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What is a Vegetarian?

A vegetarian can be defined as a person who does not engage in the act of eating animal flesh. Generally, non-meat animal products are permitted (eg dairy, eggs, honey, etc). However, this dietary habit can be extended into veganism, in which, no animal products, at all, are consumed. There is no doubt that meat and animal products contain many essential and high quality nutrients valuable for bodybuilding and athletic endeavours. Consequently, vegetarians face a series of unique nutritional challenges that omnivorous bodybuilders and athletes do not.

Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet

People choose to be vegetarian/vegan for different reasons. Some for religion, some for ethics, some for disease, and some people just do not like the taste of meat. Regardless, there is some evidence to suggest that a vegetarian diet may provide health benefits. For example, a vegetarian diet tends to be high in unsaturated fats, fibre, vitamin C, and low in saturated fat. These have benefits in regards to overall health. However, good health does not necessarily translate to athletic performance or bodybuilding potential.

Shortfalls of a Vegetarian Diet

A typical vegetarian diet tends to contain lower levels of iron, zinc, and creatine compared to an omnivorous diet. This can then be extended to lower levels of calcium and vitamin B12 for vegans. When it comes to protein, vegetarians and even vegans are easily able to match the quantity of protein consumed by their meat eating counterparts. However, the biological value of such proteins tends to be lower than that of animal products (animal proteins have amino acids in a ratio more closely resembling what we need). Consequently, vegetarians (vegans in particular) need to consume higher quantities of protein compared to omnivorous people (Kniskern & Johnston, 2011). Finally, creatine is found exclusively in animal products, and is an important energy source for bodybuilding and strength training.

Protein Sources for Vegetarian Bodybuilders

Without sufficient high quality protein, the bodybuilder runs the risk of a negative nitrogen balance which will lead to decreased growth and muscle protein synthesis.  Vegetarians and vegans can benefit from eating nuts, beans and other legumes, rice and soy products which have higher values of protein than other plant sources. The vegetarian can also consume a whey or casein protein to help them obtain the required protein. Vegan lifters can increase their protein intake through soy, rice, and nut proteins supplements.

Creatine Sources for Vegetarian Bodybuilders

Meat eaters consume the most creatine, vegetarians consume less, and vegans consume the least. Consequently, vegans and vegetarians tend to have lower muscle creatine levels than meat eaters (Maughan, 1995). This may significantly reduce their explosive power. Vegetarians can benefit from consuming eggs and dairy which contain some creatine. Unfortunately very few, if any, vegan foods naturally contain creatine. It is therefore important for both groups to take a creatine supplement. It has been shown that because of lower baseline levels of muscle creatine in vegetarians, the result of creatine supplementation is able to produce larger gains than when meat eaters use the supplement. However, this increase only makes up for the initial deficit, and does not increase the vegetarian's performance above that of the meat eater.

Amino Acids for Vegetarian Bodybuilders

Unlike animal proteins, plant proteins may not contain all the essential amino acids in the necessary proportions. As the body synthesises protein by combining individual amino acids, lack of amino acids in our body reduces the pool of amino acids for which this process involves. Furthermore, low levels of certain amino acids will affect your ability to be successful with bodybuilding. For example, lack of lysine or L-lysine can affect your body's ability to absorb calcium, build muscle protein and create important enzymes and hormones required for muscle growth.  Not many plant sources contain all 8 essential amino acids. Those that do include: hempseed, soy, buckwheat and chia seed. However, a proper varied vegetarian diet is adequate to meet the requirements. Consider taking a plant based amino acid supplement as an additional measure to ensure visible results from your hard work in the gym.

Mineral sources for Vegetarian Bodybuilders

Zinc deficiency can impact on your immune system and lead to increased chances of infection. Magnesium and calcium both affect the way our muscles contract. Iron deficiency is especially common in female vegetarian athletes (Barr & Rideout, 2004), and leads to anaemia and fatigue. Consider consuming high biological sources of these minerals including cereals and grains, broccoli, pumpkin and green leafy vegetables among others. It might be wise to invest in a multi mineral supplement to ensure that the levels of these minerals in your body do not decrease to levels which may affect your ability to increase muscular growth.

