Until I was about 19, I was a regular meat-eater, just like the rest of my family, and it wasn’t something I thought overly about. I’ve been fortunate to have a metabolism that doesn’t really show what I eat, so my carefree meat-heavy diet didn’t really have an impact on my overall fitness or physical condition. Whilst at University, though, for various personal reasons, I made the decision to completely cut out meat from my diet. For athletes and gym fans, that decision probably seems unusual at best, since meat is well known as a key source of the protein needed for building physical strength and fitness. However, I gave up eating meat three years ago, and my experience since then has taught me that it is perfectly possible to achieve optimal fitness and conditioning, whilst following a vegetarian diet.
What To Do
Of course, it would be ridiculous to suggest that you could switch to a meat-free diet and maximize your physical potential at the same time, without finding an alternative source of protein. The first, and the most urgent task I faced was to find healthy, vegetarian sources of protein, that I could easily incorporate into my diet.
One fairly obvious choice was protein shakes, often used by people who are looking to gain muscle. These are quite expensive though, especially for a student like me, with limited funds! Luckily, there are plenty of less expensive alternatives, and I was able to research and identify a number of fruits and vegetables that are fantastic sources of protein, as well as being rich in other nutrients.
If you’ve ever browsed the chilled cabinets or freezer aisles in your local supermarket, you may have spotted packs of Quorn, waiting patiently for their devoted customers. Whilst many people have never given Quorn a chance, in actual fact, it is a very versatile product that can be used in even the simplest of dishes.
Quorn is available in beef, ham, chicken, sausage and burger formats, so you can still cook all your favorite meals, using Quorn as a meat replacement. Most people agree that whilst there is a noticeable difference, the taste and texture of Quorn is surprisingly similar to meat.
Quorn is an excellent source of lean protein, and it’s also low in calories and low in saturated fats. With such healthy credentials, you can even serve yourself an extra helping from time to time!
As many cartoons have impressed upon us, spinach in particular is brilliant for bolstering your strength and overall health. Along with other green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach is often underappreciated as a super source of protein. Most people are aware that fresh, green vegetables are packed with vitamins, but fewer realize that they can provide much-needed protein to a vegetarian diet, regardless of whether or not you are looking to gain muscle.
Spinach is very definitely king among-st vegetables, when it comes to protein, and it contains a very dense level of nutrients per serving. It’s also an excellent source of iron, and it’s very low in calories, too. From asparagus to lentils, virtually all vegetables provide excellent levels of vitamins and minerals, and they have little to no health or fitness drawbacks.
So long as you’re not allergic to nuts, they can be a great source of protein, and they have the benefit of being incredibly convenient too. You can add them to many dishes, or simply snack on them whilst you’re out and about. Nuts can be considered to be a super food, so experiment with them, to find out how they can work in your own diet.
You do have to watch the salt content for some types of nuts, but I found pistachios to be high in protein, high in fibre and totally delicious into the bargain. Research suggests that pistachios play a part in reducing cholesterol too, so by eating them regularly, I’m getting all of the protein that would normally have come from meat, but without the potentially negative effects of high meat consumption.
Three years into my vegetarian life, I have seen a real all-round improvement to my fitness levels. In terms of strength, my progress is much faster than when I ate meat, but the real surprise for me has been how much difference my vegetarian diet has made to my cardio fitness.
Switching to a vegetarian diet has meant that I’ve slashed my intake of unhealthy fats, whilst still maintaining my protein levels. That means I’m carrying less weight, which has been a massive boost whilst running and climbing. Have just recently completed my first Tough Mudder assault course, I could really feel the difference and I’m sure I wouldn’t have done so well before I adopted this new nutritional programmer.
Do keep in mind though that as everyone’s body is different, each person making this transition will react in a different way. Some people will find the change comparatively simple, whereas others may find the acclimatization period more difficult. It’s definitely best to do your research before making such an upheaval to your lifestyle, and consulting a nutrition or other specialist can also be immensely valuable. Make sure to know your limits, and to not push yourself beyond what your body is trying to tell you.
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