Building Muscle On A Vegan Diet

Building Muscle On A Vegan Diet

Unless you live under a rock — a rock with no wifi access — you’ve probably noticed that there’s been an explosion of interest in vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. Once the province of new-age hippies and animal rights activists, plant-based diets have gone mainstream in a big way. Indeed, according to a 2019 article in The Economist, 25% of 25- to 34-year-old Americans say they are vegans or vegetarians, and the trend is accelerating.

Building Muscle on a Vegan Diet SidebarBefore we go on, let's establish the difference. A vegetarian is someone who doesn't consume any food products made from meat, poultry, fish, or seafood. In addition to these staples, a vegan will also not consume eggs or dairy products. Some extremely strict vegans will also extend this prohibition to some insect by-products such as honey.

So, why go veggie? Well, there's the sustainability issue, of course. It takes a big old mountain of vegetable matter to feed one cow that in turn can be sliced into a few steaks. Environmental and ethical concerns aside, however, many people have discovered that they simply feel better after eliminating meat from their diet, whether it's due to digestion issues or allergies. Reducing meat intake may also help reduce cholesterol levels, lower A1C blood sugar levels, and lower the risk of getting certain kinds of cancer.

One last bastion left unconquered by the vegan hordes has always been the realm of serious muscle-building athletes. Common consensus has always maintained that vegetable proteins are incomplete proteins that are not as efficiently utilized by the body to repair and build muscle tissue. The Protein Biological Value Scale, which ranks food sources according to percentage of protein that can be digested and used for muscle building purposes, includes all meats at the top and plants toward the bottom, generally speaking.

All of which brings us back to our primary question: Can You Build Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet?

For our purposes here, we're going to be considering the vegan lifestyle, so no eggs or dairy either. The answer is a classic good news / bad news proposition.

1) Yes, you can build significant muscle mass on a vegan diet.
2) It won't be easy.

Skeptical? You don't have to take our word for it. Tennis superstar Venus Williams, pro basketball standout Chris Paul, and multiple Wimbledon champ and world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic have all embraced plant-based lifestyles while reaching the apex of their sports. Powerlifter and Germany's strongest man Patrik Bouboumian credits his vegan diet with helping him build colossal muscle and strength.

So it is possible. But vegan athletes have to be even more diligent about the food they consume than their meat-eating contemporaries. And even then, challenges remain. Let's take a look at some of them.

Maintaining a Caloric Surplus

We talk all the time about how many muscle-building athletes undermine their gains by simply not consuming enough calories every day. All the exercise in the world won't make a difference if there isn't enough growth fuel in the tank. And these athletes have access to calorie-dense chicken breasts, lean beef and whey protein formulas. Now imagine how difficult it is to gain muscle solely on leafy greens. There's a reason cows and deer spend every waking moment munching foliage.

We advise ALL aspiring muscle builders to use a calorie calculator. A good calculator -- they're free all over the internet -- will tell you how many calories you need to maintain and grow muscle. And then you have to manually weigh what you eat and plan your meals ahead to make your macros. This is even more important for vegan athletes. It takes a lot of kale to hit your daily protein intake number.

In terms of sheer calories, one solution for vegan athletes is to rely on nutrient-dense plant-based foods like nuts, seeds, oils, and complex carbohydrates. (Early warning here that if you're also gluten sensitive, you're in a double-bind because some of the following suggestions are gluten-rich grains.) Excellent sources of protein for vegans include ancient grains such as spelt, barley and sorghum, as well as quinoa, oats, soy, tempeh, and all sorts of nuts and nut butters. If you're culinarily adventurous, you might consider mycoproteins, a non-animal-based protein derived from fungus, and seitan, a kind of "wheat meat" that is one of the richest plant protein sources available and is a good source of selenium, iron, calcium, and phosphorus.

Complex carbohydrates will help you elevate your caloric intake and are an excellent energy source for your workouts. Again, whole grains, wild rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes and oats are your friends here. Bulk up!

