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Protein, B12, Iron: The Balance in Vegetarian (and Vegan) Eating 

By Julie DuBois

salad Many vegetarian or vegan athletes are often concerned that they aren’t getting the proper amount of nutrients in their diets. This can be a major concern, especially if you are experiencing injuries. The most commonly missed nutrients in a vegetarian or vegan diet are protein, Vitamin B12 and iron. Although it is possible to get all these nutrients in a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is going to take some work. Here are a few suggestions to round out your nutrition plan.


Some great vegetarian and/or vegan sources of protein include:

  • Tofu
  • Soybeans
  • Yogurt (soy or regular)
  • Nuts/nut butters
  • Dairy/soy milk
  • Greek yogurt
  • Protein powders
  • Whole grains (Quinoa is very high in protein)
  • Beans

It’s important to note that combinations of foods such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or beans and rice provide the essential amino acids to make a complete protein. As long as vegetarian or vegan athletes are eating a wide variety of whole grains and these other foods, they can adequately meet the recommended protein needs. Endurance athletes on average need 1.2-1.4g/kg protein per day and strength athletes need approximately 1.6-1.7g/kg protein per day.

Vitamin B12

The most common vitamin deficiency in vegan or vegetarian athletes is Vitamin B12. This vitamin is commonly found in red meat. Some sources of this vitamin include:

  • Fortified soy milk
  • Fortified cereals
  • Eggs/dairy (if not vegan)


Iron is commonly lacking in the vegan or vegetarian diet because the heme form (most absorbable) of iron is contained in animal proteins. Non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed by the body. Regardless, it is important to include in a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Sources of non-heme iron include:

  • Fortified cereals
  • Fortified whole grains
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Lentils
  • Kidney beans

No matter what nutrition path you choose, athletes are encouraged to meet with a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition (or a certified specialist in sports dietetics) to ensure that they are obtaining adequate amounts of nutrients in their diets. When you plan out your menu, a vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthy and can contain all the nutrients needed to perform at your best!

Julie DuBois, RD, LD is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian with Nutriworks Comprehensive Nutrition Consulting and a NASM Certified Personal Trainer. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Coordinated Dietetics from Texas Christian University. Julie enjoys coaching her clients to reach their personal health and fitness goals in a way that is both fun and challenging at the same time! You can contact her at, follow her on Twitter (@JulieKDuBois) or check out her website,

Athletic Foodie LogoThis article originally appeared on, founded by Olympic gold medalist Garrett Weber-Gale and his family, who believe that good taste and healthy food really can go together.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.