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How to Be a Vegetarian Bodybuilder

Posted Feb 14 2012 5:00am
Vegan Bodybuilder Joel Kirkilis

Vegan Bodybuilder Joel Kirkilis

The word “Vegan Bodybuilder” is not a favorite to many people looking to build muscle.  In fact, some trainers flat out tell their clients “Don’t become a vegetarian!”  Or that vegetarian bodybuilding isn’t possible or that it’s a total waste of their time.  While vegan bodybuilding may have it’s pitfalls, there’s a bright side to this aspect of traditional bodybuilding.  You are about to learn the problems that can be inherent in a vegetarian lifestyle that are not concerns with other nutritional lifestyles and what you can do to compensate when it comes to building muscle.  You will discover you need to know to optimize performance if you choose a vegetarian bodybuilding lifestyle.  It’s certainly possible for vegans to perform at optimal levels and build muscle but not without some careful planning.

The Dietary Risks Faced by Vegans

Being a vegetarian, especially one that avoids any type of animal protein, you are at higher risks for inadequate intakes of:

  • Energy
  • Protein
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Vitamin B12

Which Type of Vegetarian Are You?

  • Laco Vegetarians (consume milk and other dairy)
  • Ovo Vegetarians (consume eggs)
  • Pesco Vegetarians (consume fish) and
  • Lacto-Ovo (both dairy and eggs) are at less of a risk of lower protein intakes than pure plant based vegetarians that consume no meats or dairy of any kind.
  • Pure Vegans (plant sourced only)

Even so, one type of vegan may make up for the decrease in protein but still be deficient in iron and zinc or other minerals.

Creatine is lower in vegetarian athletes than their meat eating counterparts.  And while the body is capable of making it’s own creatine to an extent, it’s not the same as meat eating and those who supplement with it for the enhanced benefits it brings to strength and power.

Tip:  If you are a vegan and trying to build muscle, if you are not using creatine, you may want to look deeper into it’s uses.  Learn more about Creatine .

Specific to vegetarians, is energy.  The overall protein problem faced by vegetarian bodybuilding may be linked to a lack of total calorie intake.  It’s very easy for a meat eating individual to get the required protein necessary for muscle growth and all the calories they need to perform at optimal levels.  However, a vegan needs energy too!  While they can eat many plant sources and potentially some dairy, they need energy first and then protein.  And inadequate energy intake increases the breakdown of protein to satisfy the requirements for energy.  The energy requirement must be satisfied first and that might mean thru the breakdown of proteins before any type of anabolic activity will occur.

Because many vegetarian diets are high in carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables and grains, it’s very easy to become full thru fiber.  This may result in not enough overall energy in terms of calories for optimal performance.  Think of the skinny individual who’s decided to become a vegetarian bodybuilder who needs roughly 3000 calories a day or more.  That’s a heck of a lot of food to consume thru grains, fruits and vegetables.  If they do not, they run the risk of not having enough energy to perform their activities or reach certain goals.

Higher Calorie Options for Vegetarians Include:

  • Nuts
  • Peanut Butter
  • Soy Products
  • Meat Substitutes

While meat and dairy provides all the essential amino acids in a single food, plant sources do not.  Vegetarian bodybuilders should combine foods in a manner that optimized amino acid availability.

General Rule:  Combine cereals and legumes at the same meal.

Plant Sources of Protein
Source Examples
Grains
Legumes
Seeds and nuts
Vegetables (lower quality sources)

Vegetarians are a Greater Risk for Having Iron Deficiencies

While there are protein concerns that can be overcome with proper food combining, don’t forget the important of vitamins and minerals in a vegan diet.  Take for example, iron which is responsible for the oxygen-carrying capacity and other critical factors in physical endurance.  True vegetarians are missing out on major source of iron from animal products like meat and while they can get iron from plant sources, vegetarians should be careful to avoid iron-deficiency anemia.  But with proper planning thru the consumption of vegetables, iron-fortified grains, fruits higher in iron and good cooking techniques, it’s possible for vegetarians to obtain sufficient iron.

Tips for Increasing Iron in a Vegetarian Diet

  • Add Vitamin C to your vegetables by squeezing a lemon or orange over them
  • Blanch vegetables to reduce oxalic acid which interferes with iron absorption
  • Replace bran cereals with whole grain cereals

Calcium intake can be a concern to some types of vegetarians.  If you are a vegan who avoids dairy foods, your calcium may be lower.  Not only is calcium necessary for healthy bones but muscle contractions.  Make sure you are eating plenty of green leafy vegetables, fortified cereals, tofu and even soy milk.

Vitamin B12:  You Vegans Need to Know This

There are No Active forms for Vitamin B12 from any plant sources?  Vitamin B12 is responsible for the breakdown of foods to energy.  Not having enough B12 can reduce performance.  Pure vegans are really at risk.  Deficiencies can lead to fatigue.  Fortified foods top the list.

Can Pure Vegan Bodybuilders Build as Much Muscle as Meat Eaters?

In a study by Dr. Wayne Campbell, the effects of an omnivorous diet compared with a lactoovovegetarian diet were studied on resistance trained older men.  Both groups were given between 0.8 – 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.  Regardless of the protein intake, vegetarians did not improve as much as the meat-eating group did.  The conclusion of this study found that vegetarians, even with adequate levels of protein, may be limiting their muscle building potential.

If you are truly looking to become a professional bodybuilder, then consider the advice of Robert Kennedy, publisher of Muscle Mag International and author of “Rock Hard, Supernutrition for Bodybuilders:

“The bodybuilder would be ill-advised to adopt a true vegetarian diet. You can be one of the millions who are eating less meat and more vegetables. You may even want to drop all flesh entirely. But is would be a mistake to try for pure vegetarianism. Only 3.7% of Americans consider themselves to be vegetarians, and of those only a fraction of 1% are purists. In the bodybuilding world of champions, that percentage is currently…. ZERO!”

It’s very possible to become a vegetarian bodybuilder.  It does require careful planning and paying attention to the smaller details that non-vegans don’t have to worry about as much.  Depending on what type of vegetarian you are, you’ll need to ensure adequate protein intake, calories and certain vitamins and minerals.

The BEST option is to become more knowledgeable about food and plant based options. 

Being a bodybuilder is hard enough but a vegetarian bodybuilder adds a layer of complexity that most people are unwilling to do.  However, it’s possible to do with some planning and extra effort.

Photo Credit to Veganstrength.org

Are you a vegan bodybuilder?  If so, what tips and tricks can you add to this list?  If you run a vegetarian bodybuilding site, link to it below in your comments.

Marc David – CPT
“The NoBull Muscle Guy”
Author of NoBull Bodybuilding

Source:  W.W., et al., “ Effects of an omnivorous diet compared with a lactoovovegetarian diet on resistance-training-induced changes in body composition and skeletal muscle in older men ,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79:1032-1039, 1999.

P.S. - There’s too many athletes to list that are some type of vegetarians who perform at elite levels.  There are natural vegan bodybuilders and powerlifters.  Hundreds of websites devoted to the subject exist.

P.P.S. - Lacto-vegetarians (dairy products) and ovo-lacto-vegetarians (eggs and dairy products) can build excellent physiques.  Bill Pearl won the Mr. America and Mr. Universe tittles using his semi-vegetarian approach.


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