Q: How do you supplement your strength training with protein with a decreased consumption of meat? I tried to go vegetarian once and my strength gains deteriorated rapidly.
A: I’d expect that to happen because protein – something that meat is chock full of – is a key component of muscle building. Cut your protein intake, and you cut your muscle developing abilities. It’s that simple.
In my mind, the more items you cut from your daily intake, the more cognizant you have to be of your nutrition. It’s just that simple. Know what you’re cutting out, and create a plan for making sure you can replace it adequately.
Today, that “something” is protein.
Realistically speaking, considering the amount of meat and animal byproduct most of us eat every day, most of us get far too much protein in our diets. There are a lot of blanket statements about how much is best (“about 1g for every kg you weigh, so for a 150lb person, 75g of protein” or “about 1g for every pound you weigh” or “15% of your caloric intake”) but you just have to keep testing out what works best for you and what’ll keep you going for your particular goals. It seems like it might be tough because you’d think that, as strength trainers, we’d want all the muscle builders we can get. However, with protein also comes calories and since we have to be mindful of caloric intake, we also have to make sure that we’re not eating an excess. An excess of anything is an issue for us.
Animal and animal byproduct has long been a source of protein for humans. It’s in the eggs. It’s in the milk. It’s in the cheese. It’s in the muscle meat. It’s in the organs. It’s in all of it. While there are plenty other sources of protein, we tend to rely the most upon lean meats. It’s a place where you can get protein with little fat, little carbohydrates… little anything else, really. That’s what’s made it so ideal for those of us who are strength trainers – a protein source with little fat and a controlled calorie count? Pfft – a lean steak or chicken breast makes you happy.
But what happens when you decide to start cutting the meat? Reasoning for your decision aside, you have to keep in mind the amount of meat you were taking in, the amount of protein that meat provided you and a plan of action for replacing it. Lucky for you, this is easy peasy.
First… protein is in practically everything. No, look:
The nuts you eat? Protein. The seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, flax, hemp) you chomp? Protein. There’s protein in the fruits you scarf down. There’s protein in the veggies you steam, saute and grill. So while you might be cutting out a big source of protein via meat, you’re not completely down for the count.
I’m a bean eater. I mean, it’s just my thing. Kidney beans, black beans, navy beans, chickpeas, black eyed peas… I like my beans. They’re also full of protein. I mean, I stuff my vegetarian (or vegan) dinners with beans, and all is well on my plate. The average half-cup of black beans alone has at least 6 grams of protein in the cup, and also has a load of fiber, too. (“Beans, beans, the musical fruit…”)
I’m also a big broccoli fan. There’s just something sweet in the bite of a broccoli stalk… and I could easily – easily – eat a cup or two of it in one sitting, with a little garlic and ginger. That, alone, is about 4 grams of broccoli per cup.
There’s protein in peanut butter: 8g for every 2 tablespoons. There’s protein in bananas: 1g. It’s everywhere.
I keep saying that because it needs to be understood – vegetarians and vegans? They can get their protein just fine. There’s also soy protein and protein powders, but…. I don’t have any experience with those.
These are small amounts compared to the amount of protein in a chicken breast – 47g – but if you are compelled to forego that for private reasons (none of which I care to judge), then you make a way.
How do you build a plate without meat or animal byproduct, though? Easy. The same way you make a space for meat protein on your plate, you make a space for non-meat protein. Making stir-fry? Add some mushrooms and peanuts or sesame seeds! Making a salad? Add some pumpkin seeds or walnuts to it! Snack on an almond/cranberry blend during the day. Eat oatmeal for breakfast. Scarf down some quinoa mixed with fruits for lunch. Lots of different clean options, here. You’ve just got to be creative in how you handle them.
Now, it’s easier if you’re eating animal by-products and not animal meat, because you can get in your protein through yogurt, cheeses or eggs. You can top a salad with cheese or eat a cheese and nut blend for a snack. I mean, really… there’s so much that you can do, here. You just have to get creative with it, and strangely enough, that makes it that much more fun.
That being said, here are a few resources to help you learn about the protein content of some non-meat sources to help you plan accordingly if you plan to convert away from eating meat.
- Protein In The Vegan Diet
- Protein: How Much Should You Eat? (Harvard School of Public Health)
- Northwestern University Protein Fact Sheet
- Vegetarian Protein Sources: Getting Enough Protein
- Where Do Vegans Get Their Protein?
- On Complete and Incomplete Protein Sources