How to eat enough protein to lose fat and build muscle if vegetarian – INSIDER

Dear Rachel,
I’m a vegetarian and I want to lose fat and build some muscle, but can I realistically get enough protein while remaining in a calorie deficit? It feels like an impossible task and something I have to consider 24/7 when I’m eating. I put on 5kg after a trip to Europe recently, and having been a very steady weight for the past few years, I’ve really struggled to lose these extra kgs. When I try a calorie deficit, I feel hungry and weary and often struggle to work out to my full potential. But without the calorie deficit, I don’t seem to lose any fat at all … I feel like I’m going in circles! I know it’s important to keep my protein up too, but how much should I be eating? And how can I do this without meat? Any advice appreciated.
— Veggie Lover
Dear Veggie Lover,
I completely understand your confusion, there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there.
Fortunately, the solution really needn’t be complex at all, as the bevy of experts I’ve consulted for you will explain.
Full disclosure: I’m a meat-eater, so your conundrum is not one I’ve faced personally.
That said, I am mindful of not consuming too much meat for ethical and environmental reasons, plus I watch my protein intake too.
I upped my protein consumption a couple of years ago when I realized I wasn’t eating enough for my active lifestyle, and I found doing so to be really helpful.

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Eating more protein helped keep me satiated and full when eating in a calorie deficit to lose fat, and also allowed me to hold on to my muscle at the same time. It also means my muscles can repair themselves well after working out.
However, it’s worth remembering that we don’t all thrive on the same way of eating, and what works for one person might not necessarily work for another.
When you’re in a calorie deficit, it can be slightly harder to hit your protein target because you’re just eating less of everything.
But ultimately, sticking to your calories (should you choose to count them, which you don’t need to do) is more important than hitting your protein target if you want to lose fat.
As a vegetarian, and particularly if you were vegan, it might seem extra tricky given that a lot of the most protein-rich plant-based foods are lower in protein than animal products while also being higher in calories — essentially, lower protein for higher calories. 
It’s entirely possible to eat enough protein though.
“Getting enough protein while in a calorie deficit is definitely possible, and actually pretty straight forward, as long as you put a little bit of thought into what goes onto your plate,” Pelé Zachariah, head trainer at London rowing studio Rowbots and vegan athlete, told Insider.
Where you might make things difficult for yourself, however, is if you create too drastic a calorie deficit, which is not advisable for many reasons.
“Make sure you’re not cutting your calories too much right off the bat (this is a very common mistake),” Sohee Lee, certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Sports Nutritionist, and author of “Eat. Lift. Thrive.” told Insider.
“Trying to be too aggressive with your calorie deficit can make adherence much more difficult than necessary, which ultimately defeats the purpose of trying to diet in the first place.
“You may see better long-term results by establishing a more moderate deficit to start (maybe 15-20% below your rough maintenance intake) and be sure to continue to incorporate foods that you genuinely enjoy into your plan.”
Zachariah agreed, adding that if you don’t fuel yourself adequately, your energy levels will drop massively.
“This tends to lead to a lack of motivation to exercise, which is a downward spiral in and of itself,” he said, adding that sustainability is key and you shouldn’t be expecting to lose more than one pound per week.
It’s true that formal exercise only contributes to about 5% of a person’s daily calorie burn so it’s easier to create a calorie deficit through your diet, however, keeping active over the course of the day can be a great way to increase your deficit without eating less.
“A calorie deficit just means that your body is burning more calories than it consumes,” Zachariah said. “This can either be by eating less, or by moving more.
“So taking the stairs, hitting your 10,000 steps per day, playing with the kids, gardening, and just generally moving your body more are all fantastic ways to increase your calorie expenditure, meaning that you don’t have to cut your calorie intake by so much.”

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Sports dietitian Renee McGregor agreed that reducing your energy intake might not be the best bet.
“To lose fat and build muscle you need to ensure a good balance of both protein and carbohydrate to help fuel these results,” she told Insider.
“Reducing your calories is not always the best option when trying to lose fat. In some cases, especially with additional dietary needs, increasing your overall energy expenditure is an easier option and one that can actually boost energy levels as opposed to dampen them.”
Considering you want to lose fat and burn muscle simultaneously (which is possible, as we discussed in my last column), Lee stressed the importance of resistance training regularly.
Protein is an essential macronutrient that’s not just necessary for muscle growth and retention, it’s also needed to keep our bones, cartilage, skin, and blood healthy and strong.
But Zachariah believes most people have been misled by the protein supplement industry into thinking we need to be consuming more than we actually do.
So, you probably want to know some numbers by this point, right?
Unfortunately, McGregor said it’s impossible to give a specific figure because we all have different requirements.

