Vegetarian Lifestyles

Fitness Expert Phil Kaplan discusses how vegetarians can find supportive nutrition in line with optimal fitness and body composition.

The following is excerpted from "The Best You've Ever Been."

I teach people to eat supportively and exercise to boost metabolism, shed fat, and reshape their bodies. Can you do this as a vegetarian? Sure. It's just that I see many people who begin a road toward vegetarianism embark upon a path of restriction and avoidance without learning to replace those nutrients that are being removed. First they give up red meat. They start to feel a little better so they decide to back off on chicken. Fish is next to go. By the time they begin cutting back on dairy products, if they have failed to find alternative sources for proteins, iron, calcium, etc., they run some nutritional risks.

I often meet vegetarians who, after crossing foods off of their "acceptable" list, are left eating small salads and fruits. They sometimes come in to my office telling me they have fibromyalgia, or in other cases chronic fatigue syndrome. In most of those cases, when I can get them to put back the valuable nutrients they've deprived themselves of, their symptoms disappear. Based on all those cases, I can only assume that many of these people were misdiagnosed and were simply suffering nutrient needs.

If you want optimal results in terms of muscle gain you have to be a bit more educated in nutrition than someone who is relying in part upon animal based foods for proteins.

I've heard vegetable based foods called incomplete proteins. That might not be an accurate label, as they do in fact have all of the amino acids necessary for cell growth. It's just that when you look at human muscle tissue at a molecular level, there is a very specific ratio of amino acids. Consume an egg and you're coming pretty close to those ratios. In vegetable foods the amino acids are doled out in different proportions thus the proteins are not going to be as efficient in the process of converting into human tissue.

As far as vegetable proteins go, soy leads the list in terms of its "human tissue potential" based upon its amino acids structure. You can also find valuable proteins in nuts and nut butters (although most are relatively high in fat).

If, as a vegetarian, you're open to including some dairy foods and/or eggs (lacto ovo vegetarians), it becomes simpler to keep protein intake supportive. A protein powder or meal replacement made from a mix of whey and egg protein can be an extremely valuable aid if muscle and metabolism are going to be maintained or increased. Vegans, those who avoid any and all foods that come from an animal source, have to go the next step in nutritional awareness.

There are some plant based foods that are complementary in their amino acid content and eating such foods together gives you a far more efficient blend of amino acids in terms of building human tissue. Here are some examples:

  • Cereal (whole grain) + milk

  • Pasta + cheese

  • Whole grain bread + cheese

  • Black beans + brown rice

  • Pita + split pea soup

  • Corn tortillas + red or black beans

  • Peanuts + kidney beans

  • Chick peas + tahini (as in hummus)

  • Tofu + sesame seeds

I find people adopt a vegetarian lifestyle for one of two reasons. They either do it for health reasons or for moral and ethical reasons. I commend anybody who makes a commitment toward health or ethics. I just believe it's important to learn to recognize the complexities of nutrition and to learn enough so a vegetarian lifestyle includes nutrient complete meals providing vitamins, minerals, and proteins for optimal health and performance.

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