by Caroline von Fluegge-Chen
By Chris Buckley.
Here’s an argument a trainer would lose with a vegetarian client…”You don’t eat enough vegetables!” Now, an argument a trainer would most likely win with a vegetarian client…”You are not getting enough protein!” The practices of vegetarianism and veganism have been around for quite some time now, and they are here to stay. Now I know what all you carnivores out there are saying, “Veganism..sounds like a disease that vegetables get when they “vege” out too much, or vegetarians…isn’t that diet for hippies?” The truth is that these diets can be very healthy, and some say even performance-enhancing. Some of our society’s greatest athletes have adhered to some sort of plant-based nutrition program at least part of the time, including Carl Lewis, Martina Navratilova, Edwin Moses, and Hank Aaron. There are negatives, however, and those who choose to live a life consuming spinach salads and tofu burgers as their staple meals must consider a few major points when living this lifestyle. These become especially important for the athlete or individual who exercises on a frequent basis, as dietary needs exceed the needs of the average, sedentary individual. These points include obtaining adequate protein intake, ensuring the individual gets good quality protein, that optimal calories are being consumed, and paying close attention to one’s own genetic makeup and tolerance to these diets.
One of the biggest myths about vegetarian and vegan diets is that these individuals cannot, or do not consume enough protein. On the surface, a vegetarian diet seems to be somewhat protein deficient, as there is usually little, if any, animal products on the menu. Upon closer observation, one sees that the combinations of various grains, legumes, and dairy products can, in fact, equate to optimal protein intake. As we now know, protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. The human body needs 8 amino acids that are considered “essential”, meaning a human cannot survive without them. Although grains and legumes are considered starches, they also have trace amounts of protein with them. The protein myth for vegetarians/vegans stems from the fact that plant based proteins have lower amounts of some essential amino acids and thus a lower biological value than animal-based proteins. Another myth about these diets is that these individuals could obtain the 8 essential amino acids with a vegetarian diet, but the combinations of food had to be consumed within the same meal. Amino acids are available in the blood for many hours after being eaten, and as long as the complementary amino acids appear in the next meal or two that day, the body will have what it needs to make protein for muscle synthesis (growth).
In the vegetarian world, different classifications abound, including semi-vegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, and vegan. What do all these mean? Nothing to those who love cow, however, for those who must take into consideration the various protein sources to choose from, they become very important. For instance, semi’s and lacto-ovo’s include eggs in their diet. Since egg protein is of the highest quality and, more importantly, a complete protein, these individuals do not usually have to worry about getting their essential amino acids….provided they eat 50 eggs a day. Just kidding.
For vegans, planning for optimal protein intake becomes tricky, as sources become scarce with a limited menu. Good protein sources for vegans include soy products (tofu, soy beverage, tempeh, soy yogurt, soy nuts, soybeans, soy protein powder), hemp products (hemp seeds, hemp protein powder), nuts and seeds, nut butters, legumes, and faux meat products. There are drawbacks, though, as some of these products are controversial to say the least, especially relating to soy.
Another concern for vegetarians/vegans is obtaining a caloric intake that is optimal for their needs. Being that a plant-based diet is not as calorie dense as an animal-based diet, one must watch the total calories being consumed, or not consumed. This concern becomes especially important for athletes and people who adhere to a regular exercise program. Obtaining adequate protein intake is not enough because, if overall calories are too low for your activity level, your body will assuredly obtain the needed sugar from your lean muscle tissue. Devastating for those who wish to lose fat weight and lean up. On a side note, even if the overall calories are in check, balance may be off as vegetarians/vegans may have a tendency to consume a higher percentage of starch, providing an energy imbalance which may result in increased fat storage. While the meat eater often has to look for ways to include adequate carbohydrate intake, the vegetarian must look for ways to avoid excess carbohydrate intake. Have you ever seen a vegetarian/vegan who is not exactly lean? This might be their problem.
The final issue to discuss is in the realm of whether or not one’s body can tolerate a plant-based diet. For example, everyone knows what effect legumes (beans) have one’s digestive system, and some are affected more than others. Abdominal discomfort, bloating, and gas are all common side effects with consumption of legumes and the fermented products contained in various faux meat products. In addition, many of these protein sources tend to be on the spicy side to make up for lack of flavor. Everyone knows someone who’s stomach cannot tolerate certain foods without making everyone else in the room uncomfortable. Another issue which may be overlooked is people who’s bodies are naturally thin may be genetically prone to wasting disorders such as osteoarthritis, scanty menstrual periods, hair loss, and Parkinson’s disease. For these individuals, the consumption of legumes may exacerbate this due to their diuretic, light, catabolic chemical properties. All of these disorders require a diet that is more supportive, higher in fat, protein, and overall calories. A poorly planned vegetarian diet may not exhibit any of these properties.
In conclusion, vegetarian/vegan diets can be healthy for some individuals, provided that the diet is carefully planned out. Planning becomes more important for people who are body builders and athletes (this includes you) as overall caloric and protein needs increase. Vegans need to be concerned with one main nutrient in addition to protein, and that is Vitamin B-12, as it is not present in plant foods. Other than that, most athletes can perform well, and even excel in their fields of expertise while adhering to a plant-based regimen. Also of note, research to date has not shown any significant differences in performance or lean body mass (muscle) between plant-based diets and animal-based diets. Some advice from the author would be to always be a label reader, especially in the realm of watching overall carbohydrate intake and sugar (ie soy milk, yogurt), research soy and it’s potential adverse reactions in the body, and don’t grow your own hemp, as it is illegal to do so.