The debate has been raging for decades. Is vegetarianism a realistic lifestyle choice for a bodybuilder or is meat essential when it comes to growing lean muscle mass?
First of all we need to distinguish between the three types of vegetarians in the world. Lacto-ovo vegetarians consume milk and eggs but no meat, Pesco-vegetarians consume fish and dairy, and the strictest vegetarians (also known as vegans) do not consume any animal products or byproducts. For the purposes of this article we will predominantly be looking at vegans.
Why even consider vegetarianism?
The majority of vegetarians are motivated to stay away from meat products simply due to moral considerations. By living a vegan lifestyle you are not only reducing the harm done to animals but are also showing a concern for the greater good of the environment by saving the remnants of the wilting rain forest.
Can I build muscle without meat?
It is general knowledge these days that in order to build and sustain lean muscle mass you need protein in your body. This is exactly where the doubts surrounding vegetarianism come into the equation. Because simply put, meat and its byproducts are the most well-known and common sources of protein, which is why people become confused when someone mentions vegetarian bodybuilding.
However, there are excellent sources of protein out there which are just as effective if not better than meat. Soy, for example, is rated at 1.0 (the highest possible rating), according to the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), right alongside whey protein. In comparison, beef has a slightly lower rating of .92. Additionally, soy contains the 8 essential amino acids necessary to build and regenerate muscles, making it a more than satisfactory meat substitute. An added bonus when consuming soy is the fact that it contains a considerable amount of glutamine which is known to have an anti-catabolic effect after grueling workout sessions, helping your muscles recover quickly.
There is one crucial drawback of using soy as your primary source of protein, but it is easily remedied. Vitamin B-12 can only be found in animal products, which is a problem for vegans. However, you simply need to supplement your diet with a multivitamin containing B-12 or use a meal-replacement shake featuring the necessary vitamins.
In order to maintain and increase your mass as a vegetarian you will also need to keep in mind that you will be eating constantly to make sure you take in enough calories every day, but careful planning of eating schedules and the right supplements should do the trick.
Does it work?
Despite the arguments and scientific evidence in favour of vegetarianism there are still those who question how effective it can be in a highly competitive sport like bodybuilding. Luckily we have a shining example of an athlete who has enjoyed tremendous success during his time as a professional bodybuilder, Bill Pearl. He is arguably the most well-known vegetarian bodybuilder and reached dizzying heights during his career. He is a lacto-ovo vegetarian who won the Mr. Universe title four times, entered the WBBA Hall of Fame in 1978, was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame in 1999 and won the Arnold Schwarzenegger and PDI Night of Champions Lifetime Achievement Awards in 2004 and 2006 respectively.
Pearl certainly showed the world that meat and muscle aren't necessarily inseparable. The bodybuilding legend states on his website: "They think that to have big muscles you have to eat meat - it's a persistent and recurring myth. But take it from me, there's nothing magic about eating meat that's going to make you a champion bodybuilder. Anything you can find in a piece of meat, you can find in other foods as well."
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