The concept of vegan and plant based nutrition has gained a lot of traction as people adhere to its health benefits and the ethics behind the treatment of animals.
It has worked its way rapidly through the fitness community to all forms of athletes and fitness enthusiast– including bodybuilders. In this article we’ll be taking a look at key aspect for muscle-building on a vegan or plant based diet to aid any bodybuilding aspirations you may have.
Resistance training (weightlifting) is the main vehicle for developing a muscular frame, but nutrition is essential to the process as well. By traditional means, a caloric surplus of 10-20% and consumption of a high protein diet would be the common foundation for adding muscle mass.
But this presents a few challenges for those embarking in veganism and plant-based nutrition.
Getting Adequate Amounts of Protein
If you were to pinpoint one of the greatest hurdles of muscle building with plant based nutrition, protein would be it.
Protein plays a prominent and complex role in the diets of all athletes. It can serve as an energy source for exercise performance and the key to exercise and muscular adaptation. The body strives to reach the balance between muscle protein breakdown (MPB) and muscle protein synthesis (MPS) known as net protein balance (NPB). Achieving positive NPB through elevated levels of protein synthesis helps with recovery, adaptation, and muscle growth.
For athletes who use resistance training to build lean muscle mass, the demand for higher protein intake rises to prevent the breakdown of existing muscle and facilitate new growth. The range of protein intake for physically active people is very broad:
- for most athletes the ISSN recommends between 1.4- 2.0 g per kg of bodyweight a day
- for athletes seeking to lose weight some sources suggest 1.8- 2.7 g per kg of bodyweight a day
- and in the most demanding circumstances for bodybuilders or fitness enthusiast seeking competitive leanness protein intake may call for as much as 2.3- 3.2 g per kg of bodyweight a day.
The problem is that vegans seem to consume less protein than omnivores or even vegetarians. Plant-based protein is usually incomplete, containing fewer branched chain amino acids (BCAA) than their animal counterpart. When you also factor in protein digestiblilty plant sources like rice, hemp, and peas under-perform when compared to many animal proteins.
But don’t let this info discourage you. While quite a few amino acids are frequently absent in plant based protein, foods like beans and legumes are great sources of amino acids like lysine. There are plenty other BCAA’s found in seeds, tree nuts, and chickpeas that can be consumed through a variety of different nutrient rich sources.
Ultimately this is the trick– eating enough grains, seeds, legumes, and nuts to meet the body’s training requirements will set you up for muscle growth (even with a plant-based/vegan diet).
Because of the lack of animal protein, it may be beneficial to consume protein on the high end of the ISSN recommendation, around 1.4 – 2.0 g/kg a day.
Filling The Void Of Nutrients
Protein is indispensable in muscle building. Animal product, no animal product, we can’t grow without it- but it isn’t the only nutrient necessary during the process.
First it’s important to note that veganism and plant based nutrition has it’s advantages, especially with regards to carbohydrates. The noticable intake of carbs, fiber, fruits, vegetables, vitamins and minerals help fight the effects of inflammation and bolster the recovery process after exercise.
Reaching carbohydrate requirements is fairly simple.
Eating grains, fruits, root vegetables, and legumes to the toon of 4 to 12 g/kg a day will support fitness energy needs, particularly for high volume training. These numbers may vary slightly depending on your weight and gender, but they’re a great place to start for fitness enthusiasts.
Vegan and plant based nutrition generally benefit from low saturated fat and higher n-6 fats. This has been linked to reductions in heart disease, inflammation, hypertension, type II diabetes, and cancer– all great signs.
However due to the lack of marine sourced fats, vegans consume less n-3 fatty acid than omnivores or vegetarians– an important fat for cardiovascular health and protection from inflammation. To counter this eating a healthy amount of flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts will provide necessary n-3 a-linolenic acid the body needs (along with broader health benefits).
With fats it’s important to focus on both quantity and quality. Vegan and plant based athletes can reach the daily recommendation of roughly 30% daily caloric intake (0.5- 1.5 g/kg daily) from the abundance of fats found in whole foods like avocado, nuts and seeds.
Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are of great importance to vegan athletes. There presence or absence can have long lasting effects on health, performance and by extension muscle building. With known deficiencies in iron, vitamin B12, zinc, calcium, ionide, and vitamin D surrounding plant-based nutrition, being conscious of the nutrient details is more vital than ever.
Quite a few micronutrients are synthesized by anaerobic microorganisms found in certain animals or simply lack bioavailability in many plants. Cobalamin (B12) for example is a vitamin absent in plants that’s deficiencies can lead to changes in blood cells and neurological symptoms like anemia and neuropathy. One way to address these deficiencies (for B12 specifically and micronutrients as a whole) is through fortified foods and supplementation.
When certain foods do contain vitamins and minerals, there are a few points to keep in mind:
- it’s best to reduce consumption of inhibitor containing products such as tea, coffee, and cocoa when eating nutrient rich meals like iron
- eating foods that enhance absorption of complimentary vitamins and minerals (like vitamin c and iron).
Eating enough food sounds like a no-brainer for putting on muscle mass, but this can get tricky with a plant-based or vegan diet.
Data suggests that vegans consume less food than omnivores. That’s not taking into account the low levels of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients associated with vegetarian diets.
If you’re not actively tracking calories it’s very easy to miss the mark on daily caloric intake.
The thing about plant-based nutrition is that it often leads to high fiber consumption. These fiberous foods have low energy density and promote early satiety which my benefit weight-loss purposes, but creates an uphill battle for high caloric intake.
What’s important to building muscle with this form of nutrition is increasing your feeding frequency and energy dense food. With disadvantages like these faced by vegans, making every meal and every menu item count towards your daily caloric goals is essential. Making an intentional effort to eat energy dense food like nuts, seeds, and oils every meal will ensure you reach your body’s energy needs.
Below are examples of two meal plans provided by Nutritics Limited that carefully track calories, record macro and micronutrients and provide a variety of food sources to meet the needs of gym-goers seeking to build muscle. To be successful on your journey I suggest taking a similar approach.
Building muscle under normal circumstances have hurdles of its own, but adding a vegan or plant based diet adds a new dimension of considerations. These forms of nutrition are often taken up out of strong moral conviction. But to make plant based nutrtion work for muscle-building, the most important key outside of conviction will be diligence.
It will take a focused effort to fill in the holes that are left without animal products. To summarize what you need here are a few tips:
- Fuel up on enough high protein plants: while resistance exercise is efficient at breaking down muscle, only through an abundance of protein can the body rebuild and add muscle fiber through protein synthesis. Choosing high protein foods like legumes, tofu, quinoa, and soy to meet your protein needs and increase muscle growth.
- Monitor the other macro and micronutrients: while most vegans and vegetarians meet requirements for carbohydrates, there have been cases of deficiencies in certain fats, vitamins, and minerals. Buy food and plan meals that meet your daily needs of B12, iron, n-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, zinc, calcium, and iodine. If you can’t find enough whole foods also consider supplementation.
- Stay informed: Because adherence to this form of nutrition hinders intake of many food groups, the risks of deficiencies become higher. It is critical to understand which foods offer key nutrients, macronutrient ratios, and how they relate to your current diet. If you need to add certain foods or take some out, your performance and results will benefit from your researching what your body needs.
- Eat enough food: You could very well eat all of the right foods, but if you don’t eat enough of them, building lean muscle mass won’t happen. With a caloric surplus the body has the energy it needs to repair damaged tissue and synthesize more. Keeping a close eye on caloric intake on a meal-by-meal basis and daily basis will ensure that you eat enough to reach your muscle building goals.