Vegetarians and Muscles



                While the vegetarian diet doesn’t contain protein from meat products, it is a true misconception to believe that vegetarians cannot build muscle mass.  The type of vegetarian diet being followed by an individual must be taken into consideration when determining what types of proteins that can be consumed.  Listed below are different types of vegetarian diets:  

  • Lactovegetarian: Excludes meat, poultry, eggs, and fish but includes dairy products
  • Vegan: Excludes all animal products, such as fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, cheese and other dairy products
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: Excludes meat, poultry, and fish but includes eggs and dairy products

With a well-planned vegetarian diet, an individual can consume adequate protein and calories to promote muscle growth.   Optimal protein food sources include meat, eggs and dairy due to the fact that these products contain all essential amino acids that are required for sustaining life and building muscle.  Some plant based proteins do not contain adequate essential amino acids that humans require; therefore, it is very important to consume a variety of amino acids (protein) throughout the day to promote optimal intake.   Depending on which vegetarian diet that is being followed here are a few options that do contain all essential amino acids that can be included in the diet:

  • Dairy options: eggs (these are considered the perfect protein due to containing all 9 essential amino acids),  low fat yogurt and milk
  • Soy options: soy milk, soy yogurt, edamame, soy burgers, tempeh and tofu

Vegans who do not consume any eggs, dairy or animal proteins need to make sure to consume a variety of foods to optimize their intake of a variety of amino acids.  Some examples of food combinations that work perfectly together to enhance amino acid intake include:

  • Adding soy milk products to any meal.  Such as adding soy yogurt to breakfast or on a baked potato, adding soy milk to cereal or having a wrap or sandwich with soy cheese.
  • Consuming grains plus beans or legumes.  A classic example is rice and beans; however you can try other combinations such as quinoa and couscous with tofu, legumes and kidney beans.  Some other examples include cornbread and bean chili, tofu and brown rice, bread and split pea soup.
  • Consume legumes plus seeds, such as tofu and sesame seeds and chickpeas and tahini.

Let your taste buds be your guide to choosing your protein source, but keep in mind in order to build muscle mass adequate protein is required.

Key Take Home Message: You should consume protein at each meal.  Make sure that your protein sources are providing you with all of the essential amino acids for muscle growth and overall health.

Remember:  Eat five or six small meals per day that include protein. Keep in mind also consume a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and plenty of water.

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 5th Edition