Is it possible to be a strength athlete who doesn’t eat meat?
Lifting heavy things seems to go hand-in-hand with chowing down on hefty amounts of steak (or chicken breast, if you’ve got to make weight). But there’s no law saying “If Thou Liftest Weights, Thou Must Eat Meat”.
So let’s explore the realities of being a vegetarian strength athlete. Including the answer to that annoying question: “but where do you get your protein from?”
What do strength athletes need from their diets?
Strength athletes benefit from a varied diet with a range of protein sources, to ensure complete protein intake across the day or week. Protein is made of 22 amino acids, some of them essential (we must get them from our foods or supplements) and some non-essential. Animal protein is a complete protein (it contains the full spectrum of amino acids) whereas plant-source protein is incomplete. This means that vegetarians will have to combine their protein sources with a bit of extra planning to get all the amino acids they need to support muscle building and strength training. Macronutrients are important, but so are micronutrients and fiber, and a well-designed healthy vegetarian diet will give you plenty of those!
Does a vegetarian diet limit strength or mass building?
There is no evidence to suggest that removing meat from a person’s diet directly affects muscle gain, muscle retention, strength or power. Anecdotally, vegetarians report having a more varied diet than some meat eaters, as they have to seek variety out of necessity. Vegetarian diets can be cheaper to maintain than a meat-heavy diet. And vegetarian eating could easily contain higher levels of fibre and micronutrients than a diet containing plenty of meat. It’s important that vegetarians take in complete proteins, and this can be more challenging without meat sources.
How to design a vegetarian diet
Getting enough protein as a vegetarian is not difficult, but does take some extra planning because not all vegetarian sources of protein are complete. Eat a wide variety of foods, combine protein sources, get to enjoy home cooking, and you will easily be able to design a tasty and healthy vegetarian diet.
Vegetarian sources of protein
Eggs (whole and whites) – whole eggs are a complete protein source)
Beans and pulses
Split peas and lentils
Nuts and seeds
Protein powders (whey, pea, brown rice, hemp)
Quinoa, cous cous and wild rice
Greek yoghurt, cottage cheese, and other high-protein dairy products
Quorn (mycoprotein) and other vegetarian food products
Don’t forget that there is trace protein in grains, mushrooms, vegetables and leafy greens, too. Using a tracking app will help you get familiar with how much protein is in various vegetarian sources, and help you hit your protein macros for the day.
How to deal with stigma of being a non-meat-eating athlete
As a strength athlete who doesn’t eat meat, you might encounter unwanted comments and opinions about your dietary choices. We’ve heard from vegetarian athletes who have been told they’re not doing everything they can to be their best. Or others who have been told they’ll never meet their potential without meat in their diets. You might be told that you could do so much better at sport if only you’d eat meat. Take heart from the many examples of successful athletes across various sports who thrive on a meat-free diet (often well into their Masters years). It might help to remember that food prep as a vegetarian means seeking out more variety, so you are more likely to pack micronutrients and fiber into your daily diet.