I remember the first time I met someone who said they were a vegetarian - I was in shock! They seemed like a meat eater! He was big, tall and very muscular. When we mentioned he was a vegetarian it was almost a scene out of the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" where they question his diet! Contrary to popular belief gaining muscle through a vegetarian diet is not impossible. There are many professional bodybuilders who do not rely on animal protein and have amazing bodies!
Eating as a Vegetarian for Muscle Can Be Challenging
As a vegetarian we tend to rely a lot on eating carbohydrates for energy. If you are doing this, it may not be the best thing for you because too many carbohydrates and simple sugars tend to increase your insulin and actually have greater negative effects than positive, such as expanding your waistline. Fear not though for there are other foods out there which are better designed to give you the most energy per calories. Such as whole wheat pasta and bread or oatmeal, eating these foods are allowed only on days of increased activity simply because of the fact that they are complex carbohydrates, which make it harder for your body to break down keeping you feeling fuller longer, whilst providing a great source of energy.
It is all about the protein
You need to focus on maintaining protein intake - which at first can be tricky to someone who is a new vegetarian or vegan. When one thinks of protein, they usually first think of hamburgers, steaks, and chicken! But protein is abundant in plant sources as well, besides non flesh foods such that are animal based such as eggs, cheese and milk. It appears for decades it has been drummed into our brains that you need to eat animal protein, specifically animal flesh to build muscle.
This is simply not true. Think for a second about some of the largest most muscular animals. Elephants? Vegans. Cows and bulls. Vegans. Gorillas who can rip off your limbs in a second? Vegan. The list goes on and on! The great thing about vegetarian or vegan protein is that it tends to be healthier proteins with less risk of heart disease, particularly those based from plants. So how much protein do you need? It is recommended to consume about .68 grams of protein per pound or 111 grams for someone who is 180lbs.
Besides the obvious need to have protein in your diet for everyday maintenance of your body and to build muscle it is also helpful in keeping hunger at bay and keeps you from gaining weight by overeating carbs. Which means you can eat vegetarian or vegan style but if the foods you eat are not packing protein you may run a protein deficiency which has many negative consequences. Lack of protein can also contribute to skin wrinkles!
As a vegetarian your whole diet should not be all fruits and vegetables. Below we discuss foods to add to your diet that are loaded with protein.
Types of High Protein Vegetarian Foods
Nuts (walnuts, peanuts, etc)
Eating nuts is a great way to add protein as well as protect your heart since they are comprised of healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats.Walnuts are high in omega 3 fatty acids, traditionally found in fish making them a great snack. The other great thing about nuts is that they do not require prep! You can store them without refrigeration and them as you need it - one of nature's perfect foods!
You will notice health food stores selling "raw" and roasted versions. Raw means they are just that, unprocessed, making them healthier given the lack of oils or added salt. However, some nuts are harsh on stomachs so if you experience stomach discomfort this could be a reason.
Walnuts are one of the nut superstars! They made up high amounts of fat, but good fats known as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats which aid in heart and overall health. Each cup (8 ounces) of walnuts contain 12 grams of protein. Walnuts are also high in calcium, omega 3 fatty acids, iron, vitamin B-6, and magnesium. They go great on salads, cereals and yogurt.
Peanuts are very popular, having been touted as a snack for decades. Peanuts are actually legumes! But we organized them under nuts because they are almost universally known as nuts (hey the word is even in its name! Someone messed up!). Peanuts can be healthy especially raw peanuts which are harder to find. Unfortunately, they are often roasted in unhealthy oils and heavily salted. In their raw form, they contain high amounts of phosphorus, potassium, B vitamins and magnesium.Because they lack omega 3 fatty acids, they are not as soft as walnuts.
Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
Legumes are also helpful as they contain high amounts of protein while remaining fat free. Newer vegetarian protein powders are made of pea protein demonstrating their versatility. Legumes do require some prep and beans are often best soaked overnight to make them easier to digest. Be careful of tasty but calorie ridden baked beans with sugar glazes - delicious but dangerous for your fitness!
We like chicken peas otherwise known as garbanzo beans - they are the main ingredient in hummus, a tasty spread! Chickpeas are packed with protein and fiber which can help keep you full longer and keep the pounds off!
Eggs should not be overlooked as well for they are a lean protein and also contain several vitamins and minerals. For the best quality eggs, you will want to purchase those that are pasture-raised/grass-fed. This means the hens have been eating grass instead of grains which translates into healthier, tastier and more natural eggs. Chickens who roam and eat grass and forage also are happier and some people think that means less stress hormones are released into the eggs making them better for you! Win-win for everyone!
Diary (Milk, Greek Yogurt, Cheese)
Diary is a great source of protein, and with so many varieties the possibilities are endless. Whole milk products pack a great combination of protein and fat, great for those looking to bulk up if you're looking to add mass. For those of you want the protein but want to stay slim, there are plenty of low-fat or fat-free yogurt and milk. Diary can also be used in combination of vegetarian protein powders.
Like with eggs, we recommend buying high quality diary that is made from cows that were grass-fed and pasture raised. Cheese makes a great snack as well and like its yogurt and milk cousins often requires little preparation - you can buy a few low-fat cheese sticks as a quick snack.
Seeds (Hemp, Chia, Pumpkin, Flax, Sesame, Sunflower)
Seeds are an excellent source of protein that can be used with many other foods for a nutritional powerhouse. Seeds like hemp, chia and sunflower seeds can added to smoothies, salads and foods to boost protein levels.
Hemp seeds are one of my favorites, not only are they highly packed with protein (1 ounce contains 8.8 grams of protein!) but they also contain all six amino acids essential for building muscle. This is rare in vegetarian foods as usually animal protein are normally the only protein source to contain all six amino acids. Amino acids are also packed with fiber to keep your digestion in check
Pumpkin seeds are not only for halloween, they are great muscle building tools!
Grains (Quinoa, Oats, Tempeh, Hemp)
Some grains can also be high in protein while also supplying a good number of complex carbohydrates to help meet caloric and protein goals.
Other things to keep in mind:
Make sure you’re getting enough iron when you stop eating red meat and be sure to eat plenty of dark green vegetables such as spinach.
For those vegans out there, dairy and fish are not an option, so make you have some legumes, and other nuts on hand to snack on. Tofu and soy both make great protein substitutes as well. But, if you really want to help build those muscles, you should not hesitate to invest in a good protein powder and mixing yourself up a nice smoothie with it in the morning. But remember it is not impossible to obtain muscle as a vegetarian, stay motivated and keep in mind that just by cutting out meat from animals you are doing your body a favor and saving yourself a lot of medical bills down the road associated with high animal protein consumption.