The key is to eat and eat often. If you're grazing like a deer, you need to approach it like a deer. As an eight-meal-a-day job.

Combining Plant-Based Meal Options to Create Complete Amino Profiles

Different plants have different amino profiles, but one thing they all have in common is that they're incomplete. Veggies tend to be deficient in leucine, which is essential to facilitating protein synthesis in muscle tissue. You can meet this challenge by turning to vegan protein powders sourced from green peas, wild rice, hemp and chia seeds, all of which have relatively higher leucine values.

Soy protein powder actually has a protein biological value slightly higher than fish and lean beef. This makes it an ideal option for mixing into shakes, stir-frys, stews and other meal options. Other plant-based options that contain comparable amounts of protein per serving as animal-based foods are pumpkin seeds, black beans, lentils, and almonds. Also consider combining nuts and seeds with legumes, as well as grains and legumes (rice and beans, for instance) to create more complete amino profiles. You don't have to do this in the same meal, but as part of your everyday regimen.

You may want to increase your overall protein intake as well. Plant-based proteins aren't as swiftly absorbed as meat proteins. If you absorb 85% to 95% of the protein in chicken breast and beef, you might only absorb 50% to 75% of the protein in common vegan protein sources. So if a typical carnivore is consuming 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, you might want to shoot for something closer to two grams. Again, it's a lot of eating.

Accessing Proper Amounts of Trace Nutrients

A vegan diet is rich in the nutrition you need to achieve peak physique and performance, but some very specific trace nutrients can be harder to obtain. The one most commonly cited is Vitamin B-12, which is found almost exclusively in animal-sourced foods such as fish, meat, dairy products, and eggs. Vitamin B-12 deficiency can increase risks for a number of serious health conditions, so it makes sense to supplement for this key nutrient. Fortunately, there are vegan-friendly B-12 products formulated from fairly exotic sources such as lichen algae and nori seaweed.

Omega-3 fatty acids are super-nutrients that support heart health, antioxidant activity and recovery from intense exercise. We primarily associate Omega-3s with fish oils, but flaxseed is another vital source of Omega-3s, as are walnuts, chia seeds and Brussels sprouts. For greater absorbability and utilization, consider supplementing with an Omega-3 formulation derived from algae.

You would think the "sunshine vitamin" and plant-based foods would go hand-in-hand, but actually the Vitamin D found in plants is the much less bioactively useful Vitamin D2. Vitamin D3 or cholecalciferol is better absorbed and effectively raises blood vitamin D levels for a longer period than vitamin D2. Fortunately, nature has you covered here, as Vitamin D3 is a hormone that your body produces naturally in response to sunlight. During winter months, you can supplement with Vitamin D3 derived from lichen algae.

Other trace nutrients that can be lacking in vegan diets include iodine (which can be derived from kelp and furnished in supplement form), taurine (available in synthetic form), and calcium, which is usually associated with dairy products, but is also richly supplied in leafy greens like kale and spinach as well as tofu, almonds and chia seeds.

Avoiding Blood Acidosis

Here's an aspect of muscle-building where vegans actually have an advantage over their meat-eating friends. Dietary regimens that include animal-based products tend to make the blood acidic, especially over time. Increases in blood acidity can decrease muscle mass and inhibit growth. This is one reason older people lose muscle mass as they age.

Foods that are highly alkaline include fruits and vegetables. Consuming them in sizable amounts can help in aiding and preserving muscle mass regeneration, as long as you're getting enough calories, proteins, exercise and rest.

Which brings us to an obvious conclusion. It should go without saying that to gain muscle the vegan way, you need to keep all the other aspects of your fitness regimen on point. Train hard and rest just as hard. Avoid processed foods. There are plenty of vegan food options in the frozen food and snack aisles that are just junk. Manage stress and set realistic goals.

The pathway to peak physique via vegan living can be a little more winding and challenging than the carnivore highway, but it is just as rewarding.

The articles featured herein are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Specific medical advice should only be obtained from a licensed health care professional. No liability is assumed by ProSource for any information herein.