Ask for advice about hitting the gym, and you’re likely to hear a common refrain: make sure you’re getting enough protein. If you’re trying to build up your muscle mass and gain weight quickly, protein is an essential thing.
But what happens if the most common source of protein — meat, poultry and fish — aren’t an option? Millions of people around the world follow a vegetarian diet, forgoing animal protein sources in favour of plant or alternative options.
Whether you’re eschewing meat for personal, moral, religious or dietary reasons, it’s a growing phenomenon, and it’s only getting more prevalent.
If you’re trying to gain weight fast, however, a vegetarian diet is a limitation. Vegetarian bodybuilders in particular have to be pretty careful with their diet.
So how do you gain weight as a vegetarian? It’s possible, but only if you avoid these common pitfalls.
Here are a few simple ways to up your calories, get your protein, and put on weight quickly with a vegetarian diet.
The Vegetarian Bodybuilding Diet
Let’s be clear: the people who say you need protein when you’re working out? They’re not wrong. It’s a key dietary ingredient and your body needs it to function, whether you’re exercising or not. When you’re hitting the gym, your body needs to repair tissue, which means extra protein is a must.
The most common pitfall of the vegetarian diet is not getting enough protein, or having an inadequate source. Your protein source has to be complete, meaning that it contains all of the amino acids necessary for body upkeep, not just a handful of them.
How much do I need per day?
That’s a tricky question, because it entirely depends upon your activity level. The average male will need about 25% of daily calories to come from protein, or about 56 grams per day. An adult woman requires a bit less, around 46 grams of protein per day.
However, that’s based on an average activity level. If you’re working out regularly, you can safely double those totals.
Plenty of skinny vegetarians wonder why they aren’t gaining any weight, and the reason is often that they’re coming up short on their protein.
Complete Protein Sources for Vegetarians
So what kind of stuff should a vegetarian bodybuilder include in their diet? There are a ton of viable options out there. Here are a couple of the popular choices.
- If you’re an ovo-lacto vegetarian and are willing to eat eggs and milk products, then eggs are a fantastic, complete protein source. They’re also pretty affordable too, which is a bonus. The average egg contains about 8 grams of protein, so they’re a pretty convenient booster. They also have a lot of saturated fat, so I wouldn’t make them your primary staple.
- Soy beans are a particularly rich protein source. They contain all the amino acids your body needs, so they’re a complete protein. They’re also remarkably affordable, and they’re easy to prepare. I particularly enjoy edamame, and it’s a quick dish that’s a perfect post-workout snack. If you’re not big on soybeans or tofu, try tempeh; it’s a meat-like soy-based food that’s really good in a stir fry.
- Quinoa is a delicious and popular grain that’s recently been identified as a complete protein. It’s pretty easy to prepare and not very expensive. I like to use it like any grain, and it’s perfect as the base of a stir fry or a good curry. Give quinoa a try and see how you like it.
Incomplete Protein Combinations
Did you know that you can combine two or more incomplete proteins and make it a complete source? This is a great way to make sure you’re getting the full retinue of amino acids that your body craves.
Here are a few examples of easy, tasty combinations that can be helpful to a vegetarian trying to gain weight.
- You can combine cheese with most grains to create a complete protein. This is one of the most common ways to make sure you get the nutrition you need. It’s pretty easy to do. For example, pasta and cheese combine to make a complete protein. Don’t just stop there. You can combine most dairy products with most grains to do the job. Oatmeal and yogurt together is a full protein as well.
- Try mixing together a legume along with a whole grain for a tasty and simple complete protein source. My favourite way to do this is to make a rice and bean burrito! This combination gives you an enormous number of choices and options well beyond just beans and rice, so if you’re trying to gain weight using a vegetarian bodybuilding diet, this is one to take a close look at.
Vegetarian Protein Powders:
There are a few vegetarian friendly protein powders that can really help with the bodybuilding diet. Please keep in mind that vegetarian and vegan are very different, and most powders that are meat free are only good for ovo-lacto diets, not for vegans or those who are strictly plant matter based. Read the description carefully and analyze the ingredients.
If you do go for a vegetarian protein powder supplement or mass gainer, be sure that it’s got the amino acids necessary to constitute a complete protein. Most of them do, but it’s worth checking into.
Plant Fusion has a good line of protein powders derived from plant based sources, and they blend really nicely in a smoothie or shake.
There are a few others that blend well and taste pretty good too, try things out and find one that suits your lifestyle.
Carbohydrates & Fats: Gaining Weight on a Vegetarian Diet
There are other factors beyond protein. When it comes to carbohydrates and fats, you’re not quite as limited.
Even so, many foods use animal-based products. Things such as gravy, broth and even cooking oil are often derived from animal fat, and therefore off limits to vegetarians (be careful at restaurants, they’re not always forthcoming with this kind of stuff).
In most ways, gaining mass quickly on a vegetarian diet requires the same kind of discipline as any other weight gain regimen. You need to exceed your body’s daily calorie requirement by about 500 calories per day if you want to see a modest increase in mass over a short time frame.
I’ve written an article already on healthy foods to gain weight quickly, and most of the ideas and nutritional supplements are vegetarian friendly. I won’t go repeating myself unnecessarily, so please navigate to that article for some quick calorie boosters to increase your body mass in a short period of time.
I have a few quick tips to help pack on weight with a veggie diet.
- Make a list of foods that are rich in calories and meat free. Make sure this is food you love. Bring that list with you every time you go grocery shopping. Having foods on hand that you can eat AND that you love will ensure you eat regularly.
- Have vegetarian friendly snacks on hand that you can easily prepare, pack and grab. If you’re going to meet your friends at Earl’s Steak Shack, you’ll have something to eat.
- Ironically, ‘veggies’ are not very calorie rich, at least not things like celery or lettuce. A garden salad won’t do much to pack on pounds. Make sure that each meal includes energy dense foods. Yams, avocados, rice, things like that.
Supplements, Vitamins & Calorie Boosters
I highly recommend augmenting your diet with a few supplements and meal boosters. Think of it like this: you’re saving money by NOT eating meat, spend it on augmenting your diet!
Energy bars are great snacks for in between meals. Clif Bars, for example, are a delicious, vegetarian friendly booster with about 230 calories per bar. Great for a post workout snack.
I’d also recommend getting a reputable multivitamin to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients your body requires. Vegetarians can often suffer from deficiencies which lead to illness and lethargy, like anemia. A multivitamin is no substitute for a varied and balanced diet, but it can help with energy level and appetite.
As mentioned earlier, investing in a mass gainer powder and regularly adding a protein shake or two to your routine can make an impressive difference, pushing you over the top.
I hope this article has been helpful. Please feel free to respond with questions, comments or your own story. Thanks for reading!
Sources and References:
“Protein”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
“Complete Protein Foods”, New Health Guide
“Chow Line: ‘Mother grain’ quinoa a complete protein”, Ohio State University, OARDC
“Iron in the Vegan Diet”, Reed Mangels, The Vegetarian Resource Group