There’s no doubt about it, we live in a world that’s heavily biased towards people who include meat and other animal products in their diet. Whatever your reason for choosing the vegetarian lifestyle, odds are you’ve encountered some difficulties – maybe even discrimination – on account of your diet. Whether it’s restaurants without vegetarian menu items or parties where the host forgot to include a vegetarian option in the spread, the world can be a frustrating place for a vegetarian.
This can also, unfortunately, be the case in the kind of dietary advice given to bodybuilders. Many bodybuilding diets stress the inclusion of meat, eggs, and other animal products. Well, here’s some advice for building the proper vegetarian bodybuilding diet.
Vegetarian and Vegan
Before we get started, it’s worth noting that the term “vegetarian” sometimes gets thrown around fairly loosely. The general understanding is that a vegetarian simply doesn’t eat meat. While that’s basically true, there is a spectrum of what vegetarians allow themselves to eat. While some eat no meat, others may eat fish. Still others avoid all animal products entirely. That includes not only meat but also eggs and cheese (and sometimes even honey). People who avoid animal products entirely are usually called vegans.
This is an important distinction because the diet for the vegan and vegetarian bodybuilder will be different. While a vegetarian may be able turn to certain animal products like eggs as a source of protein, a vegan can’t. That means that vegans have to look to other foods for sources of certain dietary necessities like protein. Similarly, some dietary supplements like whey protein may be off limits to a vegan as well, since whey protein is a milk product, and therefore an animal product.
While the vegetarian lifestyle is by and large extremely healthy – often healthier than a meat-eating lifestyle – there are some points at which vegetarians have to be cautious in their diets. It’s an unfortunate fact of human physiology that we are, from a biological standpoint, omnivorous. That is to say, the human body requires certain nutrients that are most readily and easily attained by consuming animals and animal products. While these nutrients are absolutely available in plants and vegetables as well, it often requires a certain degree of intentionality to make them part of your diet.
That being the case, the careless vegetarian can sometimes run the risk of becoming deficient in certain nutrients if they are not deliberate about making sure that foods that include them are a regular – and properly proportioned – part of their diet.
Sources of Protein
One of the best examples of places where vegetarians have to exercise care and caution in their diet is protein. As mentioned above, humans are designed to draw some of our nutrients from animal products. Protein is one of those nutrients. While vegetable protein sources exist, they are not as plentiful as animal proteins, meaning that the careful vegetarian has to be sure to put forth the effort to get the right amount of protein in their daily diet. This is especially important for bodybuilders. Protein is a crucial part of the bodybuilder’s diet, as the body relies heavily on protein in the repair of muscle tissue following a workout.
That being the case, it is important for the vegetarian bodybuilder to be sure to find plentiful sources of protein. One of the best ways to do this is by consuming plenty of legumes. Peanuts, chickpeas, alfalfa, and soy are some of the best-known and most readily accessible examples of legumes. With a steady supply of legumes in your diet, you stand a much better chance of maintaining the right amount of protein. Additionally, some vegetarian bodybuilders choose to supplement their diet with soy or egg protein powders in much the same way that non-vegan bodybuilders use whey protein to increase their protein consumption.
While not normally the focus of many discussions of a bodybuilding diet, creatine is worth a mention. Creatine’s benefits for a bodybuilding workout are hard to overstate. Creatine has been shown to be one of the most safe and effective supplements available for enhancing a bodybuilder’s workout. It improves the body’s physiological response to working out, while simultaneously increasing the energy and endurance of the person who takes it, allowing you to work out for longer and lift more weight.
The problem for the vegetarian bodybuilder, though, is that in dietary form creatine is found almost exclusively in red meat. That, of course, means that even though it is possible for a vegetarian diet to provide plenty of protein, it is extremely difficult to get enough creatine in your diet to provide any noticeable benefit to your workout. This, then, is one of the places where vegetarians and vegans are best advised to use supplements to fill in the gaps in their diets.
Avoiding Processed Food
For many vegetarians, there is a risk of assuming that because you don’t eat meat, you are automatically eating more healthfully. With the abundance of highly processed foods out there, that isn’t necessarily so. The fact is that many of our favorite snack foods are loaded with highly processed carbohydrates and refined sugars. While the right kind of carbohydrates is excellent for exercise and bodybuilding – and are usually pretty easy to come by in a vegetarian diet – the wrong kind is, well, wrong.
The wrong kind of carbs are more readily turned into fat than into glycogen – what your body uses for fuel during your workout and repair and recovery after. To make matters worse, the wrong kind of carbs are hiding everywhere – whether in your favorite snack foods or in the bread on that otherwise extremely healthful sandwich you had for lunch.
With all that in mind, you should be extremely careful about the kinds of foods you are putting into your body. While many feel that the vegetarian lifestyle is significantly healthier than a diet that includes meat, the fact is that even a careful vegetarian can fall prey to the hidden traps of processed foods.