We are constantly reminded to eat chicken, beef, steak, and basically any animal that was once alive for its nutrition content. Sure meat fuels our muscles with all their protein, but what do vegetarians do?
1st Place - markc7
While traveling to a 30km road race two years ago, I spent some time reflecting on my various running performances over the years. One thing that stood out was that I had some of my best race times when I ate very little meat. This got me thinking. Was a plant based diet healthier for me?
Would I have more energy and thus better athletic performances if I cut meat from my diet? What about other animal products like milk? I decided to test out a vegetarian diet for a few weeks to see how it would affect my running. It is now two years later, and I haven't looked back.
I shifted from being a lacto-ovo vegetarian to becoming a vegan (more on the different types of vegetarians in a moment), and my focus turned more towards strength training, ultra marathon running, and eventually to natural bodybuilding. I would encourage any athlete to give vegetarianism a try, and in this article I'll give you some idea of what the diet looks like.
Is a vegetarian at an advantage or disadvantage for maintaining a proper bodybuilder's diet?
First, a word on definitions. Vegetarian is a catch-all phrase used to describe anyone who does not eat meat. Lacto-ovo vegetarians, who consume milk and eggs, are the most common type and represent the diet that most people picture when they think of vegetarianism.
A vegan is someone who does not eat any animal products, including meat, eggs, and dairy. Vegans chose this lifestyle for a variety of reasons, including animal rights, health, and environmental issues. Some vegans eat only raw-foods.
Vegetarianism is appealing to bodybuilders because a plant based diet can provide all the nutrients the body needs, without many of the unhealthy components of animal products. The reality of factory farming in North America means that the meat people eat has been raised in over-crowded unhealthy conditions, and fed a potentially dangerous cocktail of antibiotics and hormones.
Regardless of your stand on the ethics of animal farming, modern factory farming techniques should be a cause for concern to any athlete who cares about the quality of the foods going into their body. Also, not eating animal products means that you are not consuming any LDL or "bad" cholesterol, will greatly reduce your consumption of trans and saturated fats, and will increase your intake of fiber, antioxidants, and other micronutrients.
These properties of a vegetarian diet can be a major advantage for a bodybuilder. Several excellent books about the health benefits of vegetarianism and veganism are available, including Becoming Vegan by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina, The Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Guide, and The Food Revolution by John Robbins.
The first and most common objection that I hear to vegetarianism is, "It would be too hard for me to stop eating meat." Well, changing any habit is hard at first, but if you believe that the pay-offs are greater than the costs, you'll have no problem making the switch.
Chances are you have been eating meat for a long time, and making the decision to eat a plant based diet will be a significant change in your life. The most difficult obstacle to overcome is the lack of accommodation of vegetarianism in our society.
Restaurants often have only one or two vegetarian options, and many of the items in the grocery store have hidden animal products such as casein or gelatin. This is especially true in the world of bodybuilding where foods and supplements such as whey protein, eggs, and meat are considered staples. However, as more and more people opt for vegetarianism, more and more products catering to this group come onto the market.
Even in the two years that I have been vegetarian, I have seen a noticeable increase in the number of animal free products, foods, and supplements. Furthermore, eating unprocessed whole foods provides your body with more nutrients and fewer empty calories.
When I became a vegetarian I started eating a significantly GREATER variety of foods, because I had to stop relying on packaged, pre-made foods. This means that I am now getting more vitamins and minerals than I did when I ate meat.
Advantages / Disadvantages
Although at first glance a vegetarian diet may seem to be difficult and disadvantageous to bodybuilders, it is in fact becoming easier all the time and can provide significant health benefits.
When people first learn that I'm vegetarian, I am often asked, "So how do you get enough protein?" When the person asking is someone who knows little about health and nutrition, I often reply by asking them how much protein I need. They look surprised and usually are not able to answer the question.
Bodybuilders are generally much more knowledgeable about protein requirements, but are still sometimes surprised to find out how easy it is to get more than enough protein on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
An unfortunate myth first propagated in the 1970's is that different vegetable proteins must be combined within the same meal in order to be effective, making the vegetarian diet appear to be a delicate and difficult balancing act.
More recent research has revealed that virtually all vegetarians eat significantly more protein than their bodies require, and that the cumbersome task of combining proteins is simply not necessary.
A wide range of vegetables, fruits, grains, and nuts provides all the protein you need, regardless of whether they are consumed at the same meal. Furthermore, several sources of plant protein such as soybeans are complete proteins, meaning that they contain every single amino acid.
What are some good supplement choices for vegetarians?
Although a plant based diet that incorporates a variety of whole foods can provide all the nutrients a body needs, supplements can improve your diet and can compensate for any of those days when you just don't have the time to eat well rounded meals.
A complete daily multivitamin is recommended for anyone, vegetarian or not, to ensure that no vitamin or mineral is neglected.
Many vegetarians also choose a protein supplement such as Vega, or soy protein bars for quick and filling meals.
A vegetarian diet is an excellent way to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients that your body needs while avoiding many of the less healthy constituents of animal products. Vegetarianism can help you to achieve your athletic goals, regardless of whether you are a runner, a bodybuilder, or any other type of athlete.
Although a diet of steak, eggs, and whey protein supplements is more common, this does not mean that they are inherently better for bodybuilders than vegetarian options.
Give vegetarianism a try and see if it works for you. I know that it did for me.