You CAN Make Friends with Salad: Giving Up Meat without Giving Up Gainz

This post has been a long time coming. Over the last few years I’ve had a lot people ask me how to reconcile a vegetarian diet with high-level athletic training. Before getting into the nuts and beans, let me first emphasize that I follow a vegetarian–not a vegan diet. There are some examples of successful purely vegan high-level athletes, however, my own experiment with it didn’t go well; therefore, it won’t work for any of you (anecdote alert!). See end of article for tips for vegan athletes (Thank you to Marcus Schultz-Bergin).

My biggest worry about switching to a vegetarian diet was that I wouldn’t get enough protein and I’d consume too many carbs. Most athletes have grown up with the belief that we need at least 1gram of protein for every pound of bodyweight/day. It turns out that’s just a myth. It’s totally unsupported by any evidence. (Who knew the supplement industry would overstate claims?) You likely don’t need more than 0.6 grams/lb.

So, if you’re 180 lbs you only need 108 grams which is significantly less than the 180 grams you’ve been feeding yourself. Basically, Big Sup wants you to believe you need all that protein, but the best evidence suggests you don’t–even if you’re an experienced athlete. In fact, the evidence suggests that the longer you’ve been training, the less protein you need (see link below).

Here are a few highlight from what I take to be the definitive article on protein consumption for strength athletes:

• Tarnopolsky et al. (1992) observed no differences in whole body protein synthesis or indexes of lean body mass in strength athletes consuming either 0.64g/lb or 1.10g/lb over a 2 week period. Protein oxidation did increase in the high protein group, indicating a nutrient overload.
• Walberg et al. (1988) found that 0.73g/lb was sufficient to maintain positive nitrogen balance in cutting weightlifters over a 7 day time period.
• Tarnopolsky et al. (1988) found that only 0.37g/lb was required to maintain positive nitrogen balance in elite bodybuilders (over 5 years of experience, possible previous use of androgens) over a 10 day period. 0.45g/lb was sufficient to maintain lean body mass in bodybuilders over a 2 week period. The authors suggested that 0.55g/lb was sufficient for bodybuilders.
• Lemon et al. (1992) found no differences in muscle mass or strength gains in novice bodybuilders consuming either 0.61g/lb or 1.19g/lb over a 4 week period. Based on nitrogen balance data, the authors recommended 0.75g/lb.
• Hoffman et al. (2006) found no differences in body composition, strength or resting hormonal concentrations in strength athletes consuming either 0.77g/lb or >0.91g/lb over a 3 month period.

[Update: Here’s the latest systematic review and meta analysis Key finding: “Protein supplementation beyond total protein intakes of 1.62 g/kg/day resulted in no further resistance exercise training induced gains in fat-free mass.” Note that the previous study’s results were expressed in g/lb but this one is g/kg]
The other issue with vegetarianism is getting your protein without all them carbs. Beans are one of the best sources of vegetarian protein but they come with carbs. And if you regularly eat them with rice, you risk committing carbocide. All them gainz but no one can see your abs. I am cri 😥

Below I’ve listed my usual recipes. I’ve managed to build a meal plan that isn’t carb heavy. In short, you CAN make friends with salad if you’re willing to grab a few handfuls of nuts…Deez nutz! Ha! Got ’em! Also, eggs and tofu/tofu-based products are your best friends.

Quick Commentary on the Ethics of Eating
The fact that you’re reading this entry suggests you’re already at least moderately motivated to reduce your meat consumption. From my perspective since the health claims are generally overblown (although not completely without merit) there are two main lines of argument for going vegetarian: Concern for animal welfare and concern for the environment. Most people come to vegetarianism (or veganism) primarily out of concern for the former. Sometimes the two align, sometimes they pull apart. I’m not going to rehash all the familiar arguments but I do want to point out a few things about some of the choices I’ve made. If you don’t care what I think, skip to the next section.

If you’re going to be vegetarian instead of vegan you have to accept that your dietary choices will impose some degree of suffering on the animals from whom you get your protein. My position on these issues is still in a state of flux but I’ll briefly outline the reasons for the choices I’ve made. First of all, factory farmed meats are off the menu. There are no plausible arguments for the practice.