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Registered nutritionist and host of “Food For Thought” podcast Rhiannon Lambert agreed, saying: “Requirements for protein vary with age, gender, and activity levels, but the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for protein is 0.75g per kilogram of body weight per day in adults.
“This equates to approximately 56g per day for men and 45g per day for women aged 19–50 years in a person of healthy weight.”
For people who work out regularly, fitness experts recommend a higher intake based on scientific research, although again, different studies suggest different figures.
“As a rule of thumb, for body composition and strength purposes, aim for a minimum of 1.6g protein per kilogram of body weight per day — so if you’re 60kg, for example, then shoot for at least 96g protein a day,” said Lee.
Zachariah agreed, suggesting anywhere between 1.5 to 2g per kilogram of body weight as a reasonable estimate for daily consumption.
This is the ballpark I aim for, and it does seem to have worked well for me in terms of fat loss and muscle gain.
So, what should you actually eat? 
Lee said that by consuming about 20-30g protein per meal (depending on how many meals you’re eating each day), you should be able to hit your target.
“Making sure that you always have a source of protein on your plate at each meal is a sure-fire way to know that you’re getting enough,” says Zachariah.
Great protein options include tofu, quinoa, tempeh, seitan, eggs, dairy products, pulses, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and leafy greens (I remember when I discovered that broccoli is actually incredibly high in protein — I was amazed!)
𝗘𝗔𝗧 𝗕𝗘𝗧𝗧𝗘𝗥, 𝗡𝗢𝗧 𝗟𝗘𝗦𝗦🌱⁣ ⁣ Nutrition is made way more complicated than it needs to be⁣ ⁣ Put the best in, and you get the best out🙌🏽
A post shared by Pelé Zachariah (@pele.zac) on May 9, 2020 at 9:21am PDT
“If your plate is made up of mostly whole, minimally processed foods, then you’ll be feeling fuller for longer, and you’ll definitely be hitting all of your macro and micronutrient targets, whilst also being in a calorie deficit and shedding those last few persistent kilos,” Zachariah said.
“However, if a significant part of your diet is made up of processed foods, you’ll be racking up your calorie intake pretty quickly, without actually giving your body what it needs to thrive and feel energetic on a calorie deficit.”
And although it’s best to get your protein from whole foods, if you occasionally need to supplement with a vegetarian or vegan protein powder, that’s OK too, said Lee.
What you may not know is that plant-based protein sources do not contain all the essential amino acids that we need for recovery and growth.
However, you can easily get around this issue by combining foods.
“The key to consuming an effective vegetarian or vegan sports diet is to include variety in your diet and pair plant-based proteins to form complete protein sources,” Lambert said.
This may sound confusing, but essentially all it means is ensuring a mix of grains and pulses at mealtimes.
“For example, rice has an amino acid that beans don’t so when you combine these two together you can get a complete protein source,” said Lambert.
Other options could be beans on toast, chickpea curry with couscous, or rice and lentils.
“These protein-packed, nutrient-filled meals will also help to keep you feeling fuller for longer, and thanks to the complex carbohydrates, stabilize your energy levels to prevent you feeling hungry and weary,” said McGregor.

A post shared by RHIANNON LAMBERT BSc MSc RNutr (@rhitrition)
When it comes to keeping your calories in check, she recommends opting for protein sources like soy products over higher fat foods like nuts, nut butter, and hummus.
“These can be paired with a complex carbohydrate when served as a meal, or try whipping up a colorful smoothie using soy milk as a post-training snack,” McGregor suggests.
Ultimately, if you ensure you’ve got some protein at every meal and are eating plenty of different foods, you’ll be fine.
“As long as you’re choosing a wide variety of different protein sources, and not getting stuck in the trap of eating the same food daily, you’ll be getting all the protein, also known as amino acids that you need,” Lambert added.
“Remember, protein is not the only macronutrient you need, so make sure you get the balance right of carbs, fats, and protein overall.”
Knowing how best to achieve your fitness goals can be overwhelming, nut take your time and you’ll get there.
“Trust the process, keep your eyes on the prize, and before you know it you’ll be at your ideal body weight,” said Zachariah.
Wishing you well,
As a senior lifestyle 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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