Ways to say yes to vegetarian bodybuilding

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach, is a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center. She is also a member of the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

By Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach

As we approach the end of October, it is worth pointing out that Halloween is not the only exciting holiday.  As it happens, the entire month of October is Vegetarian Awareness Month.  Yes, it is true…veggies receive 31 days of recognition, while candy rates but a mere 24 hours.  This month-long observance was instituted in 1977 by the North American Vegetarian Society, and culminates with National Vegan Day on Nov. 1.

Vegetarians typically enjoy meals that exclude meat, poultry, fish, or any animal flesh. Some truly dedicated individuals also choose to avoid various animal by-products.  There is a great deal of research-based evidence pointing to the fact that the most healthful diets are ones which seek to reduce overall fat consumption while including significant servings of vegetables and fruits. Eliminating meat and dairy products from daily meal plans may be considered a powerful step in disease prevention.

I use the term “diet” loosely, because I truly believe that the best way to remain healthy is to adopt a lifestyle to which you can comfortably adhere for life.  If your lifestyle includes bodybuilding and weight training, for which copious amounts of protein are required in order to rebuild muscle fibers, many athletes feel they must choose between their passion and their meals.

While I admit that ingesting adequate complete proteins as a vegetarian is more of a challenge, it is not by any means impossible. The term “complete protein” refers to the amino acid make-up of a food source.  Just as protein is the building block for muscular growth, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different amino acids that can work together to form a protein; our bodies are capable of naturally producing 11 of these. That leaves 9 unaccounted for, and these are referred to as the essential amino acids. These must be consumed through food sources.

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 In order to be considered “complete,” a protein must contain all nine of these essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts.  While most animal products offer this easily, many vegetarian sources of protein are lacking in some amino acid or another.  As it turns out, the human body does not require the consumption of all 20 amino acids at every meal of the day.  As long as by the time you crawl into bed, your body has been fed a goodly amount of each amino acid, you can be assured of complete protein health.

For serious bodybuilders, this may require a bit more work.  There are a few complete grain proteins, and these include quinoa, buckwheat, and hemp seed.  Soy, too, is a popular complete vegetarian option. The remainder of vegetarian choices must be creatively combined to yield a complete protein.  Some examples are a peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread.  The peanut, a member of the legume family but most assuredly not animal-derived, combines with the whole wheat to provide all 20 amino acids.  Similarly, recipes that include beans, brown rice and corn are not only delicious, but also can offer all of the amino acids required for protein building.

The four food groups that comprise a typical vegetarian meal plan are fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. If you are pressed for time or creativity, many supplement companies sell vegan protein powders in a variety of flavors.  Since post-workout protein shakes are a key component in a bodybuilder’s regimen, such products may simplify one or two meals a day (most serious strength training individuals aim for six little meals within a 24-hour span). Whether you choose to combine the powder with water and shake until dissolves, or add it to a “green smoothie” in a blender with kale, spinach, fruit and ice, this is a powerful option to consider if one is truly dedicated to both the sport and the lifestyle choice.

It can be accomplished! Dedicate as much effort to what goes into your body as you put into your bench press. Viva la veggie!