Could a vegetarian diet work as well as a non-vegetarian one in providing proteins and amino acids necessary to power muscles?

Are you thinking of going vegetarian like those millions across the globe, but with doubts about whether a vegetarian diet can build your body and power your muscles, the way a non-vegetarian diet does? Relax. Nutritionists assure that a vegetarian diet is never a limiting factor when it comes to growing strong, tall or building muscles.

“It is possible to achieve maximum growth through a vegetarian diet. And yes, we can strengthen our muscles too. But to achieve this, apart from diet, exercise is a must,” says Dr. Bhuvaneshwari Shankar, Chief Dietician, Apollo Hospitals Group. The key is to ensure that a variety of vegetarian foods is consumed.

Ensuring variety

A crucial fact that must be understood is that our bodies can synthesise some of the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) we need, from other amino acids that we acquire through food. The rest of the amino acids — isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine and histidine — can't be synthesised by the body and need to be acquired directly from the food we eat, and are termed ‘essential' amino acids.

Yes, most vegetarian protein sources are not complete protein sources, as they don't have all the essential amino acids present in the right proportion. But, vegetarian food can still give all the essential amino acids, provided a wide variety of foods that includes grains (wheat, rice, millets, oats, pulses), legumes (beans and lentils), nuts (especially groundnuts, almonds, walnuts and cashews), seeds (soya bean which is a very high quality protein source), and fruits and vegetables, is consumed. For instance, grains such as wheat and rice have low levels of the amino acid lysine, but this can be set right by complementing grains with legumes, as legumes have high levels of lysine. “For instance, if you are allergic to peanuts, you can still manage by eating other foods from the same food group,” says Dr. Nirmala Jesudason, consultant and head, food and nutrition, Frontier Lifeline. A dietician can help you work out a vegetarian diet that's ideal for growth, taking into account your food practices and choices. But, in general, traditional diet plans are a safe bet, as they the right proportion of various food groups have been arrived at over centuries.

Moreover, you don't have to get all your essential amino acids from every single meal, because, our body stores amino acids and uses them whenever needed. So eating a variety of foods over the course of the day can give you all the essential amino acids. Even vegetables and fruits do supply some protein. For instance, 49 per cent of the calories in spinach is protein, 11 per cent in potatoes, 15 per cent in oatmeal, 12 per cent in millets, 11 per cent in barley, 8 per cent in brown rice, 43 per cent in Tofu, 35 per cent in soy beans, 32 per cent in broad beans, 29 per cent in lentils, 21 per cent in pumpkin seeds, 18 per cent in peanuts, 13 per cent in sesame seeds, 13 per cent in almonds/cashews, 8 per cent in watermelon, and six per cent in papaya. So we don't really need meat. In fact, some scientists feel that too much protein, especially of animal origin, could lead to kidney stones, osteoporosis, and sometimes activates tumour growth.

Good choices

And, of course, milk and eggs, which are high protein foods, are good choices for body building, if you are a lacto- or an ovo-vegetarian. “If you are a vegan (a vegetarian who doesn't consume milk and milk products too), Vitamin B-12 deficiency could be a concern,” cautions Dr. Jesudason.

Remember, the human requirement for protein is 4.5-10 per cent of total calorie intake. To put it in perspective, breast milk, which is touted as the complete food for the growing baby, is 5 per cent protein! “Kids require much more protein than adults, especially since they are growing. The requirement of protein is almost double for a sportsperson, compared to a non-sportsperson. Of course, a lot depends on the kind of sport that is being pursued,” Dr. Bhuvaneshwari elaborates. Protein needs also vary with state of health, body type, pregnancy and lactation.

Finally, remember that it is not only protein that determines growth. It's important to ensure adequate calcium intake in order to build sturdy bones. While milk and its products are a great calcium source, green leafy vegetables, orange juice, etc, have some calcium content too.

Says Dr. R. Parthasarathy, general physician, “Almonds, a rich source of vitamin E, help prevent free-radical damage to muscles, and foster growth. Olive oil helps prevent muscle breakdown. And drink plenty of water, as protein synthesis occurs better in hydrated muscle cells than in dehydrated cells.”

RELATED NEWS

Chennai City ColumnsSeptember 24, 2010