No meat muscle: Vegetarianism and fitness

No meat muscle - vegetarianism and fitness

But what about bacon? You can’t build muscle without meat? But where do you get your protein?

You open pretty much any mainstream fitness based magazine and you see rippling bodies, bulging biceps, road map veins and along with this you’ll get J Cutler’s cutting nutrition plan or Phil Heath’s bulking nutrition guide and the foundation of these plans are fundamentally built around high protein consumption every meal from meat and protein powders.

I remember the first time I ever opened one of these magazines as a young lad wanting to look like the action movie stars Arnold or Stallone and thought wow if I eat like these guys and train like these guys then I will look like that too. Well this is partly true, if you hit the weights 3-4 times a week, use progressive overload, a periodized training program and then nourish your body with sufficient protein for muscle protein synthesis and carbohydrate to replenish glycogen stores, then with patience and consistency you too can start to transform your body.

 “As a vegetarian if you give your body the appropriate stimulus for your chosen goal or activity and fuel your body with the right combination of nutrients then you will succeed and even excel”.

Optimising vegetarian nutrition

Optimising vegetarian nutrition for health, fitness and performance doesn’t have to be difficult and the fundamentals of this chosen diet, weather for ethics, health, or the fact you just don’t like meat are exactly the same and it all comes down to the quality and correct quantity of macro nutrients (proteins, fats, carbs, fibre) that you consume to meet the requirements of your body type.

My current macro nutrient split looks something like this:

  • Carbohydrate 45%
  • Fat 25%
  • Protein 30%

This is the split I personally feel best on in terms of satiety, strength and general wellbeing, but remember these can be manipulated to suit you and your chosen goals.   

Being vegetarian your main concern is finding non-meat based protein sources, so let’s look at protein the foundation of any nutrition plan. Protein is made up of 21 amino acids, 12 of which are produced by your body and 9 called EAA’s (essential amino acids) that we need to get from food and they are as follows:

  1. Histidine (His)
  2. Isoleucine (Ile)
  3. Leucine (Leu)
  4. Lysine (Lys)
  5. Methionine (Met)
  6. Phenylalanine (Phe)
  7. Threonine (Thr)
  8. Tryptophan (Trp)
  9. Valine (Val)

A complete protein is a protein that contains all 9 of these essential amino acids.

The main sources that offer complete proteins are red meats like steak, poultry like chicken or turkey, seafood, eggs and dairy. As a vegetarian, your focus is obviously non-meat protein so sources from eggs of various types and dairy products like Greek yogurt, milk and cheese but let’s also not forget about non-animal sources that offer complete proteins such as soy beans, mysoprotein (Quorn, mushroom based vegetarian meat alternative), hemp seed, buckwheat, blue green algae (spirulina) and quinoa. (I bloody love quinoa).

Incomplete proteins are exactly how they sound, they are proteins that don’t contain all 9 essential amino acids, or don’t have sufficient quantities of them to meet the body’s needs and requirements and must combined or supplemented with other incomplete proteins. These include, nuts & seeds, legumes, grains and vegetables.

Just because these foods are incomplete doesn’t make them inferior and they shouldn’t be overlooked in any nutrition plan, they just need to be combined to provide the right balance of essential amino acids (EAA’s). Proteins that in combination make a complete amino acid profile are known as complementary proteins. If you remember the phrase “A grain, a green and a bean then it is a pretty safe bet you are getting a combination of all the protein you need.

A few awesome partnerships are: 

  • Rice, beans and broccoli
  • Mixed Spinach salad with almonds
  • Hummus and whole-grain bread

Complementary proteins don’t necessarily always need to be consumed together, but since your body doesn’t store amino acids for later use in protein construction, they should be enjoyed throughout a day’s meals. Variety is key and I like to make sure my plate has all the colours of the rainbow whenever possible, this makes me confident I’m getting all of the nutrients I need.


When embarking on a vegetarian diet and also training hard to make gains with your chosen goal or activity it may also be an option to look at supplementation if at all concerned, to fill in any gaps in your nutrition and to maximise your efforts, but do remember that proper and well thought out nutrition is key for health before giving over your hard earnt cash for powders and potions. Having said that there are a few supplements I like to take daily, even though I’m a culinary Jedi I like to have my bases covered.

“Remember, you get what you pay for when it comes to supplements, so like your food choices always look for quality products when and if you need them, and if you can budget for them".

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As a non-meat eater, it is a little harder to get a small number of micro nutrients (vitamins and minerals) from eggs, dairy or plant based foods that would be in higher quantities in meat such as iron, vitamin D and B12 so as well as adding nutritional yeast or Marmite to my food that contains vit B12 for a healthy nervous system and blood cells I take a multi vitamin from the vegan society to take care of the rest. You can also get fortified cereals and soya products with added B12.

 I also take additional vitamin D3(about 3000IU) in the colder months of say early October to April as our body creates vitamin D from direct sunlight on our skin when we are outdoors and the weather in England around this time is questionable to say the least. From about late March/early April to the end of September, most of us should be able to get all the vitamin D we need from sunlight. Vitamin D is responsible for the production of healthy teeth and bones, also can be used to great effect with certain skin conditions such as eczema which I have found with some clients is due to having indoor office based jobs where exposure to direct sunlight is limited all year around.

