Eat meat to get the most out of your training and build muscle. Avoid limiting protein and nutrient intake with a vegetarian diet because vegetarianism is linked to malnutrition, significantly less lean muscle mass, and heart disease risk. Concerns of malnutrition from a vegetarian diet have been building in the scientific community because a plant-based diet does not provide certain nutrients in adequate quantities such as taurine, carnitine, creatine, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and other antioxidants.
A new study in the journal Nutrition compared a traditional vegetarian diet with a omnivorous diet in two populations in Africa. Researchers wanted to analyze the nutrition status of vegetarians who didn’t supplement with other nutrients or take medications. The most significant finding from the study was that the vegetarian group had significantly less muscle mass than the normal diet group and their serum amino acid levels indicated they were suffering form protein malnutrition.
The vegetarians had much higher levels of the amino acid homocysteine than the omnivores which is important because high levels of this nutrient can lead to cardiovascular disease risk and neurodegenerative disease. Called hyperhomocysteinemia, persistently high homocysteine levels have been associated with greater stroke risk, a hardening of the arteries and heart disease. In addition, the vegetarian group had much lower glutathione and taurine levels, both of which are linked to decreased lean muscle mass and protein malnutrition.
Taurine is an extremely important nutrient for health and well being because it plays a role in modulating neurotransmitter production. A taurine deficiency, which is a well known problem for vegetarians, will lead to higher levels of anxiety, stress, and unhappiness. One of the worst things about nutrient deficiencies associated with the vegetarian diet is the lack of taurine, which makes vegetarians very anxious.
Researchers note that the long-term health outcomes of protein malnutrition and nutrient deficiencies are not completely understood. It is clear that lean body mass will be lower in vegetarians with low protein intake and deficiencies will be present that can put individuals at greater risk for stroke and heart disease. Low energy and poor neurotransmitter status may also complicate the health of vegetarians. A previous study that looked at nutrient levels in vegetarian children found that they were deficient in vitamin E and their vitamin D levels were three times lower than recommended. Also, total antioxidant levels were lower than a meat eating group. This study did not measure protein status.
Take away from these studies the understanding that to get the most out of your hard training, a diet that includes a variety of meat is ideal to build and maintain muscle. An assortment of meat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, along with strategic supplementation, will allow you to avoid nutrient deficiencies that will hold you back in the gym. You’ll avoid low energy levels and protect your health for the future.
Ingenbleek, Y., McCully, K. Vegetarianism Produces Subclinical Malnutrition, Hyperhomocysteinemia, and atherogenesis. Nutrition. 2012. 28, 148-153.
Laskowska, T., Chelchowska, M., et al. The Effect of Vegetarian Diet on Selected Essential Nutrients in Children. Medycynia Wieku Rozwojowejo. 2011. 15(3 Pt 1), 318-325.