I eat shrimp, mollusks, eggs, whey protein, and very occasionally responsibly-sourced fish.
[EDIT: Since writing this article I’ve stopped consuming whey products as well as fish except once or twice a year I eat salmon when visiting my family.] The easiest to justify eating are the mollusks. It’s unlikely they have much if any capacity to suffer. The main concern is environmental: they are sometimes harvested in ways that destroy ecosystems (see links to below).

Shrimp are bugs. I don’t feel bad about eating bugs (how’s that for a convincing argument?). The main concerns with shrimp are the methods by which they are farmed and the labor practices involved. Shrimp from SE Asia comes at tragic environmental cost and is often harvested using slave labor.  If you didn’t think there was enough wrong with the world, read here:

Despite the fact that the dairy industry is largely morally indefensible, I consume whey protein powder because it is a waste product of cheese and yogurt-making. Prior to the rise in popularity of protein powder, whey was a massive environmental headache. For example,  Chobani in it’s NY plant produces 1 million lbs of greek yogurt every day. For every pound of greek yogurt there are 3 pounds of waste (you do the math). In NY state alone 150 million tonnes of whey are produced/year. That waste is acidic and basically destroys all aquatic life if it ends up in waterways.

A popular disposal method is burning it but that consumes a lot of energy (i.e., fossil fuels). So, although I don’t purchase primary dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt), I’m reconciled with consuming what would otherwise be a waste product. Full disclosure: I’ll eat cheese/pizza if I’m at an event where it’s already being offered. I will also eat ice cream very occasionally in the summer.

As for fish, the ethical concern is that, in commercial fishing, the fish often suffer for long periods of time before they are finally killed. The latest and best research shows that fish have the capacity for suffering and pain.

The environmental concern is that most fishing stocks are critically overfished. From 1970-2012 the marine vertebrate population has decreased by 49%. At current rates of fishing, most important fish stocks will be extinct within 10-15 years. Tuna is foremost among them; in fact, Blue Fin tuna is down 70%. This is why I don’t eat tuna anymore. They’re basically going to be extinct soon unless we change our consumption habits.

Bycatch is another big problem. Depending on the source, for every pound of fish in the supermarket 10lbs (often much more) is thrown out as by-catch. Others estimate that bycatch represents 40% of worldwide catch. That translates into 63 billion lbs per year of marine life killed for no reason. That’s not just a tragic waste of life and disruption of ecosystems, but it effectively eliminates a food supply for fish higher up in the food chain.

For an excellent resource on responsible aquaculture and unthreatened fish stocks, I suggest taking a look at this website:  They also have an app so if you’re in the supermarket or at a restaurant you can quickly check if what you’re about to buy is responsibly managed.

In short, our oceans are pretty much fucked so be judicious in selecting fish if you’re going to eat fish. I usually only eat farmed fish since it’s sustainable (so long as the farm adheres to best practices).  This is not to say all wild fish aquaculture is bad but before selecting DO YOR REESURCH!!!1!!!1!!! (If you give a fuck). At some point I’ll write a post suggesting that environmentalists should be the strongest proponents of (well-regulated) fish farms and GMO salmon. Ideology and fear-mongering notwithstanding, all things considered that’s definitely where the evidence points.

Basically, by going vegetarian you’re not going to be perfect but this doesn’t imply an all-or-nothing approach (see: nirvana fallacy). With informed choices we can at least minimize our negative impact on both animals and the environment.

General Tips for Eating Healthfully
Prepare, prepare, prepare! When do we mess up on our clean eating? When we’re hangry and “there’s nothing to eat.” Always make sure you have ingredients on hand for quick meals and make sure protein is prepped. As a vegetarian (at least my version) that means:

  • Boil eggs a dozen at a time. If you have hard-boiled eggs on hand, you have a no-prep source of protein. Use it to make a ‘sammich’ or eat them as they are.
  • Stock a variety of protein bars.
  • Have tofu in the fridge. It the summer it’s good cold with some soy sauce, sesame oil, and sriracha. Half a block is 30 grams of protein!
  • Have cans of beans in kitchen.
  • Bulk-buy green pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, almonds, flax seeds, and chia seeds.
  • Have lots of peanut butter stocked.

