Some people seem to think that a vegetarian diet won’t work out well for a bodybuilder, because they won’t get enough protein. Meat is certainly a great source for protein, but the truth is, a bodybuilder can get plenty of protein from a plant-based diet.
There are other problems with a plant-based diet, though. The three principal issues are:
- less bioavailability of the necessary protein
- hormonal imbalance or deficiency
- nutritional deficiency
Protein intake doesn’t necessarily mean protein availability
Getting adequate protein can be challenging for a vegetarian, and even more so for a vegan that won’t eat eggs or dairy products. The problem is, you can be getting enough protein intake, but it’s not all available for use by your body. This refers to bioavailability, or the amount of protein in your diet that is actually able to be assimilated by your system.
Several studies have been conducted which demonstrated the effects of limited bioavailability. One such study found that omnivorous bodybuilders, on average, gained 4% more lean mass, increased their Type II twitch muscle fibers by 9% more and lost 6% more body fat, compared to a vegetarian group.
Another study found that omnivorous female bodybuilders had an average 50 pounds of lean muscle, compared to the 40% of the vegetarian group.
In another study done on women involved in strength training, vegetarian women were compared to omnivorous women and it was found that the women who ate meat had an average of 50 pounds of lean muscle, compared to the vegetarian women, who averaged 40 pounds of lean muscle mass.
The research into why plant-based protein is not as bioavailable to muscles as is meat protein is still a little thin, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it is.
Hormonal Imbalances Caused by the Vegetarian Diet
The problems with bodybuilders eating a vegetarian diet are even more compelling when you look at the way the vegetarian diet interferes with some of the hormones that are most important to strength and growth.
One of the issues here is the reliance on soy products like soy milk and tofu. Soy products are one of the most common protein sources for vegetarians, but soy itself can actually have a negative impact on strength and hypertrophy.
Soy mimics estrogen in the body; in fact, it will even bind to estrogen receptors on your cells. The problem with this is that increased estrogen levels mean decreased testosterone levels. Plant-based diets present another problem when it comes to testosterone, too. Most vegetarian diets are very low in cholesterol; in fact, they’re too low.
Yes, we do need to watch our cholesterol levels, but our bodies actually need some cholesterol and one of the things they need it for is the production of testosterone. If you don’t have enough cholesterol, you’re not going to have enough testosterone, either. Vegetarian men typically have lower free testosterone levels.
Another important issue with a plant-based diet is the imbalance between Omega-6 fatty acids and Omega-3 fatty acids. Vegetarians get a ton of Omega-6 fats through vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. But, they usually don’t get much in the way of Omega-3 fats, even if they eat eggs and dairy. The highest concentrations of Omega-3 fats are found in meat and seafood. You can get some Omega-3 fats in very small amounts on a vegetarian diet, but not nearly enough to achieve the proper balance between Omega-6 and Omega-3 levels.
The reason this is a problem is that having far more Omega-6 fats than Omega-3 fats in your diet has been shown to lead to increased risk of heart disease, stroke, arterial disease and even some forms of cancer. The only way most vegetarians are going to get enough Omega-3 fat is through fish oil supplements, but if they’re strict vegetarians that option is off the table.
Nutrient Deficiencies in the Vegetarian Diet
There’s been plenty of research conducted on nutritional deficiencies in the vegetarian diet, especially stricter versions such as the vegan diet. It’s important for everyone to get plenty of the right micronutrients, but there are some deficiencies in the vegetarian diet that directly relate to bodybuilding.
One of these is with the B vitamins, especially B-12. If you don’t consume meat, dairy and eggs, you virtually cannot get enough B-12 from your diet; you’ll have to get it from supplementation. A deficiency in B-12 can cause pernicious anemia, an autoimmune disease that attacks the stomach cells. It also leads to male infertility, chronic fatigue, cancer and decreased brain function.
Another very important deficiency in the vegetarian diet has to do with zinc and iron. Vegetarians eat a lot of legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. They’re almost the backbone of the vegetarian diet. But all of these foods contain phytates, which make it very difficult to absorb iron and zinc. The more you eat these foods, the more iron and zinc become a problem, especially since you’re not getting large amounts of these nutrients from animal foods.
Zinc is a huge part of testosterone production, so low zinc absorption is going to wreak more havoc on your testosterone levels, which are already being compromised by consuming a lot of soy products and not consuming enough cholesterol.
The Best Advice and the Next –Best Advice
Based on all of the research, the best advice for bodybuilders is to eat an omnivorous diet that contains plenty of plant-based foods but also adequate meat, dairy, eggs and fish.
If you have serious personal reasons for wanting to eat a plant-based diet, the next-best advice is to watch what you’re eating and to supplement properly. Limit or exclude soy products such as tofu, soy protein powders, edamame and so on. Take a fish oil supplement, or if you can’t, at least take an algae supplement, which isn’t quite as good but is better than nothing. Eat plenty of leafy greens and take a good-quality B-complex to make sure you get enough vitamins. Take an iron and zinc supplement, as well as extra Vitamin-C to help you to absorb more iron and zinc.
While I strongly recommend that bodybuilders (or anyone else) do not eat a vegetarian diet, if you do feel that you need to exist on plant-based foods, it’s absolutely essential you be aware of the issues that a vegetarian diet presents and counter that with both the foods you eat and proper supplementation.
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