The Ripped Vegetarian

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“You’re a vegetarian? So where do you get your protein from?”

Those two sentences are ones that vegetarians never stop hearing—particularly the top athletes. Most people can’t believe athletes get enough protein just from vegetables and other non-meat products, but many do. Boston’s Robert Parrish was a vegetarian, as was Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis. And European readers might already know that soccer legend Stanley Matthews was a vegetarian (he played professional soccer until he was 50). These guys must have been doing something right.
 
At the outset, we’ll settle for letting everyone know that the benefits of vegetarianism can outweigh many perceived negatives—specially for athletes. Studies show vegetarians are at lower risk for heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer. More anecdotally, many athletes report feeling leaner, and quicker both mentally and physically, once meat has been cut out.
 

 

Photo: Wolfgang Lonien/Creative Commons

How much protein do you really need?
56 grams for most adult men. That’s not just according to us, but according to the FDA. Most adult males need more than 50 grams of protein per day, with more for larger people, or athletes. Protein is the building block of muscle, so people looking to bulk up definitely need to be conscious of their protein intake. However you must remember that protein that the body doesn’t use becomes glucose, which the body then turns into fat.

Carnivores vs herbivores
We can’t lie to your face and say vegetarianism is conclusively better than meat eating. One ribeye steak has a staggering 70 grams of protein, blowing away most anything vegetarians have to offer. It’s hard to deny that meat has advantages, especially for athletes. But vegetarian muscle gain is still possible.

How Much Protein Is In This?
However, you remember that 56 grams? It’s easy to get to. How easy? Well, one cup of chickpeas is about 40 grams of protein. One block of tofu? About another 10. How about in a bunch of broccoli? 17 grams. That is a lot of protein, not even counting protein drinks, Tofurkey and other fake meats which are often cited as heavy sources of vegetarian protein.

Shouldn’t everyone be vegetarian then?
Not really. Though it’s not exactly a barren wasteland of malnourished hippies, vegetarianism takes commitment, and effort. Also remember that we don’t all live in San Francisco. A reporter or soldier embedded in Iraq probably won’t be able to dash to the supermarket to get some tempeh.

And though studies have linked vegetarianism to lower rates of heart disease and cancer, some vegetarians say it’s probably because they pay more attention to their diet, now that they’re off the meat. The awareness about their diets may be influencing results. Bottom line is, if your doctor gives you the okay, and you think it’s something you want to do, go ahead and do it. But remember it’s not some miracle diet to healthiness—it’s just a healthy start.

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