A common misconception is that you can’t get enough protein to build muscle unless you consume meat and dairy. But, the success of some natural, vegan bodybuilders shows this simply isn’t the case. Plants are a source of protein too and some, like soy, are a complete protein source. Complete proteins contain all the amino acids your muscles need to grow but can’t on their own. However, you have to plan carefully if you eat an exclusively plant-based diet and still want to build muscle. In addition, plant-based diets tend to be lower in certain vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, riboflavin, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and iron. If you don’t consume meat or dairy, here are some tips to help you maximize muscle gains.
Eat a Variety of Protein Sources
You may have your favorite protein source. For you, a meal may not be complete without a serving of quinoa or lentils and you eat these foods most days of the week. However, eating a variety of protein-rich foods is best. For one, not all plant proteins contain all the essential amino acids your body needs. When you consume a variety of sources, including legumes, whole grains, nuts, and soy-based foods, your body gets all the essential amino acids it needs. For example, whole grains contain higher quantities of the essential amino acids legumes lack and vice versa. Whole grains and legumes complement one another from a protein standpoint.
So many vegans and vegetarians use soy as a protein source. Soy is a plant-based food that contains all the amino acids your body needs, and one of the few plant-based sources that’s complete. Though soy is a complete protein, don’t get into a soy rut. Even though it’s a nutritious food, you get the same vitamins and minerals over and over every time you eat it. By varying the type of plant protein, you consume, you get a greater variety of vitamins and minerals. Diverse diets are less likely to lead to vitamin or mineral deficiency. In addition, some experts recommend not overconsuming unfermented soy as it contains anti-nutrients that can reduce mineral absorption. However, cooking soy eliminates most of the antinutrients, as does fermentation. So, fermented soy, like tempeh, is a better choice than tofu, particularly uncooked tofu.
Another concern about soy – rats that consume large quantities of soy develop enlargement of the thyroid gland. Fortunately, consuming enough iodine seems to prevent this. So, soy, in moderation, is fine, as long as you’re cooking it and getting enough iodine in your diet. Even better, choose fermented soy, like tempeh. It’s an excellent source of protein.
Watch Out for Overly Processed Plant-Based Foods
You might be tempted to stock up on the growing number of packaged, plant-based foods, like veggie burgers and plant-based “chicken” nuggets, etc. But, for health reasons, limit the amount of these foods you eat as most are highly processed and made with soy protein isolate. If you do buy a veggie burger, choose one with a short list of whole food ingredients or make your own. Make some extra and freeze them for convenience. You can make high-protein, plant-based burgers from a variety of sources, including beans and whole grains.
Eat Enough Calories and Protein
You need more protein than a sedentary person does when you’re trying to build muscle, up to twice the amount. If you’re eating plant-based, you’ll have to eat more food to meet your body’s protein and calorie requirements. It’s hard to build muscle if you’re not getting enough calories, and you have to eat more food to meet your body’s calorie needs when you’re eating plants due to their low energy density.
Remember, you need a slight calorie excess to build muscle. So, include more calorie and nutrient-dense plant-based foods in your diet, like nuts and seeds. Sprinkle nuts, chia, and hemp on your oatmeal or whole-grain cereal in the morning to get more protein and calories. Also, choose more high-protein plant sources, like nuts, peanuts, lentils, beans, and edamame beans as opposed to carby foods that are low in protein, like rice and potatoes.
Have an After-Workout Shake
After a challenging strength-training session, your muscles need carbohydrates and protein for recovery. Most experts agree that between 20 and 30 grams of protein after a workout is optimal. To get that quantity of protein from plants, it may be easier to drink a protein shake. Hemp protein and pea protein are two good sources of plant-based protein you can use to make a recovery shake. It’s best to get protein from whole foods when you can, but if you’re eating a plant-based diet and are pressed for time, a plant-based protein drink can help you supply your muscles with the protein they need for repair and growth.
Be Aware of Potential Nutritional Shortfalls
Plant-based diets tend to be lower in certain vitamins and minerals, including calcium, vitamin D, zinc, iron, and vitamin B12. Nutritional imbalances can impact your ability to train and slow gains, not to mention, there are health consequences to not getting enough of certain vitamins and minerals. If you eat a completely, plant-based diet, you need a vitamin B12 supplement. Only animal foods are a reliable source of this essential vitamin you need for a healthy brain, blood cells, and nerves. For the other vitamins and minerals, you may be able to get enough by modifying your food choices, but in some cases, you may need a supplement. By eating a variety of plant-based foods including nuts, whole grains, legumes, and greens, you may still be able to supply your body with enough calcium, zinc, and iron. Just be aware that plant-based diets can be low in these nutrients and plan accordingly.
How Effective is a Plant-Based Diet for Building Muscle?
If you consume a plant-based diet for health or ethical reasons, it won’t put you at a disadvantage. In a study published in the Journal of Clinic Nutrition, one group of older men consumed a lactoovovegetarian diet or a diet containing beef. Both groups consumed similar quantities of protein and strength trained. At the end of the study period, both groups experienced gains in muscle cross-sectional area and both groups gained dynamic strength. There were no significant differences between the two groups.
Keep in mind, the plant-based group consumed a lactoovovegetarian diet, meaning they consumed dairy products and eggs. A vegan diet, where you eat no dairy or meat, is often lower in protein. If you fall into this category, you’ll need to plan your diet carefully. It IS possible to build muscle on a plant-based diet. But, make sure your diet is balanced and contains enough calories and protein. Of course, you need a balanced diet, regardless of whether you eat mostly plants or a diet that contains both plant and animal foods.
J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017; 14: 36.
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J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017; 14: 36.