Kids can take part in sports while on vegetarian and vegan diets, but parents and caregivers must help them select foods that will fuel them and meet their nutrition needs.
Vegan athletes can become deficient in vitamin B12, vitamin D, long-chain omega-3 fats, riboflavin and calcium, so it's important to find good substitutes, said Roberta Anding, a registered dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
A vegan diet excludes all meat and animal products, including dairy and eggs, while a vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry and seafood.
Good carbohydrates include breakfast choices such as whole grain toast, oatmeal or roasted sweet potatoes. Anding also suggests offering vegetarian kids rice, quinoa and pasta.
While there are fewer protein choices for kids who have eliminated meat, vegetarians can get their protein from milk, yogurt, cheese or eggs. Vegans can choose soy milk, the closest nondairy equivalent to cow's milk for protein. Another vegan protein option is egg alternatives made from chickpeas.
Beans provide both carbs and proteins, while avocados and trail mix are energy and nutrient-dense.
“Because their diets are predominantly plant-based, vegans and vegetarians can get a lot of great carbohydrates,” Anding said in a Baylor news release. “If they're eating enough food, their energy should come from carbs since carbohydrates are the fuel of exercising muscle. They need to be more thoughtful about planning protein since it's needed for growth and development, as well as recovery from sport.”
Anding suggests avoiding products that mimic meat. That includes highly processed frozen, vegan chicken nuggets or plant-based burgers. Instead, a black bean burger offers a whole-food alternative. Create recipes using lentils, beans or quinoa for adequate protein consumption, she suggested.
“The more we try to take something out of a product, the more processed it becomes. Vegan options that try to mimic meat are not great options,” Anding said. “When food tries to pretend, you may not get anything better, and it could possibly be worse than the original version you're trying to avoid.”
A homemade option is vegan macaroni and cheese with nutritional yeast, she noted.
When doing cardio-focused workouts, young people should consume high-quality carbs and meet protein requirements, she said. This can include whole grain toast with almond butter or other nut butters and honey. Fuel before a workout with fresh fruit. Tofu, tempeh and other soy-based products will provide protein and help the body rebuild after exercising.
After lifting weights, young people can help repair muscle damage with protein, such as hummus and crackers; a nut butter sandwich; a high-protein, plant-based breakfast cereal with berries or bananas; or a glass of soy milk.
“Vegetarianism and veganism are not just avoiding meat. You have to make sure you're getting quality sources of carbohydrates and protein,” Anding said. “See a dietitian and double check with a pediatrician to make sure children are monitored.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has more on meatless eating.
SOURCE: Baylor College of Medicine, news release, Aug. 11, 2022