Vegetarianism and Bodybuilding

Vegetarianism is practiced by millions of people for various reasons. Ethics, religion, and health concerns are among them. My purpose here is a narrow one. Can a senior weight trainee on such a diet get enough protein and sufficient micronutrients to build and/or maintain muscle?

The short, honest answer is yes. Yet this does not in any way mean that the same trainee cannot have a healthful diet that includes meat. It is a matter of choice.

A well balanced vegetarian diet is a healthful diet. But so is a well balanced diet that includes meat. The key words, in either dietary instance, are well balanced. We humans have the ability to function quite well eating many different combinations of foods. At the same time, we are also quite capable of eating far too much and the wrong things.

This is about trainees considering a plant based diet.

Here are just a few well known strength athletes and bodybuilders who are also known to be vegetarians . . .

  • Bill Pearl, strongman and one of the all time great bodybuilding champions, Mr. America, Mr. Universe, etc.

  • Roy Hilligenn, Olympic weight lifting champion, former Mr. America and Mr. Universe. (I watched him workout a few times at the famous Yarick’s Gym, way back in the 1950s. An amazing athlete.)

  • Doug Hepburn, famous Canadian strongman and power lifting world record holder. I was also fortunate enough to see Hepburn in action at Yarick’s.

  • Mike Mahler, kettlebell lifting and strength coach and strongman.

  • Bruce Lee, famous martial artist, actor, and advocate of weight training.

The list could go on. It is presented in good faith. As far as I have been able to find out, it is accurate. Still, of course, I cannot personally guarantee anyone’s dietary practices.

All diets classified as vegetarian are not the same . . .

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, or fish. They do eat eggs and dairy.

  • Lacto vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, fish, or eggs. They do eat dairy.

  • Ovo vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, fish, or dairy. They do eat eggs.

  • Vegans do not eat meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or dairy.

    . . . and there are sub-categories of “almost vegetarian.”

Even on a vegan diet it is possible to satisfy protein and micronutrient requirements. But vegans have to be smart about it, intelligently combining fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds. Of course, it becomes much easier for those who include eggs and dairy.

However, western vegetarian diets are typically relatively low in long-chain n-3 fatty acids, and vitamin B12. And vegans can have particularly low intake of vitamin B and calcium if they do not eat enough items such as collard greens, leafy greens, tempeh and tofu.

While high levels of dietary fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, and magnesium, and low consumption of saturated fat could all be beneficial aspects of a vegetarian diet.

Bodybuilders and strength athletes typically concern themselves with getting enough complete protein to build and maintain muscle. Senior weight trainees also have the same concerns.

Here are some excellent protein choices that they have . . .

(Vegans, of course, would not eat the first two.)

  • Eggs: Egg protein is commonly referred to as a "perfect protein" as it contains all the essential amino acids. One egg has six grams of protein, with only 80 calories and five grams of fat. It also contains over 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol, which is high, but dietary cholesterol isn't the same thing as blood cholesterol. Some eggs are now produced with high levels of omega-3s (achieved by adding fatty-acid-rich seeds to chickens’ diets). This can actually aid in the lowering of blood cholesterol levels.

  • Dairy: One cup of two percent milk contains eight grams of protein, only five grams of fat, and about 120 calories. With skim milk you get just as much protein, no fat, and 30 percent fewer calories. An ounce of Swiss cheese also has eight grams of protein but also eight grams of fat (with five grams saturated) and a little over 100 calories.

    One cup of nonfat yogurt has 14 grams of protein and only 137 calories. Cottage cheese has a whopping 28 grams of protein in one cup. It’s best to eat low-fat or nonfat types of dairy, because many dairy products have the same saturated-fat issues as fat cuts of meat.

  • Legumes: They're high in protein, and fiber, too. A cup of chickpeas has about 17 grams of protein, a cup of lentils has about 16 grams of protein, and a tablespoon of peanut butter has about four grams of protein.

    Note: It isn't the fiber in the beans that causes gas, but a sugar that requires an enzyme to be digested. We humans lack the enzyme. So, when soaking beans, add a pinch of baking soda to the water. It helps leach out the sugar. Then, don't cook the beans in their soaking water.

  • Grains: Whole grains are not just carbs. They actually have a fair amount of protein. A cup of barley has almost 20 grams of protein. A cup of buckwheat flour contains 15 grams of protein. A cup of oats (dry measure) has 10 grams of protein. If you always choose whole-grain varieties, you'll also get most of your recommended daily allowance of fiber. But be aware. Whole grains also have the most carbs of the available protein sources.

  • Nuts & Seeds: Almonds have six grams of protein per ounce, but also 16 grams of fat. Only one gram, however, is the unhealthy saturated kind. Pumpkin seeds have seven grams of protein per ounce (about 140 seeds) with 13 grams of fat (two grams saturated). Other seeds, like sunflower and flax, are also good, with about five grams of protein per ounce.

    Still other sources include whey protein powder; Seitan, often used in meat substitute foods, has 20 grams of protein in three ounces; Quorn, too, is high in protein and is used in meat substitute foods. But it also tends to be high in sodium.

As you can see, a weight trainee concerned with gaining or retaining muscle can get plenty of protein without eating meat. But it does require intelligent eating.

Plant based diet information from U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health

Return from Vegetarianism and Bodybuilding to the Nutrition page.

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