founder and Chief Endurance Officer at EndurElite. Matt holds his B.S. in Exercise Science from Creighton University and his M.S. in Exercise Physiology from the University of California.  Matt and his family reside in Spearfish South Dakota, where they enjoy running, mountain biking, camping, and all the outdoor adventures Spearfish has to offer.

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