Dogma on diet shifts back and forth between theories that support eating flesh and others that say the saturated fats found in meat
present too great a risk for the heart, that red meat and other types of flesh should be avoided altogether. It's a merry-go-round
of thought that confuses any prospective bodybuilder, let alone any average individual. To eat meat, or not to eat meat - that is
the question. Even Oprah Winfrey, who has a tremendous influence on the general populace, took a strong stand against red meat,
causing an uproar among beef-industry executives, who sued her. Oprah wasn't condemning all flesh, just all forms of red meat.
Vegetarians claim all flesh is bad for the body.
Can you avoid all forms of animal protein even eggs - and still be able to build enough muscle to call yourself a bodybuilder? Well, let's first take a look at the different types of vegetarianism, and then examine the logistics of the issue. Strict vegans won't eat any form of protein derived from an animal. They engage in what the lay person would call "food combining" to obtain enough of their daily protein needs to prevent tissue-wasting. This combining of foods to get complete proteins is an arduous process because it supposes a vegan will know every combination of vegetables, legumes and vegetable protein that could possibly comprise a complete protein when put together in one meal. In fact, I would think having such extensive knowledge is almost impossible. Some claim to have the knowledge, but most people practicing the strictest form of vegetarianism don't have a grasp of all these combinations and couldn't possibly be getting their nutrient needs met.
The other type of vegetarian is called alacto-ovo vegetarian. This is a vegetarian who derives protein from plant foods, but also includes eggs and dairy products in his diet to meet daily protein requirements. These folks believe, as strict vegans do, that eating flesh is an unhealthful practice. Because a vegan/macrobiotic diet is too hardcore for their tastes, they prefer to include other forms of protein-rich foods, such as eggs, cheese, milk, tofu, tempeh and tahini, that provide slightly more protein than a vegan diet.
Still others who claim they are vegetarians eat nearly everything you and I would eat, but just omit beef from their diets. Some won't touch beef or fowl, but will eat fish. Most strict vegetarians reject this type of diet as non-vegetarian since it still includes flesh. They are a bit more tolerant of the lacto-ovo vegetarians because they are not consuming flesh.
The question is whether the strict vegan and the lacto-ovo vegetarian can actually gain muscle and maintain it while limiting their sources of protein. We're zeroing in on protein here because most of what makes muscle hypertrophy occur is the consistent ingestion of protein which supports weight training and recovery.
If the vegan must combine beans and rice to form a complete protein, and must think in those terms all day long, combining enough protein to constitute a postworkout recovery meal will be difficult. The problem is not that, according to their beliefs, combining these foods is impossible - some of them do it effortlessly - but that the quality of protein is lacking. This problem gets into issues of biological values of protein. Many of the proteins that vegans use in their many combinative forms are members of other macronutricnt groups.
For instance, when using rice and beans to form a complete protein, the vegan ingests mostly starchy carbohydrate, not protein. The protein content of both foods is so negligible that it's almost nonexistent. Instead of the body using the minimal protein in this meal, it stimulates the release of insulin to the extent that it is in a state of utter fatigue from trying to digest so much fiber, ultimately lethargy sets in. Maybe that's why most people see vegans as peaceful, calm individuals. Sure, they may be calm, but they're also anesthetized from the amount of starch they are eating. These heavy carb meals are common in a vegan's diet. As literature and studies are now proving, the vegan diet is rather unhealthful and certainly not designed to create a lean physique unless it's accompanied by a great deal of aerobic activity.
In some ways this type of diet may support building muscle, but not because of the protein content. These foods store a lot of glycogen in the muscles which lies dormant until it's called upon. Lying dormant too long, of course, means it will be stored as fat. If a person is using these carbs in extended and intense workouts, the kind and quality of pump and the amount of weight he can lift may make this diet worthwhile in the off-season. But let's face it. No offense to those who are vegetarian, but most are not in good shape by today's standards. After eating that many carbs, walking to the natural-foods market isn't enough activity to burn off the humongous quantity of calories being ingested through continuously eating whole grains and legumes.
