Can Vegetarians Compete?

  by Michael Hermann

As a trainer I have been posed the question in the title of this article on numerous occasions. I thought it would wise to take a closer look to what it suggests and what implications it might have. I have previously been asked this question in regards to sports performance and health but most recently it has been first-hand from those wishing to compete in fitness shows and physique contests. It will be the latter which I will be addressing in this article and seeking  to give insights on how this question arises, what problems and challenges (real or misconceived) bring this notion about, and what can be achieved as a result of such circumstances presented. To give further clarity, I will foremost say what this article is NOT about. This article is not about carnivores vs vegetarians or the pros or cons of each respective group.
When someone asks me the question ‘can vegetarians compete?’, I question as to what reason they have doubts in regards to the matter. The number one response I get from those asking is in regards to the nature of protein and its more limited availability to the vegetarian. Protein has a large number of roles in our bodies but its qualities unique to this discussion are its effects on promoting recovery (particularly in activities of strenuous high intensity), its increased ability to promote satiety and greater Thermic effect (i.e. protein uses more of the body’s energy for digestion, absorption, and distribution of nutrients) compared to other macronutrients such as dietary fats.
The richest and most digestible protein sources tend to come from animal sources.  The gold standard of measuring protein digestibility is a method called Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PCDAAS) which evaluates protein quality based on both the amino acid requirements of humans and their ability to digest it. . As the table below illustrates, protein from animal sources have higher PCDAA scores compared to their vegetarian counterparts.

Table 1: Protein Sources and Evaluation of Protein Quality (PCDAAS) of selected Proteins

Protein Source Digestibility (PCDAAS)
Egg White 1.00
Milk Protein (casein) 1.00
Tuna 1.00
Beef 0.92
Soy 0.91
Chickpeas 0.78
Peas 0.71
Kidney Beans 0.68
Lentils 0.53

 

Not only are there more options for the meat-eater when it comes to sourcing protein, the digestibility of the protein from animal sources is higher than that of plant-based foods.

Common plant-based protein food sources often consumed by vegetarians (e.g. chickpeas and lentils) also contain less protein per gram in weight than animal sources:

100g Chickpeas = 6.5g protein

100g Tuna = 14g Protein

Plant-based proteins also have a limited amount of essential amino acids and often need to be combined with a variety of other plant-based proteins to ensure adequate intake and digestion of amino acids for protein synthesis.

Although vegetarians can certainly be lean and enjoy great health, is it possible for this group to be lean enough to compete with those onstage at fitness shows and physique competitions and still be competitive? I will answer this question with a case study of a vegetarian client named Anita. Although I had prepared a lot of people for physique competitions in the past, I had never been approached by a vegetarian (after all they do make up less than 5% of the Australian population). I saw Anita’s goal to compete in her first competition as a good challenge and an opportunity to test this notion. To give you some background, Anita first approached me with the goal of getting leaner – she was originally at 21.3% body fat. After viewing her food and training journal I definitely knew I could help her get leaner. How much leaner? This was the question I was going to find out.

What Anita & her Food Journal looked like in:

Week 1
Anita's Food Journal
 

January 18th 2013 – 21.3% Body fat
 

Monday 21/1/13

 

Pre-breakfast Water +  juice of ½ lemonFloradix (iron supplement), krill and fish oil, multivitamin
Breakfast Omelette : 1 egg + ½ cup egg whites½ cup grilled zucchini + capsicum
Morning tea 8 dried apricots1 tsp peanut butter
Lunch 1 cup salad leaves, ½ cup tomato + capsicum½ cup chickpeas1/8 sml avocado20g low fat feta, balsamic
Afternoon tea ½ cup celery + carrot with hommus½ cup watermelon
Dinner 2 cups steamed veg – carrot, beans, cauliflower, broccoli, zucchini100g tempeh, low salt soy
Dessert 1 serve hot chocolate3 Prunes

The greatest limiting factor in Anita’s diet was her protein intake. In order for her to get leaner I needed to triple this over time. Most protein intake recommendations for the general population are too low – 0.8g per kg of body mass. These recommendations are to avoid protein deficiency but do not reflect optimal levels or what is required for someone engaging in intense resistance training 3-4 times per week (such as Anita).  Through research and experience I have found that 1.0 – 1.2g per pound of lean mass to be the most effective for someone with Anita’s goals. 

 

It was our aim to gradually increase Anita’s protein in small amounts as her strength and training loads gradually increased each week. I have found this approach to be a lot more effective then sudden or drastic changes. Habits can be formed and solidified while the body is given adequate time to adapt to the nutritional changes both physically and psychologically. Vegetable intake also needed to increase slightly and would help with the new protein requirements. Fat and carbohydrate intake was a smaller issue at this stage and would be dealt with in later weeks.

