ASK A TRAINER: 'Can I Put on Muscle Mass with a Vegetarian Diet?'
"I'm a high school football player and I'm being looked at by some schools with pretty good programs. I'm a fullback so it's important for me to keep a good deal of size on. I'm considering becoming a vegetarian but I don't want to lose muscle mass. Is it possible to be a vegetarian and put on muscle mass?"-Darryl R., Lawrence, KS
Hi, Darryl. That's an excellent question. There's the old stereotype of the skinny, sandal wearing, tree hugging, Phish concert attending, meek vegetarian. I know a lot of vegetarians and I can say with full confidence that the stereotype is just that; a stereotype. Some of my strongest (and most ripped) clients are vegetarians or vegans. Is it possible to maintain and build muscle mass on a vegetarian diet? Absolutely. Does it require extra attention to what you are consuming? Absolutely.
First, I want to address the issue of protein. There is a commonly held "bro Science" belief that in order to maintain muscle you need to go into protein overload. I've heard bros at the gym profess to consume 2.5 grams of protein per pound. For an athlete or highly active person, the National Academy of Sports Medicine, recommends .7 to 1 gram per pound of lean muscle. In other words, to determine exactly how much protein you need, find out what your body fat percentage is and subtract number of pounds you are carrying that are not muscle, and set the bar there. (For more on protein, check this out.)
The issue a lot of vegetarians focus on is whether or not they are consuming enough protein in a given day. While this is an important consideration, it's only part of the story. Our body, and more specifically pertinent to your question, our muscles need protein for its amino acids.
There are 21 amino acids your body needs to function and maintain muscle and of those can be broken into two groups; essential amino acids and nonessential amino acids. The good news is the body can synthesize nonessential amino acids on its own. Essential amino acids aren't more important than nonessential amino acids they are called that because in order for them to be present in your body, you need to get them from outside food sources. Not only does the body need all 9 essential amino acids to be a part of our diet, it needs them in specific proportion to each other. Foods that contain all 9 essential aminos in perfect proportion are called complete proteins. Meat and foods derived from animals such as eggs and dairy are complete proteins. Darryl, since you mentioned becoming a vegetarian and not a vegan, you can meat your amino acid needs with fish, eggs and dairy. You can also supplement with protein powders.
Were you a vegan, you have to pay a little more attention, but it's certainly possible. There are a number of dishes where one of the elements may be deficient in one of the essential amino acids but another item in the meal fills in the blank. Cajun red beans and brown rice, for example, is an example of such a meal. The information is out there, you just have to take the time to mix and match to make sure you are getting everything you need. Generally speaking, making sure to include a wide variety of non-animal based protein sources, will make it easier to do this. There are also a wide variety of protein supplements on the market.
Darryl, good luck this season! Let me know how it goes.
Questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet @BuckleyBodyGuru. For training and consultation rates and availability, email Elizabeth Smith at Elizabeth@BuckleyBodySolutions.com