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For years, the conventional belief within amateur and professional athletic training programs has been that meat is necessary for building muscle. However, protein is the essential nutrient needed to build muscle, and it can be found in both meat and plants.

An athlete looking to build muscle can sometimes find it difficult to settle on the right nutritional plan. With so many food choices and claims, not to mention individual food sensitivities, allergies and preferences, eating well can be a challenge. For some, the vegetarian diet is the answer. However, it can be daunting filling in the gaps, especially when it comes to protein, without having to consume meat.

A well-planned vegetarian diet that meets the body’s energy requirements and provides proteins from plant foods such as legumes, soy products, nuts, seeds and grains can be all an athlete needs as they train. With such a diet, it may also be possible for an individual to avoid the use of supplements or special foods to meet their daily nutritional requirements.

Bodybuilding on a Vegetarian Diet

Individuals looking to build muscle often engage in intensive resistance training to gain the required results. Fitness fanatics – such as Richard Mallett, a sports coach with a degree in sports science – know that nutrition plays a key role in the muscle-building process. It’s generally accepted that for optimal growth of muscle, protein intake should be much higher than normal (between 1.6 and 2.2 grams per kilogramme of body weight daily).

Conventional bodybuilding diets tend to include animal-based foods as these have higher protein content. A vegetarian diet, on the other hand, relies on plant-based proteins, which may not be highly present in some foods. As a result, careful planning is necessary to ensure an athlete consumes sufficient amounts of proteins to meet their dietary needs as they train.

One of the main considerations to be made for an athlete on a vegetarian diet is the type of diet they’re following. These can be classified as:

  • Vegan Diet: This diet excludes all animal products and only relies on plant proteins for nutrition.
  • Lactovegetarian Diet: This diet includes dairy products but excludes all other animal sources of protein.
  • Lacto-ovo Vegetarian Diet: This diet includes dairy products and eggs but excludes other animal proteins.

Implementing a vegan diet can seem easy, but it takes a lot of planning to ensure all dietary needs are met. For an individual considering this type of diet, it’s helpful to come up with a meal plan a week ahead to ensure all of the ingredients required can be sourced. If the individual is transitioning from a conventional diet, it may be helpful to take the switchover process slowly at first.]

Still, the transition can be made easier by considering the following tips:

  • Eat Plant Foods Rich in Proteins: Many plant foods don’t have all of the essential amino acids that are necessary for muscle growth. Therefore, it’s advisable to consume a wider variety of plant foods – in higher amounts – to reach the necessary protein levels. Supplementing these foods with vegan protein powders can also help the body to meet its protein requirements.
  • Stay Hydrated: A vegetarian diet high in grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes can result in a higher-than-normal dietary fibre intake. Too much fibre can cause effects such as abdominal pain and bloating. Staying hydrated is one way to deal with the high amounts of fibre in the system.
  • Eat Enough Fat: By consuming fat, an individual obtains the calories needed to boost muscle growth. Fats can contribute twice as many calories per gram as proteins and carbohydrates. However, it’s helpful to keep track of macronutrient intake (carbs, fat and proteins) in the first few weeks of following a vegetarian diet to ensure all the body’s needs are met.