Is a Vegetarian Diet a Healthy Diet for an Athlete? | A Nutritionist Weighs In

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“Can I, or should I, follow a vegetarian diet as a ladyballer?” Or, “Is a vegetarian diet a healthier diet choice?”

By Cameron McDonald  

You may have asked yourself these questions, or asked yourself similar questions with ‘vegetarian’ substituted for any number of diet philosophies (gluten-free, paleo, keto, intermittent fasting, clean eating, etc.). These are two separate questions, and we should address the second question first. 

What is a healthy diet?

Let that sink in a little, and try to think of how you would define it. Did you think of a list of foods, either ones that must be in the diet or ones that shouldn’t be? Did you think about the components of food, like protein and carbohydrates? Did you think of things that had nothing to do with food? I define a “healthy” diet as one that provides adequate energy and nutrients to support activity and the continuous physiological processes of growth and repair within our bodies. But, equally important, I define a healthy diet as one that supports all other aspects of life.

A healthy diet is one that makes you happy and allows you to participate in situations where people come together and create connections and memories. These might sound like broad definitions because they’re supposed to be. I believe that what makes a diet healthy is not necessarily what food components it includes, but whether it adds to or subtracts from your life.

But to answer the original question yes, you can follow a vegetarian diet as a ladyballer.

A vegetarian diet can be a healthy diet, but can just as easily be an unhealthy diet depending on the choices you make and the reasons behind those choices. Vegetarian diets are often high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, but French fries and Oreos are also vegetarian. If your diet only consisted of French fries and Oreos, you wouldn’t be adequately fueling your activity and would probably feel pretty terrible after about the second day. And there are many reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet; cultural, religious, financial, ethical or environmental. But, choosing a vegetarian diet can also be a more socially-acceptable way of restricting food intake and masking disordered eating or an eating disorder.

If you think that you may suffer from disordered eating or an eating disorder, please consider talking to your physician and getting evaluated by an eating disorder specialist to see if therapy or treatment would be beneficial for your mental and physical health, athletic performance, and long-term relationship with food.

So, you can follow a vegetarian diet as a ladyballer, but should you?

Vegetarian diets are more environmentally sustainable, utilize fewer natural resources, and are associated with less environmental damage. But in terms of effect on your performance at practice or in a game, current research has not shown a difference in athletic performance between vegetarian and omnivorous diets.

There is, however, a theoretical basis for the idea that vegetarian diets could provide performance benefits for ladyballers. Plant-based diets are naturally high in carbohydrates, fiber, antioxidants and other phytochemicals (plant nutrients). A higher intake of carbohydrates, especially around training, will help meet the recovery nutrition recommendations that Reilly talked about in her blog, and support you in a longer, endurance-style sport like soccer. Greater fiber and phytochemical intakes will also feed the microbes in your gut and help improve gut health.Your gut microbiome plays a key role in controlling oxidative stress and the inflammatory response to stressful events like training or competition. Improved gut health, along with greater intake of antioxidant-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, will help improve immunity, reduce chronic inflammation and exercise-induced oxidative stress, and enhance recovery after practices and games.

Other long-term health benefits of eating a plant-based diet include reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, lower blood pressure, and possibly improved sleep and overall quality of life.

Notice that somewhere in there I began saying “plant-based diet” rather than “vegetarian diet”.

That’s because all these benefits aren’t so much due to the foods that are restricted or eliminated in the diet, but rather the foods that the nutrition philosophy chooses to highlight and amplify. Whole grains, fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds aren’t exclusive to a vegetarian diet, and you don’t have to cut out all meat or animal products to increase your consumption of these foods.

A plant-based diet means exactly what it says, a diet based in plants. It does not have to mean a diet exclusively composed of plants. Maybe a “plant forward” diet is a better way to think about it.

So, my best advice?

I would recommend that you increase your plant consumption and follow a more plant-based diet, but whether you follow a vegetarian diet and to what extent is up to you!


Cameron McDonald, RD

If you have any questions for Cam, please email him at!



  • qoohojlshp posted on March 10 2021 at 01:03 PM

    Muchas gracias. ?Como puedo iniciar sesion?

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