More and more people are converting to plant-based diets, whether that’s vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan or flexitarian (where you might try to go vegetarian once a week). I can certainly appreciate the people who do this because they hate the way some animals are treated in the food industry. However, I think whilst it may be hard for some people to accept, humans are omnivores. Whilst you may argue that means we can eat meat or plants, I’d say it means we need to eat both.
That said, I’m not trying to offend anyone in any way, but those following a vegetarian diet may be missing out or deficient in particular nutrients, so here are some top nutrients for vegetarian runners to supplement. I believe by taking these nutrients, they will help to support your overall health and development as a runner – or any type of athlete. In fact, I think these nutrients will aid anyone on a vegetarian diet.
Top 7 Nutrients For Vegetarians To Supplement
#1 – Iron
Many of the best dietary sources of iron come from animal products such as beef, turkey and organ meats in particular – especially liver. Whilst iron can be found from plant sources such as spinach, iron from plants is known as nonheme iron. Iron from animals is heme iron. More of the iron (heme iron) from animals is absorbed than iron from plants (nonheme iron). This means that vegetarians require more plant-based iron-rich foods to meet their iron requirements.
Furthermore, if you’re a runner, you require more iron since repeatedly pounding the ground with your feet can cause blood cells to burst (it sounds a lot worse than it is) and since iron is used in red blood cells to bind to oxygen it is necessary for your body to produce functional red blood cells.
As well as this, those who exercise a lot and sweat (especially in the heat) can lose iron in their sweat which can make it even more important to replenish iron during those hot summer months.
Further Reading: Eat Iron, Run Stronger
The RDA (recommended daily allowance) in the UK is:
- 8mg for males 19 years old and above
- 18mg for females between 19 – 50 years of age
- 8mg for females 51 years old and above
- 27mg for pregnant women
Top Vegetarian Sources of Iron:
- Spirulina – 28g contains 8mg iron
- Natto – half a cup contains 7.5mg iron
- Soybeans – half a cup contains 4.4mg iron
- Lentils – half a cup contains 3.3mg iron
- Dark chocolate – 30g contains 3.3mg iron
- Spinach – half a cup contains 3.2mg iron
- Mushrooms – one cup cooked contains 2.7mg iron
- Black beans – half a cup contains 1.8mg iron
Other general plant-based sources of iron include legumes, lentils, nuts, seeds and iron-fortified foods.
One other option is to consume iron supplements such as spatone. Spatone even has vitamin C added to it which plays a key role in the absorption of iron, so try to eat vitamin C rich foods such as fruits and vegetables along with your iron-rich foods.
#2 – Zinc
Zinc is a mineral which plays an important role in assisting immune system function. However, zinc can be hard to obtain from plant-based foods since it is limited in abundance. In fact, according to WHO (world health organisation), 31% of people globally are deficient in zinc.
The RDA in the UK is:
- 9.5mg for males
- 7mg for females
Top Vegetarian Sources of Zinc:
- Pumpkin seeds – half a cup contains 5mg
- Cashews – half a cup contain 3.8mg
- Chickpeas – one cup cooked contains 2.5mg
- Mushrooms – one cup cooked contains 1.9mg
- Spinach – one cup cooked contains 1.4mg
#3 – Creatine
Creatine is an amino acid found predominantly in animal foods. Whilst it is not essential from dietary sources as it can be produced from the liver, it is important for powerful muscular contractions, proper function of the central nervous system and brain health.
The easiest way to obtain creatine for vegetarians and vegans would be to consume creatine monohydrate. This is probably the cheapest form of creatine available and comes at a very reasonable price. Most athletes taking creatine only take about 3g of creatine a day.
Natural sources include eggs and dairy.
#4 – Protein
Protein is quite possibly one of the easiest nutrients to become deficient in on a vegetarian diet – particularly for those who exercise a lot and athletes because their protein requirements are generally higher to maintain and build muscle whilst preventing the breakdown of muscle. Many vegetarian diets become heavily grain based which tends to push their diets towards high blood sugar and insulin levels whilst neglecting protein and probably fats as well.
