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Protein intake is invariably a sensitive issue when discussing vegetarianism. Either because of underlying beliefs that a vegetarian diet may not provide enough protein or the quality of protein intake may be compromised when abstaining from meat. The significance and type of protein intake in a vegetarian diet also depends on one’s operating definition of a vegetarian diet. A classical vegetarian diet is defined as one that is free of meat products; be it red meat, poultry, seafood or the flesh of any other animal. Stricter definitions of vegetarian diets include: an ovo-vegetarian diet, which includes eggs but not dairy products; or a lacto-vegetarian diet, which includes dairy products but not eggs; or an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet, which includes both eggs and dairy products. The strictest form of vegetarianism is a vegan diet, which excludes all animal products, including eggs, dairy, beeswax and honey.

Protein Quality in Vegetarian Diets

There are typically a handful of foods and vegetables that form the staple protein component of the diet in vegetarians. These include legumes, nuts, seeds and soy. Obviously ovo-vegetarians can get additional protein in the form of eggs, which are one of the best quality forms of animal protein, while lacto-vegetarians have to rely on milk as their top quality animal protein source. Ovo-lacto vegetarians on the other hand only have to do without protein from meat sources. As highlighted above, protein quality is one of the key issues when assessing protein needs in typical vegetarian diets.

Contrary to popular belief, there are certain plant proteins that are equal or better quality protein sources than some of the conventional meat proteins. Protein quality can be measured a number of different ways, but one of the most popular measures is biological value (BV), which is a measure of the proportion of absorbed protein from a food which becomes incorporated into the proteins of the body. It provides a measure of how readily the broken down protein can be used in protein synthesis in the cells of the body. The table below shows the BV of some popular vegetable and animal protein sources.

Protein Source

Biological Value (BV)

Whey Protein

96

Whole Soy Bean

96

Egg

94

Soybean Milk

91

Cow’s Milk

90

Cheese

84

Quinoa

83

Rice

83

Fish

76

Beef

74.3

Soybean Curd

64

Whole Wheat

64

 

As one can see in the table above, soy bean ranks highly in terms of its protein quality. Other lesser known good quality vegetable protein sources include quinoa and rice. However, the dilemma with such foods is that their actual protein content is very low, making it hard to get any meaningful total protein intake from a standard serve of quinoa or rice. As a result, some companies have developed rice protein powders for those individuals who demand a vegetable-based protein powder to supplement their diet. But a major drawback with rice protein powders is their taste. For those that simply can’t stomach the taste, the next best option is soy protein powders. These have a much more acceptable taste profile making them easy to consume either on their own or as part of a smoothie.

Vegetarianism & Weight Training

One of the main questions that arise for active vegetarians who participate in weight training is how best to eat so as to optimise muscle growth and recovery. When it comes to endurance athletes and their performance, the research is fairly conclusive that typical vegetarian diets do not serve as a hindrance to performance1. However, the research is much scarcer when it comes to vegetarianism and bodybuilding. From the limited research that’s been carried out, it is generally considered that optimal changes in muscle hypertrophy, muscle strength and power cannot be achieved when limiting one’s protein to vegetable sources1-3.  Vegans and ovo-vegetarians by definition are the only group of vegetarians who can’t consume whey protein and therefore may be at a disadvantage for optimal performance in sports where muscle strength and mass are limiting factors for performance. However, with the rapid development of sports nutrition products and raw materials, there are numerous synthetic or highly purified protein, peptide and amino acid products that may provide suitable alternatives for vegetarians that are happy to be less strict about what constitutes an animal protein source.

Protein & Amino Acid Supplements for Vegetarians

One of the best supplements for vegetarians engaged in weight training are branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). BCAAs are typically synthesized from vegetable/plant sources as opposed to whey proteins, which come from dairy. What’s more, vegetable protein sources tend to be lower in BCAAs than animal proteins. And with leucine being the most anabolic amino acid, small changes in intake can have a major impact on muscle protein synthesis, providing the other essential amino acids are present in sufficient quantities. BCAA supplements are also widely recognised for their ability to help reduce muscle soreness associated with weight training. So all types of vegetarian diets be they strict vegans or ovo-lacto vegetarians stand to benefit substantially from the use of BCAA supplements.

Another more specific supplement option for vegetarians is customised individual amino acid supplementation. Such approaches typically entail assessing one’s blood levels of amino acids to determine which particular amino acids may be deficient. Based on results of such testing, an individualised amino acid supplement scheme can be devised or in some cases, it may be as simple as supplementing with one or two single amino acids.

Balancing Protein Intake in Vegetarians

While different types of vegetarian diets can present some challenges to the active individual engaged in weight training and/or aerobic exercise, there are a range of supplement options that allow vegetarians to tailor their protein and amino acid intake so as to optimise muscle protein synthesis and recovery. Individuals practising vegetarianism for religious or cultural reasons may choose not to use supplements and as such need to pay careful attention to their diet to ensure regular and consistent intake of a range of quality vegetable sources of protein.

References
1. Venderley AM & Campbell WW. Vegetarian diets: Nutritional Considerations for Athletes. Sports Med. 2006;36(4):293-305.

2. Campbell WW, et al. Increased energy requirements and changes in body composition with resistance training in older adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 1994;60(2):167-175.
3. Campbell WW, et al. Effects of resistance training and dietary protein intake on protein metabolism in older adults. Am J Physiol. 1995;268(6 Pt 1):E1143-E1153.

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