Vegetarianism isn’t just for hippies anymore. In fact, there are several reasons why a vegetarian diet might be healthier, both for you and the environment. However, going vegetarian isn’t easy, particularly if you weight-train and enjoy maintaining a lean physique.
Many of the staples of a vegetarian diet — pasta, rice, even quinoa — are loaded with carbs. This poses a significant challenge because while the obvious answer would be simply to make vegetables the central ingredient of your meals, there’s the glaring problem of where your protein will come from. (Hint: It ain’t vegetables.) We recommend that men and women who exercise regularly consume at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. But without meat and, in some cases, eggs or dairy to provide that protein, many vegetarians end up seeking it in carbohydrate- and fat-heavy foods, which can undermine efforts to maintain lean muscle mass. And protein isn’t the only nutrient that can be lacking in a vegetarian diet. There’s also iron, which is most easily absorbed from meat sources, along with several other vitamins and minerals that vegetarians struggle to get sufficient amounts of.
Ultimately, nothing is as efficient for acquiring or maintaining lean muscle as eating meat, but if you’re committed to being a vegetarian, here’s some advice on how to get the nutrients you need to achieve the physique you want from Brendan Brazier, vegan, professional triathlete and author of the book Whole Foods to Thrive.
The most common sources of protein for vegetarians include eggs; tofu and other soy products like tempeh; seitan, which is made from wheat gluten; legumes and nuts. However, the most obvious way for vegetarians to increase their protein intake is by using protein powders. Lacto-ovo vegetarians will have no problem with whey and casein protein powders, both derived from milk. But even vegans can benefit from soy protein powder or the less well-known hemp and pea proteins, both of which contain essential amino acids and are available in powder form.
Iron deficiency can be a problem even for meat-eating women, but because plant-based iron cannot be absorbed as well as that from animal sources, the problems for vegetarian women are compounded. Add to that the fact that many vegetarian-friendly iron sources contain a compound, called phytate, that actively blocks iron absorption, and you could be facing anemia. Brazier recommends pairing foods high in vitamin C (strawberries, red bell peppers, citrus fruits, tomatoes) with iron-rich foods (spinach; lentils; edamame; kidney, garbanzo, pinto, lima and black beans; sesame seeds; raisins) in order to increase absorption. Taking a multivitamin/mineral that contains iron is also encouraged.
Calcium is the key to bone health and also plays a vital role in facilitating the muscle contractions necessary to maintain a high-level exercise routine. For vegans or vegetarians with difficulty digesting dairy products, soybeans, spinach and other greens, including collards, turnip greens and kale, provide alternative sources of calcium.
Critical in warding off anemia, the enemy of the serious athlete, many B vitamins are readily available from plant-based foods. Brazier cites pumpkin seeds — which have the added benefit of containing myosin, an amino acid essential to muscle contraction — and dark, leafy greens as some of the best dietary performance enhancers for women with serious fitness regimens. Vegetarians should pay special attention to their B-12 levels, however, because this vitamin is not readily available in plant-based foods. To compensate, vegetarians can take B-12 supplements or eat chlorella, a form of algae high in nucleic acids and chlorophyll, which oxygenates the blood and, Brazier says, reduces fatigue and promotes faster cell rejuvenation.