Many people believe that vegans cannot build muscle and will inevitably suffer from protein and vitamin deficiencies. Others think that veganism is the best thing since the invention of the internet and that they have to convert everyone they see to become a vegan.
So who’s right and what is the vegan diet really all about?
Vegan Diets Explained
As you probably know vegetarians do not eat meat, fish, or poultry. Vegans, in addition to being vegetarian, do not consume other animal products and by-products such as eggs, dairy products and honey.
While some people will choose to go vegan because of environmental or ethical reasons, I will talk about it only from a fitness and health standpoint. Since the field of veganism is so broad we will start with a rather simple question can you build muscle as a vegan.
And the answer is yes absolutely, but it’s more difficult than on a normal diet.
The main reason for this is protein.
As numerous studies have shown, a high-protein diet is very important for building muscle. Our bodies simply need amino acids derived from protein to repair and grow muscle tissue. Without it, you won’t provide your body with the material for muscle growth.
Vegan Diets & Protein – What You Need To Know
When we look at vegan diets and compare them to traditional diets from a macronutritional perspective, the main difference is protein intake.
That’s because if you have been following my advice on healthy carbohydrate and fat foods, you will already be getting most of these macronutrients from plant-based sources like grains, fruits, vegetables or nuts. All this doesn’t change when you go vegan.
Your protein intake does change, however. Basically, you replace high-quality protein foods like meat or eggs with lower-quality protein foods like grains or vegetables.
Now, don’t get me wrong grains and vegetables are very healthy foods and part of a balanced diet. You run into a problem though when you use them as your single source of protein.
Because many plant-based proteins come with two drawbacks.
Plant-Based Proteins & Essential Amino Acids
First, plant-based protein generally have an inferior amino acid profile which means that they contain lower amounts of some of the nine essential amino acids.
Amino acids are the “building blocks” of protein and tissues in the body, which obviously includes muscle tissue. Our body needs all 21 amino acids to stay alive, and we have to get 9 of them through our foods (the so-called essential amino acids).
Many vegetables and fruits, for example, are low in one or more of the essential amino acids (leucine is especially important for muscle growth), so they aren’t particularly suited for muscle building purposes.
But there is a simple solution for this if you are vegan: Don’t rely on these as your protein source.
For example, nuts, beans and legumes are great vegan protein sources and as long as you don’t rely on one single food source for protein, you will definitely get all the essential amino acids your body needs.
There are even complementary proteins that will give you a complete amino acid profile as part of a meal (even though you don’t have to get all essential amino acids in every single meal). Here are a few good examples:
Rice and beans
Tofu with brown rice or quinoa
Hummus and whole-grain pitas
Whole-grain noodles with peanut sauce
Plant-Based Proteins & Bioavailability
The second problem with plant-based proteins is that they are digested less efficiently than their animal protein counterparts. This means eating 100 grams of lean beef isn’t the same as eating 100 grams of pea protein.
Pea protein has less muscle-building potential than beef protein. What this means is that as a vegan who wants to build muscle you also make up for the lower rate of absorption.
Doing this isn’t impossible but it is more difficult than simply relying on meat and dairy as your protein source. To help you out here are a few protein sources that should make up the majority of your daily protein:
Grains (e.g. wheat, rice and oats)
Legumes (e.g. beans and lentils)
Nuts (e.g. peanuts almonds or walnuts)
Seeds (e.g. quinoa and buckwheat)
Ok, now that we talked about how to overcome protein deficiencies…
What About Micronutrient Deficiencies?
You’ve probably heard that going vegan does increase the risk of various nutritional deficiencies. This is true. The most common ones are deficiencies in:
Vitamins D and B12
And omega-3 fatty acids
Now many vegans will tell you that these common deficiencies can be avoided by simply adding certain foods to your diet. While this is true in theory, things look a lot different in practice.
For example, to get the same amount of calcium from vegetables as from dairy products you will have to consume multiple servings instead of just one. The same goes for zinc.
Unless you want to micromanage your diet and always check your micronutrient intake this means you will have to supplement. Supplementing Vitamins D, B12 and omega-3 fatty acids is actually fairly common among experienced vegans and something I would recommend.
What’s my conclusion on the vegan diet?
You can build plenty of muscle and strength as a vegan…if you know what you’re doing.
You will have to closely monitor your foods and protein sources and probably invest more time towards meal planning to avoid deficiencies.
If you are willing to do all these things the vegan diet can definitely be a healthy alternative and help you gain muscle.