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Protein Needs For Vegetarians

It is no secret that protein is an essential nutrient for the growth, repair and maintenance of lean muscle tissue. If you don’t consume enough protein (more importantly the essential amino acids) you’ll be more prone to sacrificing lean muscle especially when on a lower calorie diet.

If you’re a vegetarian looking to lose weight or building lean muscle pay special attention here. Muscle tissue preservation is an absolute MUST if you want to decrease body fat and maintain good health.

Low calorie diets (especially those lacking enough protein) will create muscle loss and make fat loss very, very difficult. Let me explain why.

Vegetarians have to pay extra attention making sure they’re getting in enough protein if they have a concern for muscle

The main regulator of your metabolism is your thyroid. The most common cause of a sluggish metabolism is a decrease in thyroid hormone. There are a few reasons why your thyroid levels would drop. First, thyroid levels adjust to the amount of muscle in the body.

When you lose muscle the thyroid gland secretes less. Not completing resistance training and hormonal shifts (ex. menopause) will both lead to muscle loss.

Second, low calorie diets will cause your thyroid levels to drop.

Thirdly, protein deficiency, more specifically amino acid deficiency will create a decrease in thyroid secretion.

So then..if you’re a vegetarian on a low calorie diet not paying much attention to your protein intake you’re much more prone to suffer muscle loss, a decrease in thyroid production and yes a lower metabolism.

Not a good combination if you’re trying to lose weight while building or maintaining lean muscle.

As a vegetarian you need to plan your meals out with some thought in order to get in the essential amino acids from protein your body needs. You can produce 10 of the 20 amino acids on your own but the others must be supplied from the food you eat.

Vegetarians who don’t get complete amino acid profiles from their diet will breakdown their own lean muscle to get protein.

Failure to obtain enough of even 1 of the 10 essential amino acids, those that we cannot make, will result in your body breaking down muscle tissue to obtain the one amino acid that is needed.

Unlike fat and starch, the human body does not store excess amino acids for later use. The amino acids MUST come from our diets.

Plant proteins (with the exception of soybean) are incomplete because they lack one or more essential amino acids. What you can do however is eat plant proteins in combinations so amino acids that one food may be lacking is covered by the other food and vice versa.



Here are some examples of plant based food combinations that can help your body receive complete protein (meaning the amino acid profile is not lacking).

  • Tofu & Rice
  • Beans & Rice
  • Lentils & Rice
  • Corn Tortilla & Black or Pinto Beans
  • Peanut Butter on Whole Grain Bread
  • Pasta & Beans

Even though soy protein is a complete protein, I highly recommend if you’re vegetarian you look for other ways to add protein in your diet. See my post on soy protein for more information on why I do NOT recommend you use it for protein supplementation.

Depending on what type of vegetarian you are you can also look at getting protein from.

  • Eggs
  • Almonds
  • Peanuts
  • Cashews
  • Sunflower Seeds
  • Sesame Seeds
  • Peanut Butter
  • Beans/
  • Lentils
  • whey protein powder
  • spirulilna
  • Barlean’s Greens
  • rice protein powder

I know there are many advantages to a vegetarian diet and although I do not endorse one way or the other (to each his own) I believe you can be healthy by always looking to eat a variety of whole, natural foods regardless of your preferences (the way God intended us to).

As a vegetarian it’s just important you recognize that most plant proteins are incomplete and food combinations (eating a wide variety of plant proteins) is essential if you want to maintain and continue to build lean muscle tissue.

You simply cannot eat only fruit, some leafy greens, sprouts, and vegetables and expect to get in the essential amino acids and more importantly the energy density your body needs to build lean muscle.

This is why it’s extremely difficult for raw vegans to put on muscle. Yeah, sure there’s always the story of the big bodybuilder dude that is a raw vegan. What they don’t tell you though is they put on all the size and muscle PRIOR to becoming a raw vegan.

Their diet was simply serving to maintain some of the muscle tissue. You find me the raw vegan bodybuilder over 200 lbs who got their body from eating that way and without the use of drugs.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m completely for a raw vegan diet as a solid foundation from a health standpoint. It’s hard to argue about the benefits of God’s foods. I’ve tried going completely raw for a few weeks and found that at 240 lbs my body simply needed more energy. I resorted to eating animal protein again to meet my energy demands and when I did I felt 100 times better.

Had I stayed with a raw vegan diet, I’d likely be down to 190 pounds or something like that by now. Some people will say that’s great, that’s where you should be at! You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t desire to be weak and skinny. Everybody has a weight where they’ll feel their best. Let’s just say we’ll leave that up to each individual to decide for him/herself.

Nothing drives me more nuts when I hear someone telling another person what they should weigh. Like who went and made you the authority and ruler on what another person should do? I think they can figure out where they look and feel their best on their own without you!

Same thing goes for the idea of telling another person how and what to eat. I personally follow a Primal Blueprint type diet of lean proteins, nuts, seeds, fruit, and vegetables (occasional grains and dairy), but have many a friend who are vegetarians, vegans, or raw vegans. To each his own!

I hope this article gave you some insight on how to combine foods for complete proteins that will be helpful if you’re a vegetarian. If you’re a vegan or raw vegan, you’ve still got protein needs to be met but you won’t be doing it through grains and starch combinations.

Chances are you’ll be stripping from some lean muscle tissue but if you’re thin and don’t really mind it then no worries. If you’re concerned about muscle you can always look to some rice, hemp (side effects of CBD), or other protein powder supplements.

The body needs proteins and there is the argument that you can get all you need from fruits and vegetables for essential functions and that is probably true, but you won’t be adding muscle or increasing your body density.

There’s more than one reason why our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t stick with plants alone, they ate meat, eggs, and anything they could get their hands on that would give them energy. Their were no ideologies or intellectual reasons for why they ate or didn’t eat something. That’s only happened in the last hundred years or so since we’ve gotten lazy and spoiled with the availability of food.

Now we have more time to sit around and argue about what we should and shouldn’t eat, what we should and shouldn’t drive, paper or plastic, and the list goes on. Sign of the times I guess.

Eat well, be healthy and happy however you want to do it. That is my wish for you and a good way to end this discussion.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Fitness Training Studios. Learn more how you can receive a FREE personal training trial and experience the Shaping Concepts difference for yourself.

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Category: Nutrition.