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Vegan Rowers: What You Need to Know

“My 17 year-old daughter is a vegan. It’s a challenge for me as a dad helping her keep up with what she needs to eat as she does sports.”

It is possible to be a healthy vegan and an athlete. Many athletes choose to “go vegan” for a variety of reasons. While research shows plenty of health benefits, there is also misuse and misunderstanding of the diet, which can cause problems for athletes.

What parents and coaches need to remember is that teen or junior athletes don’t typically have the know-how to pursue this diet in a healthful manner. They may make the following mistakes: eating too little quality protein sources, getting caught up in carb-heavy diets, eating too many processed foods, and/or having limited food variety. Junior rowers need the help of the adults in their lives to be successful.

Here’s how you can support the vegan rower:

Fixate on optimal proteins:

As a vegan, animal sources of protein including meat, poultry, fish and products from these (milk, egg, etc) are avoided in the diet. Plant sources of protein are the name of the game and should be included at each meal. Good options are beans and bean products like hummus; nuts and nut butters; seeds and seed butters; high protein grains such as quinoa, amaranth, oats and bulgur; soymilk; tofu; and soy-based yogurt. No need to worry about combining proteins, just make sure the rower eats a wide variety of these foods each day.

Choose healthy carbohydrates:

Whole grains like whole wheat bread, whole grain crackers and bran-based cereals will increase fiber consumption and automatically add more nutrients, particularly folate, iron and B vitamins to the rower’s nutrition plan. All types of fruit and veggies, and non-dairy substitutes like nut milks and coconut yogurt, add healthy versions of carbohydrate too. Steer clear of too many processed carbs like chips, sweets and sugary drinks.

Keep the fats healthy:

Healthy fats mean a healthy heart. Keep a rotation of olive, canola and safflower oils in your pantry. Routinely stock nuts, seeds, avocado and olives for snacking options.

Watch out for at-risk nutrients:

Iron, calcium, vitamin D, and B12 are the endangered nutrients with a vegan diet. For the female rower, iron is an “at-risk” nutrient, even if not on a vegan diet. Iron can be found in beans and green leafy vegetables. Because plant sources of iron are harder for the body to absorb and utilize, pair vitamin C sources with iron foods to make absorption easier. Look for fortified foods with calcium and vitamin D, such as orange juice, cereals, and alternative milks. Young rowers are still in peak bone building mode and these two nutrients are essential to the process. Last, find a good vitamin B12 food source like fortified soymilk or a supplement, such as nutritional yeast. Vitamin B12 requirements are low, but essential, so eat some everyday.

Keep an eye on weight:

Weight stability means athletic performance and health will likely stay on an even keel. If weight loss is occurring that means calorie intake is not matching exercise demands, and can also indicate inadequate nutrient consumption. All this may translate to reduced athletic performance.

Keep these five nutrition areas in mind, and you’ll be able to raise a healthy vegan rower.

Written by Jill Castle, MS, RDN

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian nutritionist and childhood nutrition expert. She is the co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School and creator of Just The Right Byte, a child and family nutrition blog. She lives with her husband and four children in New Canaan, CT. Questions? Contact her at

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