Vegetarian Bodybuilding

Can vegetarian bodybuilders seriously get enough protein in their diet to seriously build muscle mass? These days, vegetarian bodybuilding is gaining momentum as the health risks of eating large quantities of red meat are becoming more widely known.

As more people have objections of one kind or another about eating meat, being a vegetarian is really not that unusual. So what to do when you decide that puny frame needs filling out with lean muscle…lets face it, a few nut roasts are not going to cut it!

Well, there are some little known facts about protein and the amino acids which make them up that mean ‘going meatless’ isn’t such a big problem after all. All will be revealed shortly, but first let me tell you a story........

When I first visited California in the early nineties and went to Venice, the laid back ocean front home of Muscle Beach I wasn’t that sure what to expect........ In fact nothing could have prepared me for what I saw........

Through the haze of the midday smog, along the endless beaches sweeping along from Malibu to Newport which I cycled that first day…an open air gym inhabited by people who had developed themselves to sizes previously unknown in the history of the human race…

Do you think this feat had been accomplished snacking at the salad bar?, yes actually, for some... The latest thing at the time was Sizzler ®, a nationwide restaurant chain that had the breakthrough idea of offering an ‘all you can eat salad bar’ for $9.95…but this was not any ordinary salad bar…oh no, this was a fully stocked grill as well (at least in the early days).

For all its best intentions Sizzler ® had made a commercial error of massive proportions........

They say market to a starving crowd........ Well, a starving crowd they got. As an army of hungry bodybuilders lay siege to these unfortunate establishments at opening time........each and every day.

Soon, the ‘policies’ were tightened up and the offer was a once a day deal…but it was no good........mealtimes just got longer… a lot longer! as budget minded locals stocked up for three hours on boiled eggs, pasta, beans and veg. Yes, there was some fried chicken in the deal but mostly too greasy to be any good… we’re talking vegetarian food on the whole…  

What’s the moral of this story?

You can meet most of your protein requirements........and all if you plan your meals well, from a vegetarian diet. If some of the world’s most dedicated bodybuilders can........then so can you.

Where to start though?........ “Won’t I have to consume huge volumes of vegetable matter just to have a reasonable protein intake…hey, I haven’t got all day to eat you know!” OK, ok........calm down, there is an easy way. You just need a little planning and it is possible to remain vegetarian while gaining lean mass. Here is why… as you well know, protein consists of smaller chains of amino acids.

There are 22 amino acids in all needed by the human body for tissue growth and repair. If just one of these is missing from your diet then there will be little or no muscle gains…period. This means, that as a vegetarian it is very important........ no, essential, that you combine your food intake in the right way. What does this mean? Let me explain.

There are 8 ‘essential amino acids – these must be in the diet as the body cannot manufacture them itself and amino acid supplements may provide these.

There are 7 ‘conditionally essential’ amino acids and these are needed in greater amounts by the body under certain… you guessed it – conditions. This might be when the body is under stress such as after a weight training session. Then, finally there are the 7 non-essential amino acids. These can be made in the body.

As someone dedicated to vegetarian bodybuilding the timing of protein intake is essential as is the need to consume foods that represent ‘complete proteins’. These are protein sources that contain all 8 essential amino acids. An example is eggs which is a complete protein. What I mean by foods that ‘represent complete proteins’ is that you can combine certain vegetable and plant foods to give the result ‘as if’ you were consuming a complete protein, such as eggs.

This is done by using complimentary foods that make up for the essential amino acids lacking in each other. This could be as simple as ‘beans on toast’. The grains are high in methionine and low in lysine. While the legume family of foods such as Kidney beans and other kinds of beans are high in lysine but low in methionine. Here are some examples of food combining to achieve complete protein intake;
  • Soybeans and seeds : This could come in the form of say a soy protein shake mix added to a muesli base with sunflower and pumpkins seeds and added milk. A good option for breakfast.
  • Pasta with beans : There are plenty of wholemeal pastas which taste pretty good (once you get used to them!) and also many bean mixes that you can buy, dried or canned depending on how much effort you want to make.
  • Corn tortillas and re fried beans : A tasty Mexican option that takes little preparation
  • Rice and beans : Yellow or black beans with stir fry sauce and wholemeal rice for example.
A side note is that Soy beans do contain all the essential amino acids and are therefore an ideal protein source for vegetarians. Eggs also, as well as being a complete protein have the highest ‘protein efficiency rating’ possible. This is the ability of the protein to promote tissue growth. There are some special considerations for vegetarian bodybuilders or athletes and for completeness here they are........

There are several vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can arise particularly for vegetarian athletes. This is as good a place as any just to run through the simple preventative measures you can take to avoid any negative effects on your performance…  

Iron intake
For vegetarians it is essential to keep the iron intake at required levels........ due to the iron rich sources of animal protein not being present in the diet. However, this is pretty easy to sort out as these foods all contain sources of iron…

Green vegetables........spinach, broccoli (you know you like them really!)
Fortified Soy products and protein powders
  • Pulses
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts, seeds and dried fruit
  • Wholemeal bread
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
A tip is to ensure you consume Vitamin C rich foods or juices with the above as this will maximize the uptake of iron.  

B12 deficiency
Vegans in particular are at risk as the only easily obtainable B12 occurring naturally is from animal sources. A good source can be marmite ® or vegemite ® both of which are derived from Yeast extracts. Other natural sources of B12 Vitamin are dairy products, eggs and fortified cereals and Soy products.  

This is present in many meats but not in plant matter. This means that perhaps a supplemental source is needed by vegetarians. However, it is likely that if you consume fortified breakfast cereals or have protein or meal replacement shakes these will have the full daily complement of Zinc so it should not be necessary to take a standalone supplement.
A tip to remember is to avoid eating too many bran rich foods as fiber can bind to Zinc and reduce its absorption.

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