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Fueling the Lean, Mean Vegetarian Machine

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Fueling the Lean, Mean Vegetarian Machine

Kyle Levers, MS, CSCS

Strength and power athletes are a unique athlete subset, which includes many different types of athletes and can span highly varied requirements for strength and power development.  The difference in strength and power requirements stems from different physiological, anatomical, biochemical, and energy system requirements by various sports.  However, all strength and power athletes rely on development of maximal force within the muscle (potentially at a high rate of velocity if referring to power).  They also primarily use both the phosphocreatine and glycolytic energy systems to derive energy for active movements and rely on the aerobic energy system primarily during recovery between movements. 

For maximal strength and power development, proper nutrition program must be used.  Strength and power athletes typically require greater quantities of calories throughout the day combined with higher quality protein. 

Athletes typically consume animal protein, rich in whey and casein. The vegetarian strength and power athlete, according to current research, can be just as successful as a non-vegetarian strength and power athlete if the overall caloric and protein macronutrient intakes are equalized.  However, a more detail and work must be put into the nutrition plan to ensure adequate protein intakes (from less common sources).  Two of the most common vegetarian regimes, with their protein sources, are Lacto-ovo vegetarians (Milk, eggs, soy, legumes, brown rice) and Vegans (Soy, legumes, brown rice).

Soy protein, according to the currently available research, has been proven to be just as good a protein source as whey and casein in promoting positive protein balance following resistance exercise as it is the only plant protein that is considered complete (full source of all essential amino acids).  Despite a decreased capacity to drive post-workout muscle protein synthesis compared to milk proteins due to lower leucine content, the additional antioxidant/anti-inflammatory benefits of the isoflavones contained within soy may provide a beneficial supplementation.  A great deal of research demonstrates that supplementation or frequent consumption of soy protein will not have any effect on male testosterone and/or estrogen hormone levels as once initially speculated.  However, certain other micronutrients need to be accounted for through supplementation, particularly in female vegetarians.  Iron supplementation is necessary to ensure proper maintenance of red blood cell hemoglobin concentrations (non-anemic) and also iron content within the electron transport chain.  Maintenance of proper oxidative system functioning in the strength and power athlete is paramount to both intra- and inter-workout recovery.  Vitamin B12 supplementation is also key in the health of red blood cell development.  Supplementation with both calcium and vitamin D is paramount to bone health, formation, and strength, particularly during strength and power influences.  Calcium is also a vital component to proper neuromuscular communication and muscular contraction.  Finally, zinc supplementation in vegetarian strength and power athletes is key to ensure overall immune health and establish a high enough concentration in the body for a whole host of necessary co-factor activities.


To further optimize strength and power development, vegetarian athletes should consider the addition of creatine (creatine monohydrate) supplementation as it has been proven in performance-related research to significantly increase strength and power.  Creatine supplementation has been proven effective mechanistically through increases in the muscle creatine pool, particularly in athletes with lower initial creatine stores, helping to maximize the longevity of the phosphocreatine system during short bursts of high intensity exercise.  Additionally, supplementation with branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), particularly leucine, has been shown to significantly increase muscle protein synthesis and decrease muscle protein catabolism following bouts of training.  BCAA and leucine supplementation may greatly benefit vegetarian athletes who are likely to consume smaller quantities within the diet.





1. Barr, S. I., & Rideout, C. A. (2004). Nutritional considerations for vegetarian athletes. Nutrition, 20(7), 696-703.


2. Venderley, A. M., & Campbell, W. W. (2006). Vegetarian diets: nutritional considerations for athletes. Sports Medicine, 36(4), 293-305.


3. Nieman, D. C. (1999). Physical fitness and vegetarian diets: is there a relation?. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70(3), 570s-575s.


4. Phillips, S. M., Tang, J. E., & Moore, D. R. (2009). The role of milk-and soy-based protein in support of muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein accretion in young and elderly persons. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 28(4), 343-354.


5. Wilkinson, S. B., Tarnopolsky, M. A., MacDonald, M. J., MacDonald, J. R., Armstrong, D., & Phillips, S. M. (2007). Consumption of fluid skim milk promotes greater muscle protein accretion after resistance exercise than does consumption of an isonitrogenous and isoenergetic soy-protein beverage. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(4), 1031-1040.

6. Hamilton-Reeves, J. M., Vazquez, G., Duval, S. J., Phipps, W. R., Kurzer, M. S., & Messina, M. J. (2010). Clinical studies show no effects of soy protein or isoflavones on reproductive hormones in men: results of a meta-analysis. Fertility and Sterility, 94(3), 997-1007.



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