Protein for the Weightlifting Vegetarian

© Steve Holt

March 4, 2008.

 

What is the ideal protein level for a weight training vegetarian, intent on adding lean muscle with additional bodyfat? And how does that fit in with the rest of the caloric intake?

 

Assuming you are currently at an acceptable bodyfat level, your caloric intake should be near your maintenance level. Maintenance means that you arenít gaining or losing bodyweight at a given calorie level. For a relatively active person, this is usually around 15 calories per pound of bodyweight. For example, if you weigh 150 lbs., your maintenance calorie level is around 2250 (15 x 150).

 

However, if you want to grow more muscle, you need to add more protein calories, which means you need to increase calories from a maintenance level to a modest surplus. How much is modest? Iíd recommend a 15% surplus to start with, which means you go from 15 calories per lb. of bodyweight to say 17. Our 150 lb. fellow adds another 300 calories to his 2250, for a total intake of 2550 calories.

 

How much of those calories should come from protein? Assuming youíre pumping iron 3-4 times a week for about an hour each session, Iíd recommend at least 0.9 g protein per lb. of bodyweight. For that 150 lb. guy, it means 135 g protein. Thatís a minimum, if you want to add muscle. As for the rest of the calories,Iíd recommend 0.6 g fat per lb. bodyweight (including lots of omega 3 fat), and the balance from carbs, which translates into 90 g fat and 300 g carbs in the above example. Alternatively you could cut the carbs and add more fat, which would make you a lot less hungry.

 

As a vegetarian, it is not easy to add more protein without adding more carbohydrates. Beans and legumes in conjunction with whole grains will add protein, but will also add carbs. A cup of lentils contains 18 g protein but youíre also stuck with 40 g carbs. Tofu and tempeh are better choices, primarily consisting of protein and fat. In addition, there are many processed soy products which contain primarily protein. The important point is to find food sources which contain mostly protein, perhaps some fat, but are low in carbs. Your body uses carbs for energy, but doesnít need nearly as many carbs as youíre probably giving it. However, it does require protein and fat.

 

Putting together the higher protein diet is easier for the lacto-ovo vegetarian, as cottage cheese is a high protein low carb food, and eggs contain only protein and fat with virtually no carbs at all. But for either the vegan or the vegetarian, life becomes easier with the addition of protein powder, which can be 100% plant based or derived from whey. One protein shake will add roughly 40-50 g protein to the daily diet. In addition, having a protein shake immediately following weight training will help with the muscle building process and stave off muscle catabolism. Either way, you should have a high protein meal or a protein shake right after the workout.

 

Many people believe that protein from animal flesh is somehow superior to plant protein and dairy protein when it comes to building muscle. But there is nothing magical about meat protein. Protein quality is assessed by its amino acid profile as well as its absorption qualities. So long as the protein has the right balance of essential amino acids and is properly absorbed, it will do the job. Soy protein isolate and whey protein isolate are both excellent choices as supplemental protein sources.