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Building Muscle on a Vegetarian Diet

How utilizing plant-based proteins in muscle-building can see the same success as their meat counterparts.

Fitday Editor

More and more people have shifted to adopt a plant-based diet due to its touted health benefits and nutritional strongpoints. However, many weight-trainers hesitate to make this lifestyle change due to one glaring question: is it still possible to build muscle?

For years, the conventional belief has been that meat was the only way to build muscle. However, well-planned vegetarian diets that include other high-quality proteins can also assist in muscular development – no steak required.

The protein sources and types are going to vary with each athlete, depending on which vegetarian type diet they have assumed. Looking at some of the main categories, a lacto-ovo vegetarian consumes a diet that excludes meat, poultry and fish but does include eggs and dairy products, which are good sources of protein. Similarly, a lactovegetarian’s diet is one that excludes meat, poultry, fish and eggs but does include dairy products. Lastly, a vegan diet is one that excludes all animal products, include eggs, milk, cheese and other dairy products. In this case, the individual must rely solely on plant protein sources to meet protein needs.

Protein Quality Is Key

Not all protein sources are created equal. It comes down to the amino acids that make up the protein that our bodies need. Meat, eggs and dairy products tend to be the most coveted protein sources, due to the fact that they contain all nine essential amino acids in the ratios that we require. On the other hand, some plant-based proteins do not contain these essential amino acids in the necessary proportions. Many protein sources of non-animal origin usually have all of the essential amino acids, but the amounts of one or two of them may be low. For this reason, it is typically recommended to eat a variety of grains, legumes, vegetables, seeds, and nuts throughout the day. This way, if one food happens to be lacking in a particular amino acid, another food can help make up the deficit.

Eat Protein at Every Meal

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that vegetarian athletes who are looking to build muscle eat good quality protein at every meal. These proteins should be paired with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, vegetables and plenty of water as well.

Overall, vegetarian or vegan diets that meet an individual’s energy needs and that contain a variety of plant-based protein foods such as soy products, legumes like beans or lentils, grains, nuts and seeds can provide ample protein for athletes without the use of special foods or supplements.

Sarah Dreifke is a freelance writer based in DeKalb, IL with a passion for nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease. She holds a Bachelor of Science in both Dietetics and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is working towards a combined Master's Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a dietetic internship at Northern Illinois University.

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