Whey Protein powders

If your body tolerates products made from or containing milk, then whey protein powders can be a great addition to an active person’s regime as they are convenient pre-and post-exercise and contain around 30-40 grams of complete protein which is the amount we generally look to consume when creating a standard real food meal. They are also great as a snack between meals and you can add other food to them like fruit and nut butters to bulk them out and increase the nutritional value.

Plant Based protein powders

I personally sway towards plant based powders post workout as my body doesn’t deal well with milk products and the market has some great products for you to choose from in the form of pea protein, hemp, soya, brown rice and new to the market you can now get quinoa protein powders.

Some people have trouble breaking down the sugars in dairy and may be better off with a vegan blend. If you experience discomfort and are using a lot of whey based protein products maybe try switching for a bit.

BCAA (Branched chain amino acid) powders

I really like BCCA powders as they contain Leucine, Iso leucine, and Valine which are the three main amino acids responsible for muscle protein synthesis. I take them intra strength training session and before bed to maximise recovery and muscle growth. They are great on a calorie restricted diet for example when cutting body fat as they will limit muscle loss and again help maximise recovery.

EAA’s (essential amino acids)

Like I spoke about earlier in the article EAA’s are the 9 essentials amino acids that the body can’t produce by its self and you can only get from real food or supplementation. I like to keep these in the back of the cupboard if my meal prepping has gone out of the window because of a hectic work schedule and even though you should never rely on these in place of food it is a great way to cover all bases if life gets in the way.


Magnesium is responsible for over 300 enzyme systems in the human body that regulate biochemical reactions, including muscle and nerve function, protein synthesis, blood glucose control, blood pressure regulation and energy production. There are many different types magnesium supplements on the market such as oxide, citrate, lactate and even bath salts to absorb magnesium transdermally. Even though foods such as Almonds, Spinach, Cashews, Peanuts, Soymilk, Black beans, Edamame, Peanut butter and whole wheat bread to name a few contain good amounts the UK's Food Standards Agency estimates that the average daily intake of magnesium in Britain for both men and women is just 227mgs - only two thirds of the US recommended daily amount (RDA). So, if you train with intensity in any sport it’s wise to add a quality magnesium supplement to your daily regime. My go to is Magnesium glycinate 450mg as it doesn’t cause me any gastro intestinal destress like other types can potentially cause and is combined with the non-essential amino acid glycine helping it be more easily absorb in to the cells. 

Omega 3 and 6

Omega 3 and omega 6 are two fats crucial human health and body function and deliver some huge benefits such as brain function and normal growth and development. As a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA), omega-6s help stimulate skin and hair growth, maintain bone health, regulate metabolism, and maintain the reproductive system. They are primarily found in certain fish and meats but other omega fatty acids are found in plant sources such as nut and seed derivatives such Flaxseed oil (flaxseed oil has the highest linolenic content of any food), flaxseeds, hempseed oil, hempseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, avocado, certain dark green leafy vegetables, spinach, mustard greens and collards like broccoli, kale and cabbage. Again, if you haven’t got your nutrition 100% dialled in then the BDA (British dietitian’s association) recommend doses of around 450mg for adults. 

“real food in a vegetarian’s diet will always be number one for health and fitness over supplements but they can be a great addition to maximise your potential and recovery”.

So, with all this information in mind what can we take away and implement in to a vegetarian based diet to optimise health, fitness and performance


Now we know which vegetarian foods are high in complete protein like eggs, dairy, soy and Quorn based products, try to get around 30-40g of protein each meal. For example, if your protein intake for the day is 120g then you are looking at around 3 – 4 meals containing 30-40 grams.


When training hard in any sport or activity make sure that you get enough calories from a large variety of foods so not to sabotage your progress as the body will potentially turn to protein for fuel and then you’ll wonder why all this hard work and training is getting you nowhere (like I stated earlier, try to get all the colours of the rainbow in each meal)

Consume Plenty of Fruits and Vegetables

Be sure that you are consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables. These are going to supply you with a quality source of nutrients as well as all the antioxidant protection. This should be easy for a vegetarian but, of course, there are junk food veggies who actually eat very little in the way of fresh fruit and veg.


Real food in a vegetarian’s diet will always be number one for health and fitness over supplements but they can be a great addition to maximise your potential and recovery. If you do decide that you would like to add supplement for health, training or recovery choose quality, well known and tested brands. You may want to look on the Vegan society website as it has a great range of certified product that don’t use gelatine in the casing of tablet based supplement. Gelatine is a yellowish, odourless, and nearly tasteless substance that is made by prolonged boiling of skin, cartilage, and bones from animals.


 The foundation of your nutrition should be based around optimising health and then optimised to match your goals or sport. Taking this in to account there is no reason you can’t succeed and even excel as a vegetarian that trains or competes at any level.

“Train hard, nourish the body, be awesome”.

Blog originally by Ben Adkin