Is it possible to be a vegetarian bodybuilder and have a great body?
The issue of vegan vs meat eater bodybuilding has gained much press recently. It is a very complex and contraversial discussion in many circles. The scope of this article is to share some perspectives on both, with some pros and cons for muscle growth as well as general health.
Protein Biological Value (Protein BV)
|Food||Protein Biological Value||PCDAAS|
|Whey Protein Isolate||159||1.0|
|Whey Protein Concentrate||104||1.0|
Most people who are staunch vegan have a few reasons for taking this path as bodybuilders as well as non bodybuilders. Many want to eat no meat due to moral or spiritual reasons. Some feel a great concern over health concerns around cholesterol and cancer. The meat eaters typically want to gain muscle fast and feel that animal protein will get them there. Some meat eaters do not feel tehir appetite is satisfiied with vegetable protein sources. For myself I have found that eating a diet that leans more Paleo, or hunter-gatherer, works best for my muscle growth and development. I am not a strict Paleo person but I use this as my foundation with some expansions particularly when in a gain phase. I feel it is possible for someone to grow with vegetable source proteins but it will likely be slower process and less complete than if they had used animal sources.
First of all is the argument for high Biological Value (BV), which is essentially the absorption potential of a type of protein. Secondly, or more recently in the news, is the PDCAAS (Protein Digestibilty Corrected Amino Acid Score) which is a newer index that references the amino acid composition that is needed for a young person or child to grow to and develop to maximal potential. The two highest BV within the animal realms are egg whites and whey. They also happen to have the highest PDCAAS which is 1.0, along with milk. Of course some individuals may have milk sensitivity or allergy. In these cases either careful rotation along with other protein sources such as egg and vegetarian sources may need to be considered or possibly total exclusion. The pure Paleo viewpoint excludes all dairy products except eggs. So when I say I am Paleo plus this is basically what I mean. I eat a foundation diet that is flesh (red meats, fish and chicken principally) and supplement with powder of whey and casein. This way I assure myself of getting adequate grams of protein in a day to maintain and continue to grow.
The vegan body builder has a few challenges to consider when eating with regard to protein. He or she must consider that complate protein from an entirely non-animal source is hard to approximate with the exception of soy. Soy does have a pretty high PDCAAS at .91 but has a far lower BV at 74, when compared to whey which estimates to be 159. Also many people are also sensitive to soy products and will experience a similar intolerance to soy that they have with dairy. These can extend beyond digestive discomfort all the way to joint pain and inflammation in susceptible people.
To achieve a complete protein a vegan must combine a grain with a legume (essentially beans and rice). Done consistently this combination will give the full complement of essential and non essential amino acids a person needs. But it clearly carries the cost of a lot of carbohydrate consumption with a less than optimal BV and PDCAA. Many of us do not want that at key periods of development when the goal is cutting up to achieve a lean look that allows muscles to show best.
Also as a vegan one will need to be watchful for low iron and B12. Women in particular are more vulnerable to iron deficiency than men due to menstruation. Iron from vegetable sources is only absorbed at 1/3 the rate of animal based iorn sources. B12 is also an issue and I recommend vegans consider a simple lab test to check their levels every couple of years. This can prevent serious issues in the nervous system and brain.
As a meat eater one does not need to be so concerned with these areas, and so for me it is a simple matter. I also have no issue around consuming animal protein for other moral reasons. I will emphasize that I prefer to eat grass-fed meats and free range chicken when they are available to me. Generally, concerns around eating "high" protein with regard to cancer and other diseases I feel is offset by eating a LOT of leafy green vegetables and fiber foods, which most standard meat eaters sadly do not do in their diets. My impression is that eating protein will not be a problem if enough anti-oxidants and fiber are consumed with a diet high in diverse non-starchy vegetables.
The vegan can probably achieve good results with muscle building if he considers the area of complete proteins and does not eat excessive amounts of high glycemic carb foods. Sticking to whole grains rather than pastas and flour, and steering far from sweets. A non-vegan vegetarian who is willing to eat some dairy may do better by complementing their diet with some whey and eggs. This opens up the arena a lot and can do muscle growth a lot of good. But many vegans are not willing to adapt to a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.
In prior articles I have discussed the usage of whey for muscle growth quite a lot. So clearly I am a big fan of this form of protein. It has helped me to get where I am today. I am lucky that I am not allergic to it and have used superior forms that are easy to digest. Also I eat many meals per day as you all know. I am big on keeping my blood sugar balanced and chewing well. Whether you are vegan, lacto-ovo vegeterian or meat eater, chewing well is the most basic part of digestion. To improve BV of any protein you have to do your part by breaking it down in your mouth first. This way all your muscles get the peptides to assemble and repair after workouts.
Clearly I am in favor of a meat eater approach to bodybuilding. I did it this way and feel most in balance with animal protein sources. Above all is to create diversity however you can in your diet within the means you pick. So no matter what approach you take, eat a ton of non starchy vegetebales and greens (Kale is the best!). Then eat many colors: red, green, purple and yellow. This will guarantee that you get a full range of anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals. It will also be more interesting to your palate!
Pros of Vegan diet:
Probably less expensive
overall less environmental resources used to manufacture food.
Avoids dairy allergy
More politically correct in vegeterian circles :)
Cons to Vegan diet:
Harder to ensure protein is of highest BV and PDCAAS
Starches and grains are allergenic for some people as is soy.
May promote B12 and iron deficiencies
Requires paying attention to food combining to achieve complete proteins in each meal.
In conclusion, I would say that each person will have to figure out what path to take with nutrition and body building that is most comfortable to them. It's really a matter of individuality. Some have specific needs and concerns based on health, allergy and even their unique spiritual ideals as well as how fast they wish to achieve their goals. It is my opinion that a Paleo leaning diet is the way to go for those who want solid results that support recovery and growth. I have no moral issue with consuming high quality grass-fed and wild/organic meats, fish and fowl. Augmenting this with highest quality whey sources has worked the best for me. I respect each person's approach but since many wish to hear my opinion I have laid it out here for your to consider integrating into your muscle building regime.