Vegetarian Bodybuilding: Does It Have A Chance?

I know, real men eat meat. My mission in writing this is to merely present the idea that it is possible to adhere to a vegetarian diet while trying to gain lean mass and/or decrease bodyfat.

I realize that the very title of this article may seem like an oxymoron. I'm sure some of you are already scowling. I know, I know... real men eat meat. My mission in writing this is to merely present the idea that it is possible to adhere to a vegetarian diet while trying to gain lean mass and/or decrease bodyfat and to do so in a healthy manner while reducing your risk of chronic degenerative diseases such as coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes mellitus and some cancers (1).

Benefits Of Being A Vegetarian

Other benefits that come along with this package include being friendlier to the environment, kinder to animals, increasing the chance of feeding starving populations, saving what's left of the rain forest and reducing the national medical-care cost. With all this in mind, how could you not even take it into consideration?

Let me begin by distinguishing between the different types of vegetarians. There are vegans (also known as strict vegetarians) who consume no animal products or animal byproducts whatsoever, lacto-ovo vegetarians who consume milk and eggs but no meat and pesco-vegetarians who consume fish as well as dairy. There are a few other subcategories, but for the purpose of this article, I will limit to just these three.

I know the first question that probably comes to mind is, "How will I get enough protein?" According to the PDCAAS (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score), one of the measurement scales for protein quality, soy has been rated 1.0 (the highest) right alongside whey and above that of beef which scored a .92. It is a complete protein source containing all of the basic building blocks (the 8 essential amino acids) necessary for the growth and recuperation of muscle tissue (2).

It is readily available and comes in many different forms such as tofu (low-fat option available), tempeh, seitan, miso, textured soy protein (TSP), powder form (make sure you look for soy isolate and not concentrate) and soy milk which can be used in place of cow's milk in any recipe. There are numerous ways to prepare these soy products and just as many resources available to learn how to prepare these types of foods.

Other benefits of soy include its high levels of glutamine (10.5g/100g soy protein) which is a nonessential amino acid shown to have an anti-catabolic effect on the body under stress or trauma (3), high levels of isoflavones which studies have shown to have an anticarcinogenic effect, and soy's lowering effect on the LDL level in blood therefore reducing the risk of hypertension, atherosclerosis and other chronic diseases (4). But turning to soy as your primary source of protein is your best option only if you're following a strict vegetarian/vegan diet.

If you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian, incorporating other protein sources such as eggs, milk, cheese and whey protein (a milk derivative) would fall into your diet plan and if you are adhering to a pesco-vegetarian diet, consuming fish would be an excellent additional source of protein, as well.

What About Vitamins?

"But what about vitamin B-12, iron, calcium, vitamin D and zinc?" you ask. Good question. As a vegan it would be wise to supplement with vitamin B-12 either in multivitamin form or in a vitamin B-12 fortified soy product. (Many soy beverages are also fortified with calcium and vitamin D, as well.) Vitamin B-12, however, is only found in animal products so if you are lacto-ovo or pesco vegetarian you need not worry. Dairy products contain adequate amounts of vitamin B-12 to meet the 2.6 mcg recommendation as per the RDA (5).

Also, I find that many bodybuilders supplement with meal-replacement shakes which are generally loaded every which way to Sunday with vitamins and minerals.

For example, my meal-replacement shake of choice (which shall remain nameless) contains 50% of the RDA's recommendation of vitamin B-12 based on a 2,000 kcal/day diet! Imagine that! It also contains 50% of the RDA's recommendation for iron, calcium, vitamin D and zinc. But regardless of whether or not you are supplementing with a vitamin and mineral rich meal-replacement, it would be wise to choose your foods carefully including a good variety as to ensure you are taking in a multitude of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals that are naturally occurring in food and provide benefits that a meal-replacement does not.

Choices Of Foods

Choosing from a variety of grains, legumes, seeds, and vegetables will provide an array of amino acids so a deficit from one food will be made up for by another. For instance, a combination of black beans and rice will provide you with a complete protein meal with high energy-yielding complex carbohydrates. The beans will make up for low levels of lysine in the grain and the higher levels of methionine in the grain will make up for the low levels of methionine in the beans (6).

It is in my opinion, as well as the ADA's (American Dietetic Association), that a vegetarian lifestyle is, like any diet, healthy and wise when planned appropriately (7). There are vegetarians who consume healthy diets and there are omnivores who consume healthy diets. There are vegetarians who eat atrociously and there are omnivores who eat atrociously. As a bodybuilder and someone concerned with making great physical gains, knowledge is the key and planning is the action. When the benefits are so great from a vegetarian-based diet and the goal ultimately is fitness and health, how could you not give it a chance?


  1. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. JADA November 1997.
  2. Messina M, Messina V. Increasing use of soyfoods and their potential role in cancer prevention. J Am Diet Assoc 1991;91:836-840
  3. Bulus N. Physiological Importance of Glutamine. Metabolism Vol. 38, No. 8, August 1989.
  4. Setchell KD. Phytoestrogens: the biochemistry, physiology, and implications for human health of soy isoflavones. Am J Clin Nutr. 1998 Dec;68
  5. Duyff MS, RD, CFCS, Roberta Larson. The American Dietetic Association's Complete Food & Nutrition Guide (Chronimed Publishing, 1996).
  6. Sanders TA. The nutritional adequacy of plant-based diets. Proc Nutr Soc. 1999 May;58(2)
  7. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. JADA November 1997.

Bookmark and Share