I’m not one of these people that has a thing about vegetarian or vegan diets but I am sometimes left with a challenge when it comes to composition. Not often will I put my hand up in defeat but this is quite often the case.
I will state this though before we move on, all of the worst nutritional bloodwork I’ve ever seen is from vegans and vegetarians. This isn’t saying that something like this can’t be done healthily and successfully but there are a few factors that need to be considered. I have a whole bunch of vegan friends who are in great shape and perform well, I can’t comment on their nutritional status but they most certainly look and appear healthy. Their rationelle for being vegan or vegetarian is sound and not some delusion that it is their easiest path to being healthy and lean. It’s based around ethics and various other factors.
There are some major factors that need considered when we’re talking about the world of composition though. These may come as a bit of harsh reality for some but it may also give you an insight into why a lot of coaches are reluctant to work with vegetarians or vegans.
These are some of the most complex diets in the world if you want them to be balanced and healthy. If you want to look at building muscle mass, getting lean or even looking at optimal performance they all of a sudden become even more complex.
Lets look at some of the major issues with obesity and the reasons people gain weight in modern society or impact health negatively. We have whats known as a GSIS (Glucose Stimulated Insulin Response). An intact GSIS means that the beta cells of the pancreas have a near perfect response to the consumption of carbohydrates, creating adequate insulin post consumption to shuttle the glucose into cells allowing them to be utilised as fuel. If this GSIS is compromised in any way, generally through an excessive history of Glucose Stimulation (Over consumption of carbs) the cells down regulate, GSIS becomes compromised and insufficient insulin is produced to carry glucose into cells. In this case we see blood glucose rise and the body continuously attempt to release insulin until this level goes down.
Over time the over stimulation of the Insulin response creates damage to the beta cells. Stage 5 indicating an intact response all the way down to stage 2, which indicates Type II Diabetes and stage 1, indicating Type 1 Diabetes. If glucose intake and its ability to be up regulated into cells becomes compromised, alongside a whole array of health issues it will cause subcutaneous as well as visceral fat gain.
Now, cue the vegetarian or vegan diet. There are no (besides synthetic forms or if they choose to consume eggs or supplemental protein) sources of pure protein. If I have a client who has a compromised GSIS and is a vegetarian I am left with the dilemma that they can only consume a diet that is high in both carbohydrates (requiring adequate GSIS) and fats. Protein coming from incomplete sources for the most part. If they consume Eggs or supplemental protein we are then left with the issue of digestion over time being compromised.This being due once again to the over stimulation of the enzymes responsible for their specific digestion and the foods themselves perhaps lacking in the food enzymes found in natural forms of food.
Unless I’m left with someone who will offset continuously the GSIS by exercising excessively (note the word exercise and not training) or performing soely endurance activities I’m stuck in many respects. If I can illicit some sort of beta cell recovery (whilst still consuming excessive carbs) I may be in with a shout however if someone doesn’t get leaner this typically won’t happen. To get them leaner I need to utilise both dietary and free fatty acids as fuel for periods this again can only be accomplished in either a glycogen depleted state or lower carb diet. This leaves me in a position that will either mean malnourishing my client, inturn leading to short term weight loss but long term weight gain. I wouldn’t kid them that that was a good thing.
An obese vegetarian or vegan with damaged GSIS is going to struggle compositionally it’s that simple. Someone with an intact GSIS could get away with it which is a minority. This again comes down to dietary history and in many cases a misunderstanding of the complexity of the vegetarian/vegan diet. People choosing to omit meat, fish etc just classically take them away, the lowering of protein creates a larger glucose response in most meals and therefore accelerates damage. Calorie counting and choosing foods that are simply ‘meat free’ means a higher level of junk foods per se and more synthetic forms of foods.
This may be the harsh reality of things for some but I am a health practitioner and often I will discuss a clients options, going back to an intelligently structured vegetarian/vegan diet overtime is possible but short term health may benefit from the inclusion of ethically sourced proteins.