Vegetarian, exercising, weight-gain, healthy?
January 22, 2015 7:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm a skinny vegetarian on a healthy diet (no refined carbs or sugars, no processed meals, fresh fruit and veg every day, low sat fats/high unsat fats) and have done cardio exercise for about a year. I have just started doing strength training as well. I want to gain a bit of weight, stay healthy, and promote muscle-growth. I am considering protein powder but feel unsure as to its effects. Any advice?

I know similar questions have been asked in the past (1, 2, 3) but my question is different:

What should my protein intake be when I usually do 45 mins of cardio 6 days a week (erg and cross trainer) and plan to do 30 mins of strength 6 days a week (alternating days of upper/lower body)? Sources disagree, but it seems around 1.5g/kg of body mass is recommended. That equals around 100g of protein a day, which seems like a lot when a can of kidney beans is only 16g.

I am worried about eating too many eggs - I have read conflicting info on cholesterol impact. Some sources say cholesterol intake is inversely proportional to cholesterol production, hence egg consumption actually lowers cholesterol levels. Currently I eat 2 eggs on my days of exercise.

Also, protein powder. Are there any downsides to taking this?

Lastly - I'm a grad student. Any tips on how to utilise my exercise and diet patterns most efficiently to increase cognition/concentration?
posted by nagoya to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't worry too much about exact protein levels. It seems like most exercise science is pseudoscientific magical woo mumbojumbo in the details, but probably generally true in broad strokes. So yes, to gain muscle eat more calories and more protein-rich calories while lifting and pushing and pulling heavy things. But protein powder is not very calorie dense. If your goal is to gain weight and increase protein intake as a vegetarian, I'd say eat lots of peanut butter, soy, and dairy.

Even if eggs are bad for your cholesterol levels (and I think the science today is indicating that cholesterol intake is not necessarily connected with blood levels of cholesterol, see here), increasing your egg intake to 4 a day will certainly not kill you unless you have a medical reason to think it would be dangerous. So if you're concerned about that, get your blood tested and ask your doctor about the risks. But again, the risks are probably very low.
posted by dis_integration at 8:12 AM on January 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

Six days a week of strength training is too much. Start with a thrice-a-week program of compound lifts such as in Rippetoe's Starting Strength.

I generally just eat egg whites so that moots any cholesterol concerns. Of course, your doctor is better equipped to address those issues.

I don't see any downsides of protein powder. I generally do a scoop each of whey and casein. It will be very hard to give advice about protein intake without knowing your height, weight (although I guess about 150 lbs), and sex. 100 grams is not necessarily a lot, though. It's not like a can of beans is the most efficient source of protein. My breakfast today of a four egg white ham omelette and two slices of bacon was 33 g of protein, and the chicken I will have for lunch is going to be another 60 g or so. As a vegetarian, egg whites and protein powder are going to be the most efficient protein source you can eat.

I don't have any advice about your cognition or concentration.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:14 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm a grad student who does weightlifting stuff on a fairly regular basis, so I'll just give my experiences cognition and concentration-wise. I find that it;s best to do cardio in the middle of the afternoon, for me biking or a walking/jogging, because that's when I'm starting to be drowsy and unproductive and it wakes me up, and if it's not too intense, I can kind of organize my thoughts and think things over a little. I know a lot of people do stuff in the morning to be awake and alert for the day, but I'm not enough of a morning person to stick to that.

For me at least, I have to do the intense weight training stuff after I'm done with all my mental work, because it's going to leave me wiped out. Also, I tend to sleep about an hour more than usual those nights as my body recovers.

My routine switches between two different sets of exercises and I go 3 times a week. I think that's about optimal, you could go a little more - say every other day making it 3 some weeks and 4 on others. I mean all this depends on your body a little, but I'll agree that 6 times a week is way too much.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:53 AM on January 22, 2015

The book Which comes first Cardio or Weights by Alex Hutchinson says that even for serious strength athletes 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight is enough. If you track your nutrition in an online program, I think you'd be surprised how easy it is to get that from whole foods (if you wanted to do that). Bread, oats, vegetables etc. all add up. If you weigh 70 kilo's and wanted to eat 1.3 grams of protein per kg, you'd need 90 grams of protein. That's about 360 calories. If you're going to eat 3000 calories a day, that's only 12% protein. You could eat only oatmeal and still get enough protein.

About increasing cognition: I recommend the book Spark! by John Ratey. It's about this. In general I think the conclusion is that the effect of exercise on concentration wanes of rather quickly, so it's best to exercise right before class. But the book has way more detail.
posted by blub at 9:12 AM on January 22, 2015

When I was vegetarian and working on a farm, my appetite was huge. After a few weeks I realised that my arm muscles were getting huge! I think that for the most part, bodies are pretty good at telling us what we need and getting what they want from that.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 9:22 AM on January 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

To get a daily protein intake of 90g per day by just eating oatmeal would require eating about eight pounds of cooked oatmeal per day. Plant matter is generally not protein-dense, so being lacto-ovo is a real boon.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:17 AM on January 22, 2015

Protein powder is fine. Buy it at Whole Foods, keep the receipt, return it if you don't like it or if it gives you the farts. Their unsweetened soy milk is relatively high protein, too.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:02 AM on January 22, 2015

Plain 2% Fage Greek yogurt has 20g protein which is about 40% of your DV, depending on your weight/total calories consumed.
posted by kapers at 11:20 AM on January 22, 2015

I am a vegetarian PhD student who lifts weights! I eat a lot of protein powder. It will not hurt you. I like the Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard chocolate flavor -- I mix it with Greek yogurt and peanut butter. I also eat lots of eggs, nuts, beans, lentils, tofu, and tempeh.

It sounds like you're doing a bodybuilding split, but you may want to consider a program that's more focused on compound lifts, which IMO gives you more bang for your buck (unless you want to look like Chris Hemsworth, in which case go for it). I work out three days a week.

I like to lift first thing in the morning. It energizes me and gets me ready for a day of working on my dissertation. But I think this varies a lot from person to person and you'll just have to experiment and see what works best for you. Mainly, make sure you eat enough and get enough sleep. Serious strength training requires both.
posted by baby beluga at 11:58 AM on January 22, 2015

If you eat egg whites, you're not consuming extra cholesterol. So you can go that route.

Anecdotally, I've eaten 30+ eggs/week for a few years, and my cholesterol is normal, so I'm going to guess cholesterol consumption isn't always directly correlated. From reading, it may depend on your consumption of processed carbohydrates more; sugar, white flour, HFCS.

On protein powder, you may want to avoid casein, which may trigger cancer. (Might not; go dig up the science and decide on your end?) Casein is typically the favorite choice of bodybuilders before going to sleep for the night, as it takes awhile to digest, so you get a "slow trickle" of protein while you sleep.

As far as "best" protein powder, most people consider whey protein to be pretty good. For best-bang-for-your-buck, Optimum Nutrition has a "naturally flavored vanilla" that's on the low end for cost, and on the high-end for quality (including contaminants like heavy metals, which are bad for you). I'm basing the quality estimate on, which has a vested financial interest (they sell what they rate).
posted by talldean at 12:24 PM on January 24, 2015

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