Whether you’re considering going vegetarian. because of moral or environmental concerns or you are just looking for a fast track to better health, you may have one pressing concern: Will I get enough protein in my diet to maintain my active lifestyle? True, protein is the building block for muscle growth, which makes that question valid for active women everywhere. But a closer look reveals that even some of the most popular diets today, including the meat-centric Paleo diet, are based on principles that savvy vegetarians have been using for years: Eat simply, benefit greatly.

And while a poorly planned vegetarian diet.—or any other diet, for that matter—isn’t going to have you setting PRs in the gym anytime soon, a well-thought-out one will help you reach your goals and feel great. It’s time vegetarians got their place at the table for healthy living—without sacrificing muscle. Here’s what athletes need to know about going vegetarian.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Just as you have choices for workouts, there are a variety of approaches to a vegetarian diet. Some options:

Vegans: follow the strictest form of vegetarianism, avoiding all animal-basedfoods as well as products such as leather sneakers or bags.

Lactovegitarians: follow a mostly plant-based diet, but they alsoconsume dairy products like milk, cheese, and eggs.

Pescatarians: expand their diets to include fish and seafood along with dairy products.

Flexitarians: (or omnivores) don’t fit a strict vegetarian ideal since they still occasionally have red meat, poultry, or pork. If you aren’t ready to commit to a nonmeat diet, it might be the right approach for you.

Bring on the Benefits

What do exercising vegetarians have going for them? Lots. A study published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society noted that vegetarians have decreased cholesterol levels and about 25 percent lower risk of mortality due to heart disease, while a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted a 15 percent higher carotenoid antioxidant status in vegetarians compared with their meat-eating counterparts. Carotenoids boost the immune system, which is key among hard-training women, since strenuous exercise weakens your body’s defense systems.

The high fiber intake that comes with eating lots of different fruits and vegetables may also help assist with natural fat loss. “It’s easier to regulate body weight with plant-based diets because the bulk of food is coming from healthy fiber, which fills you up quickly, leaving you with less room to eat calorie-dense foods,” says Suzanna McGee, a former Ms. Natural Olympia and author of The Athlete’s Simple Guide to a Plant-Based Lifestyle. Research backs this up. A study published in Nutrition Reviews noted that when dietary fiber was increased by 14 grams per day, there was a 10 percent decrease in total energy (calorie) intake.

Being vegetarian may also help you lose weight and stay leaner, according to a study published in the Nutrition Research and Practice Journal. Researchers analyzed 45 vegetarians who had maintained the lifestyle for 15 or more years. In contrast with 30 omnivores, they found the vegetarians had, on average, 3.8 percent lower body-fat percentages.

Can You Build Muscle?

Despite the many health benefits one may get from following a plant-based diet, many fitness enthusiasts worry it just won’t fulfill their protein needs to be able to build and maintain lean muscle. Think again, says McGee, who stands six feet tall at 160 pounds and has just 11 percent body fat. “We need much less protein than we tend to believe. The average active woman needs 0.35 to 0.6 grams per pound of body weight, which is approximately 45 to 78 grams per day for a 130-pound woman. Delivering high-quality carbohydrates in the diet guarantees good and easily digestible energy as fuel.” In fact, nonmeat eaters may even have a performance edge. “A balanced vegetarian diet contains all the macronutrients—including quality protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates—essential for energy, performance, muscle growth, and recovery,” says Krissy Adams, R.D., a nutritionist and fitness model who follows a vegan diet. “These are the key aspects in anyone’s capability to lift.”

Max Your Macronutrients

The human body uses 20 amino acids—the building blocks that form protein. They are found in a variety of food sources, including animals and plants. Essential amino acids are those the body cannot make itself, which means they must be taken in through food sources or supplements. They come primarily from animal sources like meat, as well as from dairy and eggs. The body can manufacture the remaining 10 nonessential amino acids. The problem is that many plant protein sources don’t contain the full spectrum of essential aminos when eaten separately. This is why food variety and careful planning are so important. 

Food combining is the concept that eating certain foods together over the course of a single day will help vegetarians get all the essential amino acids needed for proper growth, development, and health. For example, grains and cereals are very low in the essential amino acid lysine, while beans, peas, and peanuts are a rich source. Likewise, legumes don’t contain the essential amino acids tryptophan, methionine, and cysteine, but nuts and seeds do; therefore they are complementary to each other. Some commonly recommended food combinations include black beans with rice, pasta with peas, and whole-wheat bread with peanut butter.

But not everyone agrees with the food- combining approach. “I think it’ s a wasted effort,” says McGee. For many, worrying about food combining just overcomplicates the vegetarian lifestyle and reduces the chances of sticking with it, she notes. Instead, “Focus on taking in quality, natural food with all three macronutrients over the course of the day. This will best provide lasting energy and muscle-building nutrition.”

Research published in The Medical Journal of Australia backs the idea that there is no need to consciously combine different plant proteins at each meal as long as a variety of foods are eaten from day to day and overall energy needs are being met. This is because the human body maintains a pool of amino acids that can be used to complement dietary protein.

To keep the rest of your diet in balance, you still need a healthy mix of carbs and fats. Lisa Dorfman, R.D., author of Legally Lean and a Vegetarian, recommends 1.5 to 2 grams of carbs per pound of body weight and 0.3 to 0.5 grams of fat per pound of body weight per day. For a 140-pound woman, that’s about 210 to 280 grams carbs a day and 42 to 70 grams fat.

But the most detrimental mistake vegetarian women tend to make is not eating enough total calories—approximately 2,200 calories per day for a 140-pound woman exercising regularly, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Protein Supreme

Digestibility of 13 favorite protein sources, from high to low.

  • 1.0 Egg
  • 1.0 Soy
  • 1.0 Whey protein
  • 1.0 Chicken, white meat
  • 0.92 Beef
  • 0.91 Soybeans
  • 0.82 Chickpeas
  • 0.75 Black beans
  • 0.68 Kidney beans
  • 0.67 Navy beans
  • 0.52 Lentils
  • 0.52 Peanuts
  • 0.42 Whole-wheat bread

21 Power Foods

  • Vitamin B12 sources*
  • Eggs
  • Whey-protein powder
  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Omega-3 Sources
  • Flaxseed
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Hummus
  • Iron Sources
  • Spirulina
  • Soybeans
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Quinoa
  • White beans
  • Spinach (cooked)
  • Lentils
  • Complete Protein Sources
  • Quinoa (cooked)
  • Buckwheat (cooked)
  • Hempseed
  • Chia
  • Soy
  • Ezekiel bread

*If you’re not a lacto-ovo vegetarian, supplementing with vitamin B12 is recommended.