I want to share what I have learnt about the relationship between vegetarianism and body composition. This is a subject close to my heart, as I was a vegetarian for 8 years. Ethically, I would still prefer to be a vegetarian. However after discovering early this year that I am allergic to gluten, I found being vegetarian and gluten-free too difficult and restrictive. A lot of the protein substitutes I was eating contained wheat, and so I made the tough decision to incorporate some meat into my diet to replace the lost protein. It was tough at first, but with the amount of training I was doing, I knew it was important that I consumed adequate protein, and found that including meat was the best way to do this. I have found that my decision has enabled me to grow muscle and improve my fitness in a way that wasn’t possible when I was vegetarian.
The photos on the left are from when I was a vegetarian. I still ate a lot and exercised regularly by playing sport, running and going to the gym, however as you can see I was very skinny and had little muscle tone. The photos on the right are both within the last month. I have been eating meat for 6 months now, and I go to the gym 5-6 times a week. Although I’m still petite, you can see I now have visible muscle definition and I look healthier. There is about 9kg difference in weight between the photos.
From my personal experience, I don’t believe that a vegetarian or vegan diet can lead to optimal body composition (by which I mean a low body fat percentage and high lean muscle mass). The reason for this is largely protein. Protein is the building blocks of life, and you certainly need it to build muscles. As a vegetarian it is difficult to meet your protein requirements and furthermore, the vegetarian protein sources are absorbed by the body differently and are not ideal for supporting muscle growth.
I was actually very conscious of my protein as a vegetarian. I made sure I ate protein with every meal. I trained hard in the gym and ate a lot of food, but it still took me a long time to put on muscle. Inevitably, this also meant it was harder to lose body fat, because the more lean muscle mass you have, the greater your ability to metabolize fat. As soon as I started incorporating meat (I still only eat chicken, turkey and some fish) I noticed a big difference in my ability to build muscle and lose fat. I feel stronger, leaner, and healthier.
I see all too often people choose to be a vegetarian or vegan to be ‘healthy’. They believe meat is not healthy, and so cutting it out will be better for them. Well, I agree there are things about meat that can be unhealthy – such as not choosing free range or grass fed meats. However, simply cutting meat out without replacing it with other protein sources is not good for your body. I can’t stress the importance of eating protein enough, even if you aren’t trying to build muscle. It is still has an important role in replenishing and repairing your body’s cells. If you are a vegetarian and you don’t eat enough protein, chances are you are not healthy. The chances that you have flaky nails, brittle hair, dry/dull skin or you get sick or tired all the time are pretty high too. These are NOT signs of good health. These are signs of deficiencies.
Being a vegetarian is hard work. It is not simply cutting out meat. It requires the careful management of foods to meet your macronutrient requirements, when there are restricted options for you to choose from. I honestly believe it took me 5 years to perfect my vegetarian diet to the point I no longer got sick all the time. Even still, my flaky nails didn’t go away until I started eating meat several times a day. If you are a vegetarian or vegan and you’re meeting your protein requirements and living healthily then I commend you – it really is hard.
What I’ve shared in this post is just my personal experience. I know there are several bodybuilders out there who promote that they have achieved their physique on a vegetarian or vegan diet. I think what they’ve done is amazing -but they are the minority. Being naturally petite, I don’t think I could have achieved the body composition I have today (or the physique I am still striving to achieve) if I had remained vegetarian. No matter how hard I trained and how much I ate, I was only able to see significant increases in muscle tone after introducing meat.
I don’t discourage the vegetarian or vegan diet, but it is important to do it properly by monitoring your protein and other nutrients. And depending on your goals, it may be the one thing getting in the way of you achieving them. It certainly was for me.
Note: Any negative comments on vegetarians or meat eaters will not be approved – this is a positive space. However if you have any questions, feel free to get in contact with me 🙂