Interest in plant-based diets is growing. No wonder! Plants provide an incredible array of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that help you stay healthy. Plus, the perception is that eating plants is better for the environment. Even some athletes are adopting plant-based or vegetarian/vegan diets. More people are adopting the term “plant-based” rather than vegetarian because the emphasis is on eating plant foods, not just avoiding meat.
You don’t have to completely eliminate meat and dairy to eat more plants. In fact, some athletes and bodybuilders are skeptical that a plant-based diet provides enough high-quality protein to build muscle. Is there any truth to this? If you’re trying to build muscle, can you do it effectively on a plant-based diet?
If You Go Vegetarian, Will It Be Hard to Build Muscle?
Fortunately, eating a plant-based diet isn’t a barrier to muscle development. A number of athletes and bodybuilders are vegetarian or vegan and suffer no problems with performance or muscle development. Many plant-based foods are a good source of protein. By consuming more protein-dense plant sources and eating enough calories, you can comfortably meet your body’s protein requirements.
Which foods are your best options? Beans, lentils, nuts, and whole grains are excellent sources of plant-based protein. By eating a variety of these foods, you can get all of the essential amino acids your body needs and can’t make. Most plant foods lack one or more essential amino acids that another one contains. For example, beans and whole grains aren’t complete proteins but when you eat them both, you get all the essential amino acids. Don’t worry, you don’t have to eat them at the same meal to unleash their muscle-building power. Just make sure you include some of both in your diet as well as a variety of plant-based protein sources.
Soybeans are one of the plant sources that contain all of the essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. That’s why vegan athletes and bodybuilders typically eat some form of soy. For health purposes, fermented soy, like tempeh, is best. Fermentation reduces some of the components in soy that, theoretically, can affect your thyroid and interfere with the absorption of minerals. Tempeh also has a meat-like texture.
Tofu, another popular option, isn’t fermented but it’s better than the many processed meat alternatives on the market. Many veggie burgers and packaged vegetarian meat substitutes are processed with a long list of ingredients. Get your protein but get it from unprocessed sources. As a general rule of thumb, aim for a gram of plant-based protein daily per pound of bodyweight
How do plant-based proteins stack up in terms of protein? Soy is a plant-based food with the greatest amount, around 28 grams per cup while beans have, on average, 15 grams per cup. Whole grains have 6 to 10 grams of protein per cup whereas nuts have 4 to 6 grams of protein per ounce. Quinoa stands out among whole-grain foods since it has all the essential amino acids your body needs.
Vegetables are also a decent source of protein. For example, avocados have 10 grams of protein, but like most plant-based foods, they don’t contain a full array of essential amino acids. Don’t forget about seeds. Chia seeds and hemp seeds are an excellent protein source and stand out because they, too, have all the essential amino acids your muscles need to grow.
Plant-Based Diet: Leucine and Branched-Chain Amino Acids
One downside to a vegetarian or vegan diet, is meat and dairy are good sources of branched-chain amino acids – leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Branched-chain amino acids play a special role in muscle growth and recovery. In fact, leucine turns on a critical pathway for muscle growth called the mTOR pathway. Leucine is most abundant in eggs, meat, and fish, although seaweed and soybeans are a good source of leucine. Still, leucine isn’t abundant in a plant only diet.
Interestingly, a 2015 study showed a pea protein supplement powder was as effective as a whey protein supplement for increasing muscle size and strength. If you’re eliminating most animal products, pea protein, a good source of branched chain amino acids, once a day will supply the leucine your muscles need to turn on muscle protein synthesis.
The Bottom Line
Yes, you can build muscle on a plant-based diet but you have to consume enough protein, total calories, and get them from a variety of protein sources. Since plant foods are relatively low in calories, you’ll have to eat a lot of food. The good news is you can eat a lot of food since many plant-based foods are low in calories.
Don’t forget that a vegetarian or vegan diet can be just as unhealthy, or more so, than an omnivorous or carnivorous diet. Some vegetarians and vegans eat mainly processed foods. After all, chips and French fries can be part of a vegetarian diet but these are hardly foods that a nutritionist would recommend. So, if you’re thinking about going plant-based only, eat a whole food, plant-based diet.
Exclusively plant-based diets are often low in certain nutrients, including iron, vitamin B12, iodine, calcium, and vitamin D. The form of iron you get from plant foods, called non-heme iron, is not as well absorbed as heme iron from animal products. Plant foods are also not a source of vitamin B12, so, if you go meat and dairy free, talk to your doctor about taking a supplement.
All in all, there are health benefits to adopting a plant-based diet, whether you go completely meat and dairy free or just consume more plant foods. Another plus – Some studies show vegetarians and vegans have a lower rate of heart disease and some types of cancer. If you go this route, plan your diet to ensure you’re getting an adequate supply of protein, including branched chain amino acids, and enough vitamins and minerals that people who don’t eat meat or dairy sometimes lack.
“Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete” Joel Fuhrman and Deana M. Ferreri
J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015; 12: 3.
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