Vegetarianism can be argued infinitely on many points, but one point cannot be argued: it is a personal choice based on compassion for all of life, sympathy for animals that are our food, psychology, allergies and physical ailments, and religion (or a personal belief system). Once this personal choice is made based on any or all of the above reasons, it is up to the individual to be hyper-aware in order to sustain life for oneself of what does and does not enter the body, and in some cases, what is near and around the body. With a lifestyle of extreme restrictions, can one be and stay healthy, and continue to enjoy life just as well or better than someone who has not made the decision to stop eating meat? Everywhere I dig for the answer, it seems to always be a resounding “Yes!”.

Man can survive living on a totally vegetarian diet because humans can adapt to their environment. Furthermore, in modern society he(or she) can do a lot better than that. Before the last century, there were no such things as vitamin supplements like B12, and food was more difficult to come by in the varied abundance that is available to us now in large supermarkets. To see just how possible this is, we can look to those who exemplify great strength and health while staying on a strictly VEGAN diet.

There is a lot of stress put on proteins in the diet and whether or not you can eat enough of it being a vegetarian or vegan. Although this is correct reasoning, I’d like to take some of that stress off the subject. Our bodies are made up mostly of water, and we need to hydrate sufficiently to ensure health and vitality, with all bodily processes functioning at their potential. This nobody would argue. Second to water in terms of body composition is protein which makes up everything from our genes themselves to our hair, so it makes sense to make sure you get enough of it in your diet.

The approximate RDA of protein is only 54 grams for men and 47 grams for men. If you are a vegan bodybuilder, you’d laugh at those figures, and rightly so because people whose goals are muscular hypertrophy require that much more protein just to do what they want to do above and beyond just being alive and healthy. A typical protein sports drink these days contains 25-50 grams of protein alone for building muscle, so it’s important not to confuse these two concepts and pit them against each other.

Proteins also come in two forms in our foods, which are called complete and incomplete. All animal protein sources are complete proteins, and rightly so because you would be consuming the end of the protein chain when it has been created into the final product, with regard to creating the animal’s body just like our bodies use proteins to synthesize our muscles, glands, and organs. There are plenty of vegetarian complete proteins as well, and although they may not contain as much protein as some animal sources, they are sources nonetheless.

On this list are nutritional yeast, quinoa sprouts, amaranth sprouts, buckwheat sprouts, chia seeds, soy, hemp hearts, ramon nuts, tocotrienols(rice bran polishings), edible seaweeds, wheatgrass juice, leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach, and lettuce, green sprouts, algae like chlorella and spirulina, marine phytoplankton, tempeh or natto(fermented soy), olives, acai berries, goji berries, white turkish mulberries, golden inca berries, and avocado. Sources that don’t fall into typical food categories are bee pollen, royal jelly and propolis, cauliflower, some mushrooms like shiitake, and pine tree pollen.

Aside from all of these complete proteins, we have available to us a wide array of incomplete protein foods that when eaten together in the right combinations, the body will synthesize complete proteins from the amino acids present. Examples of typical healthy complete protein combinations are hummus on pita bread, nut butter on whole grain bread, beans on pasta, toast, or corn, rice and beans, peas, or lentils, split pea soup with whole grain or seeded crackers or bread, tortillas with refried beans, and veggie burgers on bread. To be absolutely certain that you are getting enough protein, eat legumes(beans, lentils, peas, peanuts) in combination with seeds, nuts, or grains.

With this foundation, it is easy to build muscle and strength, even on a vegan diet. What’s important is knowing how active you are. Understand that the endorsed RDA for protein are .5 to .8g/lb, from the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine. This translates to 90-144g of protein daily for a 180 lb. athlete. Eat within this range while on the exercise program or lifestyle of your choosing and adjust to what feels right for you.

It is important to spot false and confusing statistics, like those comparing vague percentages of protein content against daily caloric intake percentages just to make a simple point that doesn’t need convoluted reasoning or convincing. Also keep in mind that for decades there have been vegetarian bodybuilders like Bill Pearl who have competed and won titles against meat eaters, but only through the use of anabolic steroids. Incidentally, the meat-eating bodybuilders were also on steroids, to be fair. It’s pretty easy to spot the natural vegan bodybuilders just by their normal muscular hypertrophy. Bodybuilding is an art form that is comprised of building muscle and tailoring the diet to create the proper display case for those muscular gains that lasts for only the small window during a competition, and too often this extreme subculture is mistaken for the norm in terms of what strength, health, and muscularity is. It is not for everyone, and it shouldn’t be used to define everyone in terms of health, as it is often not a level playing field.

Whether your diet is vegetarian or not, it is important to be honest with yourself about your health. Question your body fat percentage, your waistline, your joint health, your energy levels, and the health of your skin, eyes, and teeth. Do you have fat clothes that you reserve for being out of shape, or do you have to buy fat clothes? Do you look your age or younger, or do you look 10-15 years older than you are? Do you have stress? Are you a generally unpleasant person at home or in the workplace? When was the last time you had blood work done? Do you have restful sleep, or sleep enough? It is easy in a morally conscious work ethic society to beat yourself up into an early grave lined with self-imposed guilt while spending the last years or months of your life wondering what went wrong. What’s more important is representing your choices inspirationally and being a model for others for longer happier life, and vegetarianism is no exception.

