I’m a vegetarian who works out a lot and wants to build muscle. How do I make sure I’m getting enough protein?

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A woman eating eggs and avocado.
Eggs are a good vegetarian protein source. Getty
  • It’s important to consume plenty of protein if you want to build muscle and strength.
  • As a vegetarian, great foods for protein include eggs, dairy, and whey protein powder.
  • However, over-training can also stop you from reaching your goals, dietitian Sophie Medlin said.
  • Read more Working It Out here.

Dear Rachel,

I’m a 23-year-old female who’s been into fitness for a year. Initially it was about weight loss but now that I’m a healthy weight, my goal is strength and building lean muscle. I go to the gym six days a week (I sometimes skip a day) — I do cardio for 15 minutes and then spend an hour doing focused muscle group work with weights, and abs at the end. My major concern is nutrition. I’m vegetarian and am aware of the different forms of protein, but I feel like I’m not eating enough for my weight (126 pounds (57kg)). How can I get more protein into my diet to help me build muscle?

— Vegetarian Fitness Fan

Dear Vegetarian,

Well done for hitting your goal weight, and it’s great to hear you want to build strength.

You’re right that nutrition plays a key role in hitting our fitness goals, and protein is key for building muscle and recovering from workouts. 

While meat provides lots of protein, you can still reach your protein target on a vegetarian diet. 

Ensure you’re not overtraining

Specialist dietitian Sophie Medlin said that struggling to make progress with physique goals can actually be a sign of exercising too much.

“Over Training Syndrome is presenting more and more and people are less likely to spot it because social media influencers promote athlete-level training programs to people without the professional support needed for the intensity of exercise that is being done,” she said.

If you’ve noticed your periods have stopped, that could be a sign of over training. Too much exercise can cause this, which is a condition called hypothalamic amenorrhea

Exercise is a stressor, and muscle growth happens during recovery. So it’s important to prioritize rest and sleep to hit your physique and strength goals, Medlin said.

Eat dairy, eggs, and protein powder

If you’re not over-exercising but feel your muscle gains have plateaued, you may need to eat more protein to support muscle growth, Medlin said.

Eating enough protein on a vegetarian diet is perfectly possible — Medlin recommends eating eggs, whey protein powders, and dairy.

Greek yogurt is one of my favorite protein sources, and I sometimes mix egg whites in with whole eggs for an extra protein boost.

“Dairy and eggs contain complete proteins and dairy has the ideal balance of amino acids to stimulate muscle fiber synthesis,” Medlin said. “With the level of training you’re doing, I would highly recommend you speak to a sports dietitian for tailored advice.”

Plan your meals around protein

If it doesn’t feel obsessive or overwhelming, consider tracking your protein intake for a few days to see how much you’re eating.

For your weight and activity, you should be striving for up to 125g protein a day according to Mind Pump’s macro calculator

If that seems impossible, just start by trying to eat more than you’re currently consuming.

To hit my protein target, I plan my meals in advance and aim for every meal to contain at least 25g protein.

Once you get to grips with a high protein vegetarian diet and find meals you love that help you hit your goals, it’ll become your new normal.

Wishing you well,

Rachel

As a senior health reporter at Insider and a self-described fitness fanatic with an Association for Nutrition-certified nutrition course under her belt, Rachel Hosie is immersed in the wellness scene and here to answer all your burning questions. Whether you’re struggling to find the motivation to go for a run, confused about light versus heavy weights, or unsure whether you should be worried about how much sugar is in a mango, Rachel is here to give you the no-nonsense answers and advice you need, with strictly no fad diets in sight.

Rachel has a wealth of experience covering fitness, nutrition, and wellness, and she has the hottest experts at her fingertips. She regularly speaks to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and renowned personal trainers, dietitians, and coaches, ensuring she’s always up to date with the latest science-backed facts you need to know to live your happiest and healthiest life.

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