I used to be into my weight training and trained 5-6 times a week. I was vegetarian at the time and my trainer was a meat-eater. He would repeatedly tell me how, if you are really serious about building muscle, “you need to eat meat!“.
I didn’t believe him then, and nearly 20 years later and as a vegan and a Nutritional Therapist, I know he was wrong!
With a background in science and, in particular, sports science, I understand that genetics play a big part in the makeup of our body. In addition to that, epigenetics also plays a part. Our environment, and what we eat can affect how a certain gene is expressed, meaning that genetics alone isn’t the deciding factor.
There has been much in literature and the news regarding the benefits of following a vegan diet, with more and more celebrities and athletes moving over to one.
So do vegan diets contain enough nutrients to build muscles?
Six times World Ironman Triathlon Champion, Dave Scott, seems to do well on a vegan diet and what could be more challenging than a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride followed immediately by a 26.2 mile run?
He was vegetarian and then switched to a vegan diet and found that he felt much healthier and his energy levels were up. He says that he is sleeping better and can keep his weight better under control since going fully vegan.
Robert Cheeke was America’s top ranking vegan body builder, winning championships. He now writes, lectures and blogs about his diet and lifestyle inspiring many people to move over to a vegan diet. John Machin is a 61 year old lifelong vegan who demonstrates his strength and ability on his vegan diet on a YouTube channel where you can see how much muscle can be built on a vegan diet.
At 61 he has more muscle than most even half his age. He is a personal trainer and has a background in Sports Nutrition.
There are many vegan groups on Facebook where various athletes demonstrate just how well they are doing on their vegan diets. UK Vegan Runners has over 3,700 members whilst Vegan Bodybuilding and Fitness has well over 240,000 members.
The evidence of successful vegan athletes athletes and bodybuilders is plentiful!
More high profile athletes who have obviously done well on vegan diets include: Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis who has been vegan since 1990, Timothy Shieff, Freerunning Champion and finalist in Ninja Warrior UK, David Haye – Boxer, Venus Williams – Tennis Player, Fiona Oakes – Marathon Runner – vegan her whole adult life and she holds three world records.
So what nutrients do we actually need for muscle-building athletic performance?
The first big one that most people are convinced that vegans can’t get enough of is the macro-nutrient protein. The building blocks of protein are amino acids and these are required to both build and maintain muscle-mass – amongst other things.
We know that meat eaters get their protein mainly from the animals that they eat, but where do those animals get their protein from? Plants. Therefore, where can vegans get their protein from? Also from plants. But they cut out the intermediate step, they get their amino acids directly from the source.
Sources of protein on a vegan diet include: vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, peanuts, pumpkin sees, peas, oats, tofu, tempeh, wholewheat bread and quinoa.
Carbohydrates are paramount in all sports as a primary energy source
Energy is important if we want to exercise and build muscle. Carbohydrates are also important to help with the various cellular processes that go on within the body. Vegan diets provide high amounts of carbohydrates through vegetables.
So called antioxidant nutrients are helpful in combating the damage caused by free-radicals
As we exercise, free radicals are produced, especially in intense exercise. Fruit and vegetables are high in antioxidants and having a variety of different types and colours of fruit and vegetables gives us the best variety of antioxidants.
This is needed to help with muscle contraction and is found in almonds, sesame seeds and fortified foods.
This is also involved in muscle contraction and to boost energy levels also helping to reduce fatigue and muscle cramps. This is found in: nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables and garlic.
Has a role in the production of testosterone which helps to build muscles, and it also helps the muscles to recover from exercise. Zinc can be found in pulses, pumpkin seeds, spinach, nuts and mushrooms.
Has been shown to help in muscle strength and performance. Found in mushrooms, tofu and fortified foods such as plant milks. Best obtained from being in natural sunlight and so both vegans and meat-eaters may find the need to supplement in the winter months or if they are not out in the sunlight very often.
May decrease muscle breakdown and enhance strength training. Best sources for vegans are from walnuts, flax seed, chia seeds, nuts and even fresh basil.
Important for the health of blood vessels (some of which will supply oxygen to muscles), as well as being important for collagen and elastin synthesis. Vitamin C is available in broccoli, tomatoes and strawberries.
Helps cells to recover from the oxidative stress of muscle damage thus helping them to repair better. Found in almonds, spinach, carrots, avocados and olive oil.
Paramount for energy production, and without these there may not be enough energy to work the muscles effectively. B vitamins can be found in: nuts, rice, bread, peas, legumes, potatoes, soya beans, mushrooms and brewer’s yeast. B12 may need to be taken from fortified foods such as yeast extract, plant milks and nutritional yeast.
This is one vitamin that can be lacking in both vegan, and meat-eating diets. Although B12 is produced in the gut of animals and thus would normally be ingested when eating meat, with the change in farming practices and what the animals are given to eat, this means that even the animals often need to be given supplements of B12.
As well as providing the necessary nutrients an athlete needs on a vegan diet, it is also more beneficial in terms of an acid/alkali balance. A meat-eating diet is fairly acidic and this is not good – even more so for athletes. An acidic diet may lead to muscle wasting and an increased risk of injury.
Like any way of eating that may exclude certain food items, you must make sure that you are eating a wide variety of different foods covering all macro and micro nutrients.
So to the question, ‘do vegan diets contain enough nutrients to build muscle?’ Then I hope the evidence above shows that the answer is a firm “Yes” if the diet is approached the right way.
Getting regular check-ups with your Doctor is not a bad idea. That way you can be sure that you are covering all your bases. It is always worth researching everything yourself before embarking on a new way of eating. Keeping a training diary will ensure that your training and recovery are still on track also.
Connect here with WatchFit Expert Lisa J Lowery-Jones
Minich D & Bland J. Acid-alkaline balance: role in chronic disease and detoxification. Alternative Therapies, Jul/Aug 2007, Vol. 13, No. 4