Debunking the Myths
By Steve Holt
© Steve Holt 2004
Reprinted from Natural Bodybuilding & Fitness Magazine Feb/05
Today I was in the gym when a fellow came up to me and asked how I got to be so big.† Now, Iím by no means big for a natural bodybuilder, but I have decent muscularity. I definitely look like a bodybuilder. I guess thatís what he meant to say.
When I mentioned I was a complete vegetarian and had not eaten any meat or fish in more than 23 years, he was really perplexed. And yet, why should this be so surprising?
So many myths surround the concept of vegetarianism. When people think about a vegetarian, they think perhaps of a skinny under-built string bean of a person, perhaps an unhealthy one at that. †After all, arenít vegetarians missing nutrients of some kind? †Arenít they weak, even unhealthy? Donít they eventually become tired and rundown,† lacking energy? Donít they eventually return to a meat-based diet?
These and many other conceptions surrounding vegetarianism are simply untrue. Letís have a look at some of the more common myths.
Myth 1. Vegetarians canít get enough protein.
Protein is actually the least of my worries. As a vegetarian, my primary protein sources are dairy, eggs, grains, beans (including soy), and legumes. I also supplement with whey protein concentrate and isolate, like any other bodybuilder and many other athletes. While some of these foods contain so-called incomplete proteins (ie. insufficient quantities of all the essential amino acids), most have solid amino acid profiles and biological values. Some† become complete proteins when eaten in combination with other protein foods during the course of the day, like rice (grain) in combination with lentils (legumes). I have no problem eating in excess of 200 grams of protein per day.
Myth 2. There are certain nutrients one can only get from eating meat.
This is probably more of a legitimate issue than Myth 1. Still, it is a simple matter to adjust the diet and/or supplementation in order to achieve the desired nutritional goals. The key nutrients that require greater monitoring and potential adjustment are the minerals iron and zinc, and the vitamin B12.
With regard to iron, plant-sourced iron is qualitatively different and more difficult to absorb than meat-sourced iron. However, adjustments can be made that will more than compensate for the difference. For example, foods which contain good quantities of vitamin C will significantly increase absorption of plant-sourced iron, †just as coffee and tea will hinder absorption. In addition, dairy products and calcium supplements compete with iron for absorption, and should be taken separately. †Foods rich in iron include lentils, beans, tofu, breakfast cereals, and eggs.
Regarding zinc, there are many plant foods which contain significant quantities of zinc, including legumes, nuts, seeds, and tofu. For vegetarians and meat-eating athletes alike, however, it is unlikely that the level of zinc in the diet would be ideal. Supplementation is recommended such that the total intake of zinc approximates 25 mg per day.
Vitamin B12 is known as the ďdirtyĒ vitamin, because its actual source is bacteria and other microorganisms. The primary B12 sources for vegetarians are dairy products and eggs. For vegetarian athletes, however, it is difficult to garner sufficient quantities of B12 from the diet, as levels in any food will† vary so much as to become unreliable on an ongoing basis. Some supplementation is recommended. †
Myth 3. Vegetarians are skinny. They† cannot grow muscle mass the way a meat-eater can.
Before I started weight training, I really was skinny. As I approached my late 30s and my metabolism slowed, eating more calories only added bodyfat. When I first started going to the gym I did manage to grow a bit of muscle, but it was insignificant until I changed my diet. †Once I added more dietary protein and supplemented with protein shakes, my muscle mass began to grow noticeably. Ultimately I found that taking 40-50 grams of whey protein in conjunction with 25-40 grams of fast-absorbing carbohydrates like dextrose immediately following an intense resistance workout was the single greatest act I could perform to increase hypertrophy, outside of the workouts themselves. As a vegetarian, this rule applies to me just as it would to anyone else. With 17Ē arms, 25Ē quads, a 44Ē chest and 31Ē waist, itís been a long time since anyone called me ďskinnyĒ.
Myth 4. Vegetarians lack energy and strength.
This is probably more true of the typical meat-eater than the typical vegetarian. I still remember how I felt after eating a big meal of meat and potatoes Ė lethargic and ready to sleep! Probably due to the degree of energy required to digest such a meal, eating meat can result in a lower energy level.
Strength is a function of physical conditioning, and energy is primarily a function of diet and conditioning which result in the optimum regulation of the bodyís systems. If a person lacks energy (assuming there is no pathology), the cause is usually related to the above.† When an athlete complains that they are chronically fatigued, the most common reasons are hormonal, poor iron status, unstable insulin/blood sugar levels, or overtraining (which can result in all of the above). For a vegetarian, it is important to note that any of these problems can be solved without changing to a meat or fish diet. On a personal note, my energy levels are typically very high, unless Iíve unwisely depleted myself with stimulants.
Myth 5. Being vegetarian is not healthy.
This is the most untenable myth in terms of research. There is a veritable truckload of research indicating that the benefits of a vegetarian diet are numerous and significant, including lower incidence and even reversal of ischemic heart disease, significant improvements in blood cholesterol, lower incidence of several cancers, improvements in systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and lower incidence of diabetes being some of the most well-documented.
Myth 6. One cannot be competitive as a bodybuilder as a vegetarian.
On a level drug-tested competition field, there is no evidence to suggest a bodybuilder eating a vegetarian diet cannot build the same muscularity, symmetry, proportion, and definition as a bodybuilder eating a meat diet. Even this 50 year old writer managed to place 1st in the Grand Masters in 2004 at the Ontario National Qualifier. (Shameless plug.) Bodybuilding is a function of optimal training coupled with optimal diet (assuming decent genetics).
So What Is The Optimal Bodybuilder Diet?
Whether designed to build muscle mass or to preferentially cut bodyfat, the optimal diet can be summed up as being the correct caloric intake with correct proportions of macronutrients, with those macronutrients being derived from a wide variety of foods which provide sufficient micronutrients to service the bodyís requirements. This is not the exclusive domain of the meat-based diet and in fact the evidence suggests that a vegetarian diet can be formulated to achieve the same results, perhaps with better long term health consequences.
The Vegetarian Bodybuilder ô