The myth that vegetarian diets lack sufficient protein needs to be busted. Vegetarians can get enough protein from various meat-free sources, and certainly enough to build muscle and meet their fitness goals. You just need to know where to look.
What is true is that it is not easy. Well, certainly not as easy as a diet that includes steak, chicken and fish. But, with a little planning, a meatless diet can provide all the protein and nutrients your body needs.
Nutritional know-how to help build muscle
Here is a selection of useful links that will take you to pages that help explain nutrition and its role in building muscle along with some workout guides and the best supplements to complement your diet.
Can I gain muscle mass on a vegetarian diet?
Do not you believe it? Did you know Olympic swimmer Tom Daley is a vegetarian? As is former heavyweight boxing champion David Haye. We’ve even had vegetarians on our cover, notably Liam Hemsworth and Mens Health Hero of Muscle and Mr Olympia, Arnold Schwarzenegger. If going meatless is good enough for Arnie, then it’s definitely good enough for you.
While research suggests that plant-based proteins are less efficient at building muscle than animal proteins due to their lower concentrations of essential amino acids (EAAs), particularly leucine, an EAA that regulates processes such as protein synthesis That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. You just need to get your EAAs from other food sources and in larger quantities.
Kate Neudecker, MH fitness and registered nutritionist says: “While plant-based protein sources may not be as bioavailable [easy to absorb] as sources of meat, with proper planning, it is entirely possible to gain muscle, maintain muscle, and achieve your goals on a vegetarian diet.”
What are essential amino acids?
To grow, function and build muscle, your body needs all 20 different amino acids. Your body can make non-essential amino acids, but it can’t make essential amino acids, of which there are nine. And the way to get them is through your diet.
Kate Neudecker, MH fitness and registered nutritionist says: “By learning about the different amino acids in plant-based protein sources, you can tailor your meals accordingly to ensure your diet is as optimal as a meat-based diet while still staying true to your ethical values.”
The nine essential the amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Of these nine, however, there is one trio that are important when it comes to maintaining all-important muscle mass: Isoleucine, Valine and Leucine.
As mentioned, leucine is the most important amino acid. Within your body, leucine decreases during exercise, meaning it needs to be replaced through your diet to help stimulate further protein synthesis and allow the body to build more muscle.
Almost all animal proteins contain the nine essential amino acids. However, only a handful of vegetarian foods can be classified as complete proteins, which is why you need to make sure you eat a varied diet, combining several meat-free foods, to ensure you’re consuming all nine amino acids at every meal.
Is there enough protein in vegetarian foods?
Unfortunately, most plant-based sources for muscle building aren’t very dense in protein. For example, if you eat 100 grams of chicken, you’ll get 54 grams of protein, while eliminating 100 grams of tofu, you’ll only get eight grams.
Eating more specific meatless foods will help you get more EAA and protein into your system. A recent 2016 study measured a significant increase in muscle protein synthesis after subjects increased their wheat protein intake from just 35g to 60g.
Top 10 vegetarian protein sources recommended by our expert nutritionist
Below are the best high protein vegetarian foods recommended by our expert nutritionist that contain (most of) the essential amino acids your body needs. And he remembers, you don’t need all nine essential amino acids from one food source. You can get them from numerous foods.
With the same amount of protein per calorie as chicken breast, it’s a great source of muscle fuel. It’s also low in fat and high in calcium, which is great for bone health, and contains all nine essential amino acids.
One cup of cooked beans will service your muscles with 21 grams of protein. Packed with fiber, which is essential for gut health, and helps lower cholesterol and high blood pressure, it’s a perfect vegetarian protein source. However, not all beans contain the same amino acid profile. Opt for black beans or red beans, and aside from the methionine, you’ll be getting nearly every essential amino acid your body needs.
Lentils are a fantastic source of protein with a 198 gram serving containing 18 grams of protein. Rich in manganese folate and iron, lentils can be combined with many dishes. Lentils are rich in several amino acids, including leucine, but low in some, such as tryptophan and methionine.
The medium large egg contains 6 g of protein and only 72 calories. Eggs contain all nine essential amino acids in a balanced ratio so your body can make full use of them in your vegetarian diet. That’s not all protein benefits, one egg contains 0.6 micrograms of vitamin B12, which is about 25% of your daily requirement. Vitamin B12 is usually found in meat and is important for preventing a special type of anemia that makes people feel tired and weak, which is very important for vegetarians.
Depending on the variety of cheese, it can be an excellent source of protein and other nutrients in your diet. For example, mozzarella contains 28 grams of protein per 100 grams. As an added bonus, it’s also high in calcium, which is important for supporting bone health. It is another complete source of protein, containing nine essential amino acids.
Peas contain 5 g of protein per 100 g and only 81 calories. Peas are also a good source of dietary fiber, making them a brilliant choice to accompany meals. Pair them with rice or beans in your vegetarian meals and you have a strong amino acid spectrum. The vitamin and mineral content of peas may play an important role in disease prevention according to an article published by the Cambridge University Press.
Tofu, which is made from soybeans, can be a useful high-protein vegetarian addition to your diet. Contains 8 grams of protein per 100 grams. Great for grilling, adding to pasta and other dishes, tofu is a quick meatless fix.
With a decent protein punch of 19 grams of protein per 100 grams, chickpeas are a great addition to your vegetarian diet. They also contain 7-8 grams of fiber per serving and can be added easily to curries, salads or, of course, in our favorite hummus dip.
While they’re primarily a source of carbohydrates, oats are a pretty unique grain with a whopping 11 grams of protein per 100 grams. Throw them on yogurt, whip up overnight oats, or enjoy the traditional breakfast staple, porridge.
Greek yogurt contains about 10 grams per 100 grams, making it a great high-protein snack solution for vegetarians. Greek yogurt tends to have less sugar than other yogurts on the market, making it a good fit for your health goals, too.
Robert Hicks is the executive editor of Mens Health UK. An exercise science graduate and author of three books on fitness published by Bloomsbury, Robert has written numerous articles on health, fitness and nutrition and created several documentaries, most notably Britains Steroid Epidemic and The Faces of Attempted Suicide. Robert has been with Men’s Health UK for seven years.
Kate is a fitness writer for Men’s Health in the UK where she contributes regular workouts, training tips and nutrition guides. She has a postgraduate diploma in Sports Performance Nutrition and prior to joining Mens Health she was a nutritionist, fitness writer and personal trainer with over 5,000 hours of coaching in the gym. Kate has a keen interest in volunteering for animal shelters and when she’s not lifting weights in her backyard, she can be found walking her rescue dog.
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