There are more than seven million vegetarians in America, and over half of them have chosen their diet for health reasons. Research backs up that choice. Eating meatless lowers your risk of a host of chronic health conditions, including cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney stones, gallstones, osteoporosis and asthma. Vegetarians also tend to weigh less than meat eaters.
For strength building, however, a vegetarian diet isn’t always an inherent advantage—and neither is weighing less than a meat eater. Fortunately, there are many high-quality sources of muscle-building protein available to vegetarians, ranging from dairy and eggs to completely plant-based foods.
Protein, along with the essential amino acids that it contains, are the compounds necessary for building, repairing and maintaining lean muscle mass. Most Americans get more than double the amount they need. However, vegetarians typically get less protein than meat eaters—and vegetarians who are trying to build muscle need more than the minimum amount of protein recommended for good health. That amount may differ from person to person, but it ranges from 0.6 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of your body weight per day.
Here are some of the highest-quality sources of protein for a vegetarian diet:
• Eggs contain all essential amino acids, as well as healthy fats.
• Dairy products like milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products offer bone-strengthening calcium, as well as protein with all essential amino acids.
• Soy-based foods, such as tofu and edamame, are among the few plant-based foods that also provide all essential amino acids.
• Beans and legumes are rich in dietary fiber as well as protein.
• Whole grains contain smaller amounts of protein per serving, but many are also good sources of dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates.
• Nuts and seeds offer filling, healthy fats and protein in small servings.
Supplements, such as whey protein powder, can also help vegans and vegetarians build muscle. In fact, even previously trained athletes who add protein powder to their diets can expect to make gains in lean muscle mass, strength and power. In general, however, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends that you consume your protein through eating healthy, balanced meals rather than via supplements.
As a final note, keep in mind that muscles are built in the gym as well as in the kitchen. Eating plenty of high-quality, meatless protein is important, but the calories from that protein will still become excess body fat if you aren’t consistently resistance-training and challenging those muscles you’re building.