While athletes require a lot more protein than the average person, recent research has also shown that they require a lot less than previously thought.
This, paired with an intelligent approach, can make a meat-free diet very viable for a physique or strength athlete.
However, you will likely need to supplement a bit to cover your bases.
Vegetarian diets, like with any diet, must be approached carefully in order to optimize your results.
When I was younger (and dumber), I believed, like a lot of people, that it would be virtually impossible to build muscle without eating a lot of meat. But as I learned more about diet and fitness, I realized that this wasn’t quite the whole truth. The reality is quite a bit more nuanced than that.
When training for strength and size, you need to maximize the amount of muscle you can grow, so that you can be as big and strong as possible. What’s well known is that protein consumption has a powerful anabolic effect, and stimulates muscle protein synthesis. What’s also well known is that in general, athletes (and in particular, bodybuilders) require quite a lot more protein than the average person, and the average person generally doesn’t eat as much protein as they should to begin with.
For a long time, that was about all that I understood - and this, combined with the fact that meat is the single highest source of protein, seemed like a persuasive enough argument to stick with meat.
What most people don’t realize, is that there are limits to how much protein your body can benefit from, in a general sense. This limit is about 0.82g/lb/day for the general exerciser - so, for a 200lb male, about 165g. It can get a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the rule of thumb that applies for most serious exercisers.
While this is still much higher than most people consume, it’s also a lot lower than most broscience bodybuilders recommend. I typically see these guys recommending numbers in the 2-3g/lb/day range, at which point most of your diet has to be protein, so of course you’d need to eat meat.
Most grains also contain some amount of protein, a fact a lot of us overlook and discount. Even in small amounts, this adds up in your diet, and can really contribute quite a bit. The end result is that even a vegetarian doesn’t need to eat only protein-heavy foods in order to hit their targets - they just have to be a bit smart about things.
And of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting your protein from other sources - dairy products, whey, eggs, tofu, and other higher protein non-meat foods. I’m a big fan of skyr (a kind of high-protein icelandic yogurt), personally, and can easily get my day’s worth of protein from a bit of skyr alone.
That said, there are a few things to be concerned about when aiming to eat little to no meat. In general, you’ll need to supplement a bit in order to hit all your bases. Vegetarians are at a greater risk for certain deficiencies, in particular, vitamin B12.
Another concern is lower levels of leucine in plant proteins. Leucine is an amino acid (the building blocks of proteins) which is well known as a marker of the “quality” of protein, and is in large part responsible for its muscle-building effect. So, proteins which are lower in leucine tend to be of lower quality. That said, in large enough quantities, protein quality is less important because you’re still getting enough lecuine in to hit your max needed amount; so, vegetarians may choose to either aim even higher on total protein consumption to make up for it, or supplement with leucine in order to maximize their gains.
Is it possible to maximize your gains without needing to eat meat? Absolutely.
However, you need to be smart about it, and you can’t just rely on stories about vegetarian diets being “magically” better for you. Like with any athletic diet, you have to make some careful choices in order to optimize your results. In this way, it’s no different from a meat-eating diet.
For many people, eating meat will be an “easier” and faster way to get their protein in. For those who wish to abstain from meat for ethical reasons, that path is open as well, without compromising your results. I myself have experimented with going off meat in the past, and while I didn’t do it intelligently (the way I would today), it didn’t have much of any negative impact on my results.
A vegetarian diet, done very poorly, may worsen your results - but the same can be said of any diet, and vegetarian diets are not unique in this way.
For more specific recommendations on how to eat a proper vegetarian diet, I recommend the always-excellent Stronger By Science and their guide on athletic vegetarian diets.
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
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