Vitamin B12 sources for Vegetarian Bodybuilders

Vitamin B12 promotes growth, maintains a healthy nervous system and reduces fatigue. Vitamin B12 is naturally present only in animal food. Vegetarians are able to obtain adequate B12 from their food, but it is difficult for vegans unless they use a supplement, fortified food, or B12 injections. Consult your doctor if you have any questions or concerns over your B12 supply. It has been proposed that B12 may exist in some plant products, but research has shown that the B12 from plants are likely to be from microbial contaminants.

Avoid the Vegetarian Pitfall

Lifters who follow a vegetarian eating style may find it difficult to meet their particular nutritional needs. A potential pitfall is unbalanced eating whereby animal foods are simply eliminated with little regard given to appropriate substitutes. If consumed informatively, a vegetarian diet can be very healthy, but without proper information vegetarian diets can be very unhealthy, with high saturated fats (from full fat dairy foods such as cheese), refined carbs, sugar, and hydrogenated oils. Compounding this, the diet can be deficient in protein, amino acids, minerals and creatine. This can wreak havoc on potential gains from your lifting. Another potential challenge is to consume enough calories to maintain a healthy weight and fuel the extra demands of training, otherwise, the body resorts to using protein for energy, rather than building and repairing muscle and other body tissues. As a vegetarian diet can range from simply eliminating red meat to totally eliminating all animal foods, the nutritional value of any athlete's vegetarian or vegan diet needs to be assessed on a case by case basis. Consider consulting a dietician to ensure that your current diet is adequate and conducive for maximum muscle gains.

Muscle Growth For Vegetarian & Vegan Athletes

While achieving all your nutrient needs through consumption of whole foods is important and best, it may be easier to ensure this with proper supplementation:

Ovo-lacto-vegetarian (a vegetarian who does not eat  animal flesh of any kind, but is willing to consume dairy and egg products).

Vegans (endeavor not to use or consume animal products of any kind):

Vegetarian Diets and Endurance

There is evidence to suggest that vegetarian endurance athletes perform just as well as meat eating athletes (Eisinger et al, 1994). In fact, many successful endurance athletes are vegetarian. There is little doubt that a well-planned vegetarian diet is compatible with endurance sports. It has even been found that vegetarian children showed improved cardiovascular properties compared to omnivorous children (Hebbelinck et al, 1999). However, these children also tend to be shorter, were less able to do sit ups, and had weaker jumping power than the meat eaters. This brings us to strength.

Vegetarian Diets and Strength

Despite being equal to meat eating endurance athletes, the vegetarian diet does appear to negatively affect power activities. The first issue to consider is that there are very few, if any elite strength and power athletes that are vegetarian. It can be argued that this is possibly a result of vegetarians to be less likely to be drawn to such sports. However, it may also be possible that meat exerts an anabolic effect that vegetarians lack.

One study showed that when groups of men were given either vegetarian or omnivorous diets (that were similar in the amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrates), the meat eaters gained significantly more lean mass and lost significantly more fat, after a 12 week weight training period (Campbell et al, 1999). It is likely that in the long run, the size of lean mass will start to play an even larger role in strength.

Meat and Strength

It has been argued that eating meat may give people a placebo effect when it comes to strength activities. However, this claim is extremely difficult to prove through well designed scientific trials. It is also possible that the improvements in strength and anabolism as a result of consuming meat may be from increased testosterone synthesis from saturated fat intake, or from increased creatine intake from meat sources (Forbes-Ewan, 2002). If this is the case, vegetarians may easily be able to use supplements to achieve the same nutrients.

Barr & Rideout (2004), Nutritional considerations for vegetarian athletes. Nutrition, 20: 696-703
Eisinger et al (1994), Nutrient intake of endurance runners with ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet and regular western diet. Zeitschrift fur Ernahrungswiss, 33: 217-229
Forbes-Ewan (2002), Effects of vegetarian diets of performance in strength sports. Sport Science. 6 (Online)
Hebbelinck (1999), Growth, development, and physical fitness of Flemish vegetarian children, adolescents, and young adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70: 579S-585S
Kniskern & Johnston (2011), Protein dietary reference intakes may be inadequate for vegetarians if low amounts of animal protein are consumed. Nutrition, 27: 727-730
Maughan (1995), Creatine supplementation and exercise performance. International Journal of Sports Nutrition, 5: S39-S61
Wayne (1999), Effects of an omnivorous diet compared with a lactoovovegetarian diet on resistance-training-induced changes in body composition and skeletal muscle in older men. Am J Clin Nutr. 70: 1032-1039

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