Vegetarians vs meat eaters The debate continues

If there is one topic that gets people in the sports nutrition arena hot under the collar, is the age old vegetarian versus meat eater debate. In particular, the debate is focused on whether or not vegetarian diets are equivalent and adequate to diets that include meat when it comes to adding muscle mass.

Outlining the entire debate of both sides of the fence is beyond the scope of this little side bar. I am going to stick to the debate regarding veggie diet vs. meat containing changes in muscle mass rather than the larger picture of whether or not vegetarian diets are inherently healthier than diets that contain meat and vise versa.

In a nut shell, vegetarians maintain that meat is not essential for building muscle and a diet of mixing complimentary foods such as beans and rice is adequate. Lacto-ovo vegetarians (vegetarians that include milk products and eggs) further maintain that the inclusion of milk and eggs, being highly bio available complete proteins, is more than adequate for athletes trying to build muscle and maintain peak performance.

On the omnivore side (omnivore meaning people that eat a wide variety of foods including meat) maintain meats such as chicken, beef and others are by nature more anabolic for a variety of reasons. So who is right?

This debate has not been adequately looked at in the research but we do have some data that lends credence to the omnivore's position. For example, several studies have found that meat containing diets are superior for testosterone production than strict vegetarian diets.

As most people know, testosterone is an essential hormone for increasing and maintaining muscle mass while keeping bodyfat low. It's also essential for libido and mood in both sexes, but particularly important for men.

One recent study called, "Effects of an omnivorous diet compared with a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet on resistance-training-induced changes in body composition and skeletal muscle in older men" looked directly at this debate (Campbell, W.W., 1999).

The researchers wanted to find out if an omnivorous (meat-containing) diet was superior to a lacto-ovo diet on the retention of muscle mass of older men put on a weight training routine.

Nineteen men aged 51-69 years old were enrolled in the study that ran 12 weeks. 9 men ate their normal meat containing (omnivorous) diet, providing 50% of total dietary protein from meat sources such as pork, chicken, fish and beef. Another 10 men followed a lacto-ovo type vegetarian diet for the duration of the study with both groups following a weight training schedule.

The study found that although the strength increases between groups were roughly the same, they found whole-body changes in skeletal muscle size differed significantly between groups. The study found whole-body muscle mass increasing in the omnivorous group while actually decreasing in the lacto-ovo group. Apparently, the meat eaters gained muscle over the 12 weeks while the lacto-ovo eaters lost muscle mass. Ouch!

The authors concluded that, "consumption of a meat-containing diet contributed to greater gains in fat-free mass and skeletal muscle mass with resistance training in older men than did an a lacto-ovo diet" Is this a slam dunk against the vegetarian diet as it relates to the claim that is just as good as a meat containing diet for increasing muscle mass?

No, but it does lend a small measure of proof that for optimal levels of anabolic (muscle building) hormones and increases in muscle mass, omnivorous diets may have an edge.

More research is clearly needed to confirm the theory however. Truth be known, my bet would be in favor of the omnivorous diet if optimal muscle mass is the goal.

However, there is still some debate over which of the two diets is healthier and that has to be factored into peoples' choices as to which diet is best suited for them.

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