Don't get me wrong. I think bodybuilders err on the side of not taking in enough fiber, whether through vegetables or other sources, and rely solely on supplements to RDA requirements, rather than by eating whole foods. However, other than possibly storing more glycogen to support workouts, you wouldn't catch me on this type of diet for more than a few days.
A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet has a chance of being both a maintenance! weight-loss diet and a muscle-gaining diet, although the logistics of actually doing it become difficult. Eggs contain only so much protein in one hard shell. Thank goodness supplement companies are coming out with their own bacteria-free jugs of egg whites already cracked and prepared. They have solved a lot of the problems inherent in a diet like this. The good news is, eggs contain a bio-availability greater than many other flesh-based proteins. The biological value of a whole egg scores one hundred on the scale. The scale doesn't stop at one hundred, though, because whey protein scores much higher - almost 50 points higher if it is a quality whey protein. Lacto-ovo vegetarians can definitely ingest whey protein as a daily source, along with eggs, because it comes from dairy products.
But let's take a closer look at eggs, which are the mainstay of a lacto-ovo vegetarian's diet. Bodybuilders typically eat only the egg white because it is almost fat-free (.2 grams of fat per egg). This is an advantage for dieting, of course, but the truth about eating egg whites only is that without any part of the yolk the protein in an egg is almost nil once it is cooked. (And with all the bacteria found in a raw egg, let's assume a smart person will cook it before eating it.) Without the yolk the egg white scores about a 20 on the bio-availability scale. This why I always include one yolk in a batch of six to eight egg whites. Thought he yolk is filled with saturated animal fat, the amount of fat in one yolk is about six grams - approximately the same as in a five-ounce chicken breast.
The fact is, nearly any type of vegetarian - whether strict vegan or lacto-ovo vegetarian - must consume a great quantity and variety of food to have enough healthful protein fill of the necessary amino acids to build or maintain muscle. Most vegetarians get just enough to prevent muscle-wasting but hardly enough to build on. Whereas a complete protein contains the eight essential amino acids to build muscle, rarely are these amino acids found in correct and great enough quantities to constitute a sound bodybuilding! muscle-promoting diet.
Are there plant proteins that are complete all on their own? Sure. Soybeans are one of them. Soy protein contains all the eight essential amino acids, but it comes with some baggage. First, soy protein contains a great deal of fat. If it's been defatted or messed with through processing - as in soy powders - much of the nutrient value has been lost in the process. The good news is that this fat is unsaturated fat and a good source for omega-3 fatty acids. Research has shown it prevents disease and creates and overall health within the body. However, like eggs and meats, soy requires a closer look at its bio-availability.
Not all proteins are created equal. Many sources are superior to others - whey, cow's milk, whole eggs, fish and beef Any food that drops below to 80, the number that beef scores on the scale of biological value, probably isn't worthwhile for a bodybuilder. If building muscle is not your goal, you can include many other protein sources in your diet without a problem. The issue is whether or not you can be a practicing vegetarian and still pass muster on a contest stage.
Personally I wouldn't be a good vegetarian candidate for several reasons. Being a vegetarian of any sort takes a good amount of self-teaching. No one is going to put a list in front of you and tell you how to be a good vegetarian. You can't learn the skills overnight. Many years of study may be required if you plan to be a strict vegan. The lacto-ovo vegetarian practice is somewhat of a no-brainer, but because of your indoctrination into the habits and practices of bodybuilders, you may be reluctant to add a yolk in with your egg whites. If you don't your protein value sharply declines.
A vegetarian can't always eat conveniently. You can't walk into a rotisserie chicken place and grab a quick meal of chicken when time is short. You must look for natural-food outlets which cater to specialized diets. If you don't live in Los Angeles, but live in the mid west, for example, this flexibility is virtually impossible. You also must consume way more food to equal the value found in other foods. For someone who is busy, or isn't able to eat that much at one sitting, eating enough can be a problem.
The bottom line is that actively choosing to be a vegetarian requires a lot of thought. If health is more important to you than winning, and forsaking beef for tofu will make you feel ultimately more confident in your prospect of longevity, I wouldn't argue with you. However, if you want to become the next Flex Wheeler - provided you're blessed genetically - eating veggies, beans, rice and tofu may not be your bag.