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I’ve asked the questions and I’ve gotten all sorts of answers. The majority of the answers I got back when I asked, “Vegetarianism, what’s your take?”, had to do with people’s beliefs, and I mean strong, personal beliefs. This means that I didn’t get specific suggestions or explanations on how to live a healthy, active, even athletic lifestyle on a vegetarian diet. What I did get were reasons why people live as vegetarians, which included their love and sympathy for animals’ lives as well as living responsibly by not contributing to what makes them personally uncomfortable, and doing this by not buying and/or eating animal products of different varieties.

Although that doesn’t give any new information or convince me to become a vegetarian, I think that’s fine. Whatever is deemed personal for whatever reason is allowable, as long as it doesn’t become defined as a social abnormality or psychological diagnosis, e.g. OCD. Most vegetarians I know just can’t bear the thought of putting carrion in their mouths to feed themselves because of the psychological ramifications. But, they all did grow up to be healthy and strong adults eating meat before the psychology made itself known. So, the quest for answers continues.

I was  a strict vegetarian for 12 years, so I can relate to what it must be like for some, if not most, vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs. I didn’t get the vast array of vegan junkfood and fake meats that are available now as a whole new food industry, so it is actually easier in big cities and in vegetarian cultures to say no to meat in 2011 and beyond. One of the reasons I began eating meat again is the constant grey area that being a vegetarian can cross into when hunger strikes and none of your acquaintances or friends are vegetarians, and this is the grey area that feels like a psychological abnormality. Another reason is that it makes situations difficult on your friends who have the right to eat whatever they want and now have to make special arrangements for your vegetarianism. Ultimately, I realized it was making life more difficult for me as well. If I decided I just wanted to loaf around and rarely test the limits of my strength and endurance, I’d probably still be the kind of vegetarian I used to be. Eating is still very exclusionary of unhealthy substances(processed foods, high amounts of starches and saturated fats, refined sugar, etc.) but easier because meat is never an issue anymore.

As a vegetarian, I’ve never been malnourished, so going from no meat to meat basically felt exactly the same to me and had no effect on my body or energy levels. The only thing that changed was the psychology, and it was very freeing. I do know that as a vegetarian I was consuming higher levels of carbohydrates in general, and with my new diet I am able to obtain more protein while having control over the amount of carbohydrates I ingest. For example, if I wanted proteins from beans, I’d have to consume the carbohydrates that came with the beans. Now I have the option of eating whole foods exactly the way I want to keep a certain dietary proportion of nutrients tailored for specific energy and strength requirements.

A lot has changed in the 25 years since I first decided to be a vegetarian, and although my own psychology has changed in terms of what is right for me, I am still intrigued about what an adequate vegetarian diet would include without just saying phrases like, “I’m not hungry, that’s all I need” in order to stay slim, and without wasting the body away under intense physical activity because nutritional needs are not being met due to a psychological aversion to the foods the body craves and needs(i.e. no foods with faces). It’s no secret that protein is available in many foods that even a vegan can devour like a hungry beast, but I find it all comes down to the way that you eat what you eat. You can’t be casual about what you eat, unless you are fine with looking like you are casual about what you eat, and that goes for everybody, meat or no meat. Just lift up your shirt over your abdomen and take a look and that will be the indicator of what kind of vegetarian you are. If you want to, look even further to the body’s largest organ, the skin, and see what kind of vegetarian you are. Even further, you can examine the different systems of the body and whether they are operating in harmony or under stress caused by nutrition.

I’ve read misleading sentences like “How does a Gorilla, which pound for pound is 10x stronger than a full grown man, become like this just by eating fruit, roots and green sprouts? Vegetarian protein sources provide it with all the materials it needs to do this.” How? By being a Gorilla, that’s how. The same thing can be said of cats, the argument being for eating carcasses. The answer there, of course, is that they are cats, not humans.

Every person is different and has a different type of body that responds differently to the environment. I know some people that would lose enough weight to look like a healthy, lean example of extreme strength if they decided to live a healthy vegetarian lifestyle, and I know some vegetarians who would begin to look healthy if they they just ate more healthy foods. You choose what works best for you – not what works best for the animals you feel sorry for, but what works best for you. Most vegetarians and vegans confuse sympathy and compassion. With compassion for animals, you don’t have to limit your life’s possibilities and opportunities for happiness by restricting what you eat. If you want to sympathize with the animals, you can wage your silent war one vegan whoopee pie at a time while watching the meat-eating machine continue on without a scratch and be able to sleep at night because you feel good about yourself. I salute all the vegetarians and vegans that have learned to alter their lives and diets for all the right reasons with all the right results, and I hope to learn a lot about life from them. Next, we’ll talk more about the specifics of what to eat and when and how much if you’re a vegetarian.