It’s one of those questions that people keep asking us: “Can I train as a vegetarian?” What it comes down to is protein. Any bodybuilder can tell you that we need a lot of protein to build and rebuild our muscles to get the gains we’re looking for.
TYPE OF VEGETARIANS
Right off the top, let’s ask what kind of vegetarian you are, because there are several types. There’s lacto vegetarianism, meaning dairy is all right; ovo vegetarianism, in which eggs are fine; lacto-ovo vegetarianism, when you eat eggs and dairy; and veganism, in which all animal products are off the shopping list. Which are you? The more restrictive your diet, the harder it will be to get the balanced nutrition you need to perform.
When eating protein, you need to consider how much is being absorbed by the body. The biological value (BV) assigns a measure of how much of a food’s protein is absorbed and becomes part of the body. The higher the percentage, the more is absorbed.
We also need to consider that proteins contain several essential amino acids that your body needs to get from your food. Meat automatically comes with all of them. But not all other protein sources are complete proteins. This means they are missing one or more essential amino acids or don’t have enough of each type. That’s why it’s important to get your protein from several different sources to balance out the shortcomings of each type.
Now that we’ve explained what we’re looking for, can we get the huge amounts of good protein bodybuilders consume from nonmeat sources? Let’s take a look.
Well, if you’re the type of vegetarian that says eggs are fine, dig in. Chicken eggs have a high BV at 94 percent, plus egg whites are a complete protein, so eat up. Eggs used to have the highest BV, but whey protein was then found to have a higher level, which reset the scale.
If you didn’t know, whey is a by-product of the cheese-making process, as in curds and whey. So unless you’re all right with dairy, you may have to eliminate this protein source. But wait, there’s more bad news. An enzyme called rennet, which is used in the cheese-making process, is traditionally derived from calf stomachs. It is true that rennet can, and is, produced from genetically modified nonanimal sources, but there isn’t really any way to tell where your whey comes from. The good news is that if these things don’t bother you, whey has the highest biological value possible at 100 percent, and it’s a complete protein.
Beans are great sources of protein in many ways; however, they don’t have all the essential amino acids your body requires. It is essential to mix beans with other protein sources, such as rice, to get everything your body needs. That being said, beans have a BV of 96 percent.
Really, this is the heart of the question. Soy has become the vegetarian “poster boy” for protein. Even if you never touch tofu, chances are you’re still eating some soy as it is added into a huge number of processed foods. But some people are afraid of soy. This is because soy contains phytoestrogens, which are very chemically similar to the primarily female hormone estrogen. This makes many men, bodybuilders included, very nervous. There are a lot of things being said about soy, both for and against eating large amounts of it, and a lot of that information is conflicting.
Estrogen: Phytoestrogens are not estrogen. Though it has been suggested, it’s generally accepted that eating huge quantities of soy will not cause you to grow breasts. Phytoestrogens can act as an estrogen booster or as an estrogen blocker – it all depends. Some studies also suggest that it can slightly reduce testosterone levels in men, but once again, not all studies say the same.1
Fertility: Wait, wait. Don’t worry. There have been some studies that have suggested a link between soy and lower fertility. A recent study suggests a slight reduction in sperm concentration.2 The thing is, critics of this study say that the 99-man survey group was too small, and that other environmental factors were not properly considered. So once again, there’s no convincing reason not to eat soy.
There are many mixed messages out there about soy, and a distinct lack of consensus among professionals. You can be wary and limit soy intake, or you can go right ahead and use it, as many bodybuilders have. Soy is generally considered a complete protein, and its BV can range from 64 percent for tofu to 96 percent for a whole soybean.
So it really comes down to personal choice. Can you be a vegetarian bodybuilder? Yes, it’s possible, but it isn’t easy. You’ll need to keep a very, very close eye on your nutrition. So if you do decide to give it a try, talk to your doctor to make sure you’re properly feeding your body to maximize your gains and stay healthy.
TRAIN PAST THE PAIN | Team FBB