Vegetarians can help fulfil their protein requirements by consuming:
- Whey protein shakes (20g per shake)
- Eggs (6g per egg)
- Plant-based protein shakes such as pea or hemp protein
- Cheese – you can buy protein-rich cheeses which contain 37g of protein per 100g (and only 180 calories)
- Soybeans (100g contains 15g protein)
- Almonds (100g contains 21g protein)
- Lentils (100g contains 9g protein)
- Spirulina (100g contains 63g protein)
#5 – Omega 3 Fatty Acid DHA
DHA is docosahexaenoic acid and is primarily found in marine animals such as fish and krill. It’s essential for healthy brain function and heart health. DHA can be converted from the omega 3 fatty acid ALA (alpha linoleic acid) which can be obtained from plant sources, however, conversion is not efficient yet it is one way of obtaining DHA.
For vegetarians who don’t mind supplementing, I would supplement as it is probably the most effective way to incorporate DHA into your diet. From an environmental perspective, krill oil is harvested in a more sustainable and eco-friendly way than fish oil, so I would consider choosing krill oil as your omega 3 DHA supplement.
For those not supplementing here are some good vegetarian sources of omega 3 fatty acid ALA:
- Brussel sprouts
#6 – Choline
Those consuming a vegetarian diet will likely be obtaining their fats from beans, lentils, coconuts, avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds. The only problem is that in order to process fat, your body requires choline, a nutrient which is primarily obtained from animal foods such as liver and eggs.
Choline deficiency can cause:
- Memory loss
- Cognitive decline
- Muscle aches
- Nerve damage
This is one of the reasons I highly recommend vegetarians incorporate eggs into their diet. I’d say 3 eggs a day is a pretty good amount and I wouldn’t worry about the cholesterol either. The whole cholesterol myth has been debunked, and for those who are still uncertain you can read two articles, I did on cholesterol below.
Further Reading: What’s The Real Deal With Cholesterol?
The alternative is to consume sunflower lecithin – that is a good vegetarian (and vegan) source of choline, or you could consume another choline supplement. It is suggested you consume 550mg choline daily.
Here are some of the top vegetarian sources of choline:
- 1 cup uncooked chickpeas (198mg)
- 1 cup uncooked split peas (188mg)
- 1 cup raw navy beans (181mg)
- 1 large egg (147mg)
- 1 cup raw cauliflower (47mg)
#7 – Vitamin B12
Out of all the nutritional deficiencies, vegetarians are likely to come across, vitamin B12 deficiencies are probably the one you are most aware of. B vitamins can be found in animal products including eggs and dairy, so if you don’t have any problems consuming those animal products I would try to eat them (another reason why I recommend eggs so highly).
7% of vegetarians and 52% of vegans are deficient in vitamin B12, according to normal serum tests. You might think “Oh, that’s not too bad.” Well, according to the newer, more sensitive serum tests, 77% of vegetarians and 92% of vegans have low levels of the active form of B12. This means it is highly likely if you are consuming a vegetarian diet you will want to make vitamin B12 a priority. And supplementing is less effective this time (more on that down below).
Signs of vitamin B12 deficiency include:
- Muscle weakness
- Physical and mental fatigue
It is used for:
- Energy production
- DNA synthesis
- Blood formation
- Reproductive health
Foods I recommend consuming to obtain vitamin B12 are:
- Nori seaweed (possibly the best naturally occurring vitamin B12 source for vegetarians)
- Goat’s milk
- Vitamin B12 fortified foods (although I’d try to stay away from grains and cereal since I believe they have very little nutritional value compared to other whole foods)
- Marmite (if you haven’t tried it, find out whether you love it or hate it!)
- Nutritional yeast
Personally, I quite like Marmite and I think it’s a great option for those who love it since it is fortified with B vitamins. Its unique taste may put you off though – or keep you forever addicted!
So, lastly, if you were wondering about supplementing vitamin B12, the reason why it is ineffective is that in order to absorb vitamin B12, your body requires a specific glycoprotein (special protein) which only selectively absorbs vitamin B12 from naturally occurring compounds. For this reason, you may be better off saving your money by not buying vitamin B12 pills.
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