Children 10–18 years

6 Tips for helping athletes eat more plant foods

With the global population predicted to reach 10 billion by 2050 the biggest challenge is going to be to feed our growing population.

To do this we need to reduce our intake of red meat (especially processed), moderate our dairy intake and eat more plant-based foods. Which means that along with fruit and vegetables we also need to include nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes and beans.1

For athletes this could be quite a challenge. Especially for young athletes who are still growing. Where will they get their protein, calcium, iron and energy from? Also what about athletes who don’t like eating vegetables or consider them a waste of time?

Some of the reasons they give their parents, teachers and coaches for not eating vegetables are:

  • Vegetables are low in calories, but filling so won’t provide much energy when I’m competing
  • They are too bulky, boring and annoying to chew
  • They cause wind and bloating
  • They don’t build muscle or help with strength and conditioning

All these comments are valid concerns that need to be worked through individually for better health.

Why do athletes need to eat plant foods?

1. Essential  energy

Ideally the amount of energy needed for good health is generally recommended to come from the following macronutrients 2:

Protein 10-25%

Fat 20-35%

Carbohydrate 45-65%

The choice of energy proportions (%) is dependent on the age, gender, weight and type of athletic activity being undertaken and their state of health.

While it is true that some leafy green vegetables are low in energy and bulky they are high in vitamins and minerals important for performance so need to be eaten each day. They can also help overweight athletes feel full more quickly and make useful snacks when eaten with e.g. hummus or tzatziki as an after school snack

For athletes in sports with higher energy demands, starchy vegetables, rice, pasta, legumes and whole grains are good sources of carbohydrate to provide sufficient energy to support high-intensity training, particularly if athletes are training for more than an hour /or training various times per day

2. Building muscle

While it is true that muscles and body tissues are mostly made of protein researchers at the University of Stirling 3 have found that to build muscle mass a minimum of 1.6g/kg/day is all that is required in healthy, non dieting adults (and adolescents 4).

Protein eaten in excess of this amount may be used for non muscle tissue protein synthesis but will not be used to generate skeletal muscle, and is more likely to be processed by the liver into glucose and fatty acids and may also cause abdominal discomfort.

While protein is important consuming an adequate number of calories each day from carbohydrate to support good energy availability along with the correct resistance exercises is essential to building muscle mass.

3.Keeping the gut healthy

The body contains trillions of bacteria compared to the number of healthy body cells.

Some of these bacteria are harmful, they decrease immunity and proliferate in number when the intake of saturated and trans fats, added sugars and alcohol are increased. They feed on the mucus protective lining of the gut, and increase gaps between the cells lining the gut increasing its permeability which eventually allows these bacteria and viruses to enter the blood stream and cause inflammation.

This is commonly referred to as a’ leaky gut syndrome’ a condition that if left unchecked can lead onto irritable bowel disease, coeliac disease, allergies, asthma and Type 1 diabetes.

Healthy gut bacteria, on the other hand, thrive on dietary fibre provided in plant foods and produce short chain fatty acids SCFA e.g. Acetate and Butyrate which help to build up the mucus lining protecting the gut lining, reducing inflammation and also offering protection from bowel cancer.

4. Building immunity

Along with keeping harmful bacteria in check, plant foods are also a source of antioxidants. These are substances that prevent oxidative cell damage by free radicals. Antioxidants are produced within the body, are available in dietary supplements and are also present in fruits and vegetables.

They include compounds like flavonoids, anthocyanins, co-enzyme Q10, Vitamins A,C and E

During exercise free radicals are produced in skeletal muscle contributing to muscle fatigue and damage to muscle fibres impacting on performance and recovery.

A diet rich in fruit and vegetables not only promotes health but also reduces the risk of other diseases. While antioxidant supplements can correct antioxidant deficiency that may exist any intake beyond normal needs can potentially blunt the body’s natural training response that releases antioxidant enzymes into the body thereby offering natural cellular protection on all levels of exertion.

We can’t feel our immunity levels but nothing will block athletic performance quicker than missing training sessions and squad selection because of flu or colds.

5. Keeping the eyes, skin and bone healthy

Yellow, red and orange vegetables such as carrots, sweet potato, pumpkin, squash contain beta carotene. This is also found in spinach and kale, although the chlorophyll in their leaves hide the yellow orange pigment.

Beta carotene is a building block of Vitamin A which is important for

  • Vision, keeping the eye moist and tear ducts clear
  • Mucus membranes healthy in nose and respiratory tract
  • Aids taste sensation and appetite
  • Healthy skin
  • Healthy growth of bone, cartilage and teeth

All of these factors will impact on athletic performance, hand and eye co-ordination, appearance, hydration and general wellness.

6. Maintaining mind and mood

Green leafy vegetables are an important source of iron and folate. Both these nutrients are important for red blood cell formation and the transport of oxygen around the body.

They are also essential to the production of neurotransmitters in the brain enhancing cognitive function, mood and improving memory and concentration.

A lack of these nutrients can lead to fatigue, failing physical and mental performance,reduced immune functions and depression. Such feelings can slow down reaction times and tactical thinking as well as reducing enjoyment of the sport.

Practical tips to improve vegetable intake

  • If you find vegetables increase bloating or flatulence it could be that the vegetables you have chosen have a high sulphur content. e.g. the Calciferous or Brassica group such as cabbage, swede, cauliflower, broccoli, kale or the Allium vegetables e.g. onion, garlic, leeks.
    As these compounds are volatile try leaving the lid off the pot or pan if steaming or stir frying so these compounds can escape into the atmosphere..
  • Avoid juicing vegetables as this destroys their healthy high fibre qualities. You are better to eat them whole raw or cooked and drink more water
  • Include raw vegetables into meals and snacks each day such as vegetables sticks with humus or tzatziki, salad vegetables into wraps for lunch or with your evening meal
  • Add vegetables to toasted sandwiches, paninis, wraps and filled rolls, omletes for lunch and casseroles for dinner.
  • Add vegetables to baked products such as carrot, pumpkin, sweetcorn or beetroot to muffins
  • Make soup in winter but rather than processing the soup, try mashing with a potato masher to leave vegetables chunky .

Eating more plant foods doesn’t mean that we should become vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat or dairy. Rather that we proportionally choose more food from plant-based sources.

If you would like help to assess your diet or to create a sustainable sports nutrition plan, that is adequate to meet your needs for growth and performance, then contact us today.

Also keep an eye out for Lea’s book How to grow and athlete from playground to podium  which will be out soon.

For more articles by Lea on similar topics:

Get into fruit and vegetables for optimal health
Boosting fibre intake offers health benefits
Juice diets are they as healthy as they sound?
Organic food markets are gaining traction


1.The Eat-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health. An executive summary. The Lancet Jan 16 2019.

2.Dietitians Clinical handbook 2013

3. Witard O. Experts provide new guidelines to athletes on protein intake. University of Stirling 12 April 2019.

4. Aerenhouts,D.Van Cauwenberg,J. Poortmans,JR. Hauspie,R. Clarys, P. (2013). Influence of growth rate on nitrogen balance in adolescent sprint athletes. Int J sport Nutr Exerc. Metab, Aug(4):409-17

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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