We hear a lot of top athletes around the world following a vegetarian or a vegan diet. It is a common belief in the amateur and professional athletic training world that vegetarians don’t meet their protein requirements and hence they can’t build muscles with vegetarian foods. But, now people are becoming aware that a balanced diet based on plant based proteins does assist in muscular development. However, the protein quality and the quantity are the key factors.

Let us take you through the basics of protein. We all know that protein is one of the main nutrients required to build muscle. Amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins. Proteins are valued based on their essential amino acid composition. Egg protein is the highest quality protein and is used as the reference protein as it contains all the essential amino acids in the right proportions. The other animal proteins like lean meats, fish, poultry and dairy also contain all of the amino acids and hence are complete proteins. However, plant proteins lack one or more of the essential amino acids that we need. For eg. cereal grains lack the essential amino acid lysine while the beans and lentils lack the amino acids methionine and cysteine. Hence plant proteins are termed as incomplete proteins. But there are some plant foods like soy and quinoa that are considered to be complete proteins.

So, is there a way to make the plant protein a complete protein. Yes, definitely! Certain incomplete plant proteins can be combined to get the essential amino acids. Let’s take for example the combination of dal and rice or baked beans on whole wheat bread. In both the cases the lack of lysine in the cereal is complemented by the presence of lysine in the beans and dal. Similarly, combining nuts and seeds also improves the protein quality in plant proteins. Ex. trail mix which is a mix of nuts such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios and seeds like sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, etc. Plant proteins can also be improved with dairy as an addition for those who are vegetarians (not vegans).

So, besides the animal proteins that help in muscle development, plant proteins can also do an equally good job with the right amounts and combinations. In addition to the foods, an intense training program will also be essential to see results. 

Athletes should eat small amount of protein throughout the day to ensure that this nutrient is readily available when the body requires it the most. Vegetarian athletes aiming to build muscles should eat some amount of good quality protein at every meal along with carbohydrates.

Some tips for building muscle on a vegetarian diet:

  • 60% or more of the total calories should come from good quality carbohydrates which will fuel the muscles
  • Eat 5-6 small meals each day with not only protein foods but also fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy
  • Include good quality protein such as low fat dairy, tofu, soy products, nuts, seeds, dals and pulses in atleast 3-4 meals depending upon your physical activity, the intensity and body composition.
  • Fats are also necessary for supplying energy to muscles during workouts so include the good sources of fat in your daily diet like avocados, nuts, vegetable oils.
  • A sports nutritionist can help you create a personalized diet plan to meet your daily requirements.

Start slow when you are building your strength and fitness. With food remember that rest is also an important factor in initiating recovery of the tired muscles. And, if weight loss is the first target then taking up weight loss programs from one of the weight loss clinics in Tunisia or around the world would be ideal before embarking onto a journey of building muscles.

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