Fruits and vegetables at a market in Paris (Photo: Inigo Mujika)

Fruits and vegetables at a market in Paris (Photo: Inigo Mujika)

The two male triathletes that I coach, Hektor Llanos (website in Basque and Spanish) and Eneko Llanos are vegetarians, and have been so well before we started working together back in 2002. They don’t preach nor try to convince anybody that theirs is the right way of eating, but they are adamant about their choice. They are often asked about this when interviewed in the media or during informal conversations, as there is a widespread perception that being an elite athlete and choosing to follow a vegetarian diet may not be compatible. Is this the case?

First of all, let’s make things clear: what is a vegetarian diet? According to the Australian Institute of Sport Department of Sports Nutrition, the term “vegetarian” is used rather broadly and encompasses a wide range of dietary habits:

  • Fruitarian: this diet consists of raw or dried fruits, nuts, seeds, honey and vegetable oil.
  • Macrobiotic: it excludes all animal foods, dairy products and eggs, and uses only unprocessed, unrefined, “natural” and “organic” cereals, grains and condiments.
  • Vegan: it excludes all animal foods, dairy products and eggs. In the purest sense, it also excludes all animal products including honey, gelatine, silk, wool, leather and animal derived food additives.
  • Lacto-vegetarian: it excludes all animal foods and eggs, but not milk and milk products.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: it excludes all animal foods except milk, milk products and eggs.
  • “Quasi”, “Pseudo”, or Near-Vegetarian: it usually excludes red meat, but includes poultry, beef extracts and fats, fish, eggs and dairy products.

Regarding the suitability of vegetarian diets to support the nutritional needs of elite athletes, there seems to be little or no doubt that this is indeed the case. The American Dietetic Association’s Position Stand on vegetarian diets states that “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”

In addition, the health benefits of vegetarian diets are clearcut: “An evidence- based review showed that vegetarian diets can be nutritionally adequate in pregnancy and result in positive maternal and infant health outcomes. The results of an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians also appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than nonvegetarians. Furthermore, vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index and lower overall cancer rates. Features of a vegetarian diet that may reduce risk of chronic disease include lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol and higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy products, fiber, and phytochemicals.”

We have assessed Hektor’s and Eneko’s dietary intake and health status repeteadly over the years, and have found no reason to think that their vegetarian diet could be limiting their performance potential. On the contrary, they believe that their dietary habits have been a key factor contributing to their outstanding triathlon performances and their injury resistance throughout their sport career.


Craig WJ, Mangels AR; American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 109(7):1266-82, 2009.

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One comment

  1. It is my opinion that this article refers to a pair of exceptional people who are educated and smart enough to execute a vegetarian diet adequate for a high performance lifestyle.

    However, I do not think this is so with the typical vegetarian.

    What would be more constructive would be a more specific instructive article on how to maintain a rigorous training diet without the aid of meat or dairy products.

    My personal diet is one of lean meats and as much organic raw fruits and vegetables as possible. For me it is a rare day when I meet a vegetarian (even more so, vegan) who is convincingly more healthy than myself. Most of them, if you looked at their body fat percentages you will find skinny-fat people of compromised potential.

    August 14, 2011