 

 

What Anita ‘s Food Journal looked like in:

Week 9

Monday 11/3/13

 

Pre-breakfast Water +  juice of ½ lemonFloradix (iron supplement), multivitamin, 1 x krill and fish oil, 2 x fish oil
Breakfast Omelette – 1 cup egg (1 whole egg + rest whites)½ cup mushrooms + onionHandful of spinach10g low fat cheese
Morning tea 1 scoops Whey Protein Isolate125g low fat cottage cheesePearGreen tea
Lunch 2 cups salad leaves, 1 cup tomato, capsicum, beetroot, sprouts1  cup cannellini beansBalsamic, basil15g almonds + walnuts
Afternoon tea 1 scoops Whey Protein Isolate½ cup carrot + snowpeas30g almonds + cashews + walnuts
Dinner 125g tofu2 cups wombok, carrot, broccoli, cabbage, shallotsChilli, ginger, garlic3 x fish oil
Dessert 125g no fat greek yoghurt¼ cup blueberries1 serve sugar-free hot chocolate¼ cup low fat soy milk

After 9 weeks Anita’s protein intake had improved substantially (more than doubled) and her measurements were a telling sign – 14% body fat. You may have noticed that a protein supplement was introduced – this proved to be helpful as I have found that vegetarians struggle to get adequate amounts from diet alone for the reasons stated earlier. It is important to note though, that wholefood options were considered and implemented first then supplementation not vice versa. 

Anita’s vegetable intake also improved aswell over the 9 weeks. An interesting note, Anita’s calorie amounts increased since week 1 but the composition of the calories is quite different now – a sign of the increased metabolic rate and the effects of intense resistance training. Alot of mainstream attention is devoted and often misdirected to the notion of just lowering calories to lose fat and to improve one’s physique. I wanted to create an environment that would burn calories and body fat whilst being sustainable long term.

Heading forward, we still aimed to increase protein gradually until optimal levels were reached and we were at our goal physique – sub 10% body fat and looking great.

 

 

What Anita ‘s Food Journal looked like in:

Week 18

Monday 13/5/13

 

 

Pre-breakfast Water +  juice of ½ lemonFloradix (iron supplement), multivitamin, 1 x krill and fish oil, 2 x fish oil
Breakfast Omelette – 1 cup egg (1 whole egg and rest whites)½ cup mushrooms + onion, handful spinach, parsley½ cup oats + cinnamon1 scoop WPI
Morning tea 1 scoop WPIApple15g almonds
Lunch 2 cups salad leaves, 1 cup capsicum + tomato + beetroot1 cup borlotti beans + chickpeas + butter beans, 2 HB egg whites80g sweet potatoBalsamic½ pomegranate
Afternoon tea 150g no fat greek yoghurt½ cup carrot + snowpeas + celery15g almonds¼ cup grapes
Dinner 1 scoop WPI125g tofu, ¼ cup egg whites2 cups carrot, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini3 x fish oil
Dessert 1 scoops WPI125g low fat cottage cheese

By week 18 we reached our goal protein intake of 1.2g per pound of lean body mass which was triple Anita’s amount from week 1. You may have noticed too that the variety of her foods and protein sources has increased since week 1 which has both positive physiological and psychological effects.  Vegetable intake and variety has also increased whilst cravings for any sweets or refined carbohydrates have been disappeared. Anita was well prepared to come in at a good body composition for the show. She was down to 11% body fat and had gained 1.8kg of muscle over the last 18 weeks 

 

 

Anita 2 weeks later:
Fitness Models
 

May 25th 2013  – Anita entered the fitness model and bikini divisions at 8.9% Body fat

It is important at this point not to discount what Anita achieved. She showed great discipline, consistency and tenacity to get to where she is. She has since competed in another 2 shows, getting 5th place in Queensland for one of her divisions. We are currently preparing for another show in 6 months time and we are looking for many more great moments to come and curious as to how far she can go.

Award
 

Although I’m not convinced to become a vegetarian myself, I am now convinced that vegetarians can get great results.

 

“Training with Michael has honestly been the best thing I have ever done for my fitness.  As a part time group fitness instructor I have always be relatively fit and healthy but I found myself in a bit of a rut and was unable to achieve the results I wanted. Since I started training with Michael I have achieved such great results that I never could have achieved on my own. I’m fitter, stronger, leaner, healthier and more confident. I feel like I am now an excellent role model for my class participants and I even recently competed in my first natural body building competition as a result of my training. Something I never could have dreamed of doing before.

 

Michael shows is very knowledgeable and takes a balanced approach to achieving results by paying particular attention to nutrition as well as training. I am a vegetarian and Michael has really helped to ensure I am getting the right balance of nutrients to achieve my individual, and changing, fitness goals.  Weekly nutritional goals and reviews of my diet definitely helped to keep me accountable and now those changes to my diet have become my lifestyle. I can’t believe how much clean, healthy food I can eat now and I’ve never felt better.  My training program is also varied regularly and I always look forward to seeing what’s in store for me at my next session.

 

Overall Michael shows a high level of motivation & commitment to helping me achieve my goals and has far exceeded the expectations I had when I originally signed up for personal training.  He provides an excellent level of support and is always willing to answer my questions (in person or via email & text) and give me that extra bit of encouragement to get me through any challenges I’m facing. I would highly recommend Michael to anyone and I look forward to continuing to train with him as I prepare for my next competition.”

 

–         Anita Ramage

 

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