Verboten Foodz–Aus of ze Haus!!!! If you can’t see it, you’re less likely to eat it. Do not bring junk food into the house. You’re way less likely to eat a bunch of junk food if eating it requires getting off your ass and driving to the store to get it. Save it for cheat day!

Avoiding Carbs While Getting Enough Protein: 
Hold your breath. As a vegetarian, you can’t just cook up a piece of meat or grab a burger anytime you’re hungry. As I mentioned in the intro you have to plan a bit if you want to avoid committing carbocide. However, it’s not really a big deal. In fact, it’s no trouble at all once you properly stock your kitchen.

Over the course of a regular day I eat 4 small-ish meals and consume one protein shake. I might also have a banana or energy bar before working out. Notice that I get my protein from a variety of sources throughout the day to ensure I get all the essential amino acids.

  • Meal 1: Breakfast is almost always peanut butter and whole grain toast.
  • Meal 2: One bean-based meal. This is usually post-workout meal so place it appropriately in your schedule.
  • Meal 3: Some kind of egg-based meal. Maybe an egg sammich with avocado or something. Maybe a salad with egg, seeds, and nuts.
  • Meal 4: Tofu-based meal. In the summer I’ll often just have cold tofu (see recipe below). If you feel like cooking, stirfry tofu is always good. The latest generation of fake meats are almost indistinguishable from real meat. The difference is negligible anyway. If I have the choice between a cruelty-free, environmentally responsible burger and one that isn’t AND they basically taste the same, why on earth wouldn’t I eat the veggie burger? Some of my favorite fake meat products are: Gardein‘s beef tips, chicken strips for stir fry, ground beef, and burgers. Qu’orn fake turkey dinner is also amazing. All of these products are available in the freezer section of your local supermarket. If I can find them in the supermarkets of Bowling fucking Green, Ohio, you can find them where you live.
  • Meal 3 or 4: Mega Salad (see two sections below)

Meal Plan and Recipes (Summer)
Nine times out ten, breakfast is peanut butter and whole grain toast with about a liter of tea. Occasionally, I’ll have eggs with toast.

Depending on where I am and how much time I have, it will vary.
If I’m aus of ze haus at my office, I might open up a can of chick peas, drain them, pour in some olive oil and hot sauce. You’d be surprised how good it tastes. I know I was the first time.

Alternatively, I might go to Subguey and get an egg sub or if there’s a salad bar I’ll do that. I’ll select all the beans for my toppings and maybe get egg as well if they have it.

If I’m at home I’ll usually make either an egg sammich with avocado or I’ll make one of my mega-salads (see video).

Protein shake and banana

First and Second Dinner:
Bean dish. There are many many ways to prepare beans. In the summer, it’s often too hot to cook so I used canned beans. In the winter I’ll cook up a 3 day supply and make soups and stews. Here are some simple recipes that don’t require any cooking but if you prefer to eat them warm, simply combine the ingredients in a large pan:

Spicy Cold Tofu:

  • 1/2 block of tofu
  • sesame oil
  • soy sauce
  • Sriracha
  • optional: sprinkle with sesame seeds

Chickpea curry: 

  • 1 can of chickpeas, drained
  • curry powder
  • mayo
  • garlic
  • sunflower seeds
  • raw or sautéed onion or chives
  • sautéed mushrooms if you’re feeling fancy
  • salt&pepper to taste
  • optional: chopped hard-boiled egg
  • optional: sautéed shrimp
Chickpeas in pesto:
  • 1 can of chickpeas, drained
  • olive oil
  • tablespoon of pesto
  • half an avocado
  • sunflower seeds
  • tablespoon of flax seeds
  • diced tomato
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • diced cheese (if you eat cheese)
  • optional: raw or sauteed onion
  • optional: chopped hard-boiled egg
  • optional: sautéed shrimp.
Super Speedy Chickpea Dish:
  • 1 can of chickpeas, drained
  • olive oil
  • hot sauce
  • Optional: chopped hard-boiled egg
Speedy Black Bean Chili: 
  • can of black beans, drained.
  • chili powder
  • garlic
  • fresh basil if you’ve got some
  • sautéed or raw onions
  • sautéed or steamed mustard greens
  • sautéed mushrooms
  • optional: chopped hard-boiled egg or top with a fried egg sunny side up
  • optional: sautéed shrimp

Super Speedy Black Bean Meal:

  • can o’ black beans, drained
  • Lowry salt
  • olive oil
  • hot sauce
  • optional: chopped hard-boiled egg
  • optional: cubed cheese
  • fresh parsley and/or basil if you have it
Mega Salad (see below)
Leaning Out with the Mega Salad:
In the summer we all want those abs to emerge quickly from their winter slumber. To get my abs to pop, I only eat mega salads for about 2 or 3 weeks for all meals (except for breakfast).
How to make the Mega Salad:
Mega salad: 
Get yourself a family-sized salad bowl. You’re going to fill it.
  • 2 or 3 different leafy greens. About 3 or 4 leafs of each. I usually use romaine, kale, and mustard greens. Avoid iceberg.
  • 1 tomato
  • 1/2 avocado
  • 1 lg carrot
  • 1 head of broccoli (just use 1/2 if it’s really big–TWSS)
  • 1 handful of green pumpkin seeds
  • 1 handful of sunflower seeds
  • 1 handful of sliced almonds
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of flax seeds
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of chia seeds
  • olives, pickles, pickled jalepeno—whatever you like.
  • Optional: Add 1/2 a can of your choice of beans if you’re feeling low on carbs
  • Optional: 1 or 2 hardboiled eggs chopped
  • Optional: 1/2 a block of tofu cubed
  • Optional: sauteed/grilled shrimp of fish
  • Optional: cheese cubed (if you eat cheese)
Because the mega salad is..well…mega…you will feel full after eating it. I’m usually unable to finish a whole one if I’ve added one of the options. The good news is that you’re full but you haven’t really consumed a lot of calories. And your carbs are very low. Do this for 2 or 3 weeks and you will be noticeably leaner. Oh, invest in a wide variety of salad dressings so you don’t get bored (but be sensible with regards to caloric content).

Concerns about Soy and Estrogen
The science isn’t settled here. I’ve done my own reesurch as well as asked a couple of experts. Here is from personal correspondence on my behalf between Pat Brown, fancy Stanford professor of biochemistry (and my sister’s Ph.D advisor) and my sister.

There are compounds with estrogenic effects (phytoestrogens) as well as compounds that can increase circulating androgens in soy as well as lots of other plant foods. So there have been a lot of studies (hundreds of papers) looking at their hypothetical effects (both positive and negative) on male or female fertility, hormone-sensitive cancers (eg., breast and prostate) and other hormone-influenced human physiology and disease.

The upshot is that while there are many weak associations in model systems, there is essentially zero good evidence of any meaningful effect on fertility, cancer, diabetes or any of the other health outcomes that have been studied.

About a year ago when looking into this stuff, I read a study comparing gains in lean muscle mass between experienced bodybuilders consuming 30g of soy vs consuming 30g of whey. There were no differences between groups in gains of lean body mass, neither were there were differences in hormone levels. (I can’t find that study at the moment but will link to it when I find it).

Basically, I usually eat one soy-based meal a day which is about 20-30g of soy. That seems safe.

For a longer than I care to admit, I knew vegetarianism was the logical consequence of my ethical and environmental commitments. I was hesitant to change my diet because I thought I wouldn’t be able to train like I want to (selfish bastard). I also thought that even if I could train as hard as I like on a vegetarian diet, it would take way too much meal prep time. It turns out both of those concerns were ill-founded.

You can have it all: You can eat more or less consistently with your ethical and environmental commitments while also getting enough protein and avoiding expending unrealistic amounts of time and energy on meal-prep.

Now go forth and make gainz, but this time with less animal suffering.

Bonus Round: Resources for Vegan Athletes
No Meat Athlete (ultramarathon running rather than lifting, but some more general stuff) –

Vegan Proteins (main site is a vegan protein supplement site, but they have a blog with more general stuff too) –

Vega (maker of vegan protein and meal replacement stuff, but again also has general stuff like recipes and a blog with advice) –

Vegan Body Building (name sort of says it all – they sell stuff but have a lot of articles with advice, etc.) –

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