Since the documentary "The Game Changers" came out in 2018, vegan nutrition in weight training (Vegan Gains) has become increasingly popular. It has become a lifestyle in its own right.
Vegan Gains established itself as a symbol of sustainability through muscle building without animal protein. But can muscles be built effectively with a vegan diet?
Vegan diet for muscle building?
Besides training and recovery, nutrition plays a central role in muscle building. Should you decide to build muscle while eating a vegan diet, it is essential that you look closely at vegan foods. The macronutrient distribution as well as the calorie balance and suitable protein sources must fit your dietary goals.
You need a calorie surplus to build muscle. This is true for both vegans and meat eaters. In order to optimize this process, it is also necessary to focus on a macronutrient distribution that is suitable for weight training.
This means that you need to eat quality proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
Vegan protein and essential amino acids
Since vegans are limited in their choices to purely plant-based foods, it's even more important that you make sure your protein intake is adequate.
In general, there are many vegan protein sources available to you as a budding vegan:
- Legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas)
- Nuts and seeds
So, as a vegan athlete, you do not lack alternatives. Nevertheless, it is necessary to take a closer look at the quality of the vegetable protein and its biological value. The quality and biological value of vegan protein are generally lower than those of animal protein.
There is a critical reason for this: they lack several of the essential amino acids. Amino acids are the basic building blocks of proteins. The body cannot produce these essential amino acids itself.
Therefore, these must be supplied through the diet. A deficiency must be compensated for accordingly. To ensure that you as a vegan are still sufficiently supplied with essential amino acids, the supplementation of EAAs is a good idea.
EAA stands for Essential Amino Acids.
This dietary supplement is available both in powder form (with flavor or without) and in capsules. EAAs contain all essential amino acids that the body can only absorb through food. In total, there are eight essential amino acids:
These are elementary for protein biosynthesis and are therefore an important factor for successful muscle building. If you decide to build muscle as a vegan, you should consider supplementation. Strength athletes who eat a diet rich in animal protein do not have this deficiency.
Vegetarians who don't eat meat but don't completely avoid animal products can meet their needs with whey protein. If you choose a vegetarian diet, you can get essential amino acids with whey products. Both low-fat cottage cheese and whey protein have a good amino acid profile. In addition, you can use plenty of other non-meat animal-based protein sources like greek yogurt, milk, or other types of cheese. Generally speaking, any source of animal protein, meat or not, will probably have a solid amount of the EAAs.
A vegan diet for muscle building is less efficient in terms of protein sources than an omnivorous diet (omnivore). In addition, vegan products contain significantly less protein than animal-derived foods. Therefore, a greater amount of food must be supplied to meet your protein needs.
However, that doesn't mean that you can't make it work. As a vegan, you need to compensate for your lack of essential amino acids. With the help of EAA supplements you can counteract this.
In addition, there are now numerous vegan dietary supplements. Among them are many different varieties of vegan protein powders. These often consist uniformly of soy, rice, or pea protein, but these different sources can also be combined. Complex compositions of vegetable protein sources from e.g. pea, hemp, and rice protein even have a good amino acid profile when taken in combination with one another.
That said, a vegan diet for muscle building requires a greater focus on your protein sources.
However, this does not mean that a vegan diet is worse than others in this respect. Due to their restrictions, vegans are even more concerned with their food and eat more consciously as a result.
Vegan muscle building: carbohydrates and fats
In general, vegans have a wide range of carbohydrate sources at their disposal. Whether oatmeal, brown rice, or whole grain pasta, you have a wide selection of complex carbohydrates to choose from.
The situation is different with fats. As a vegan, you lack important omega-3 fatty acids. These have a positive influence on our health, recovery, and muscle building, and therefore it is important to consume them in sufficient quantities.
Omega-3 fatty acids cannot be produced by the body itself. They can be absorbed either by eating fatty fish or with omega-3 supplements containing fish oil.
Since vegan foods contain omega-3s only in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the body must first convert this into eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The metabolism is not very efficient at this task and as a result this does not have the same impact as consuming animal omega-3s.
For vegans, there is now a vegan alternative: omega-3 fatty acids from algae. Through these, you can compensate for the deficiency in your diet. There is nothing to stop vegans from building muscle in this respect. Nevertheless, one is also dependent on food supplements here, as is the case with the amino acids.
Vegan muscle building and strength training
Whether you're a vegan or a meat eater, a well-structured workout in terms of stimulation and progression is hugely important for building muscle. With enough protein per day (0.7-0.9 g per pound of body weight) and a calorie surplus (100-300 calories above your basic needs) you will be able to effectively build muscle mass.
As a vegan, you can train at the same intensity as omnivores. There is no significant difference. If you meet your essential amino acid needs, protein biosynthesis can initiate your muscle growth without restriction. In addition, you can consume carbohydrates without any serious restrictions. These provide you with sufficient energy for your strength training.
Diet changes and health
If a vegan diet for muscle building is your goal, your body will have to get used to the new diet first.
Changes in your gut biome
In particular, your gut biome will have problems digesting the purely plant-based food in the first few months.
This change can result in bloating and abdominal pain. Your body is only slowly getting used to the changes. The freely available drug Simethicone can help you alleviate these symptoms. Thus, your digestive system will gently adjust to your vegan diet.
Vitamin B12 deficiency and the iron and calcium deficit
As a result of a vegan diet, there can be deficiencies in the supply of certain vitamins and minerals. Vitamin B12, iron, and calcium are particularly likely to be affected.
Vitamin B12 is the most important member of the cobalamin group and is absorbed through the consumption of animal foods. This vital substance is necessary for cell division as well as blood cell production and the functioning of the nervous system.
Vegans do not absorb enough vitamin B12 without additional supplementation. Such a deficiency can lead to issues with the blood and damage to the central nervous system.
Iron is an essential micronutrient responsible for blood cell production. As part of the red blood cell pigment, it helps in the absorption of oxygen.
This micronutrient is mainly found in meat and is best utilized by the body in this form. Intake through plant foods is neither sufficient nor efficient. A deficiency has negative effects on the nervous system and the blood count.
Accordingly, vegans should take iron through dietary supplements.
Calcium is a bulk element and an important mineral for the body. It has a great influence on our bone density and bone stability. Furthermore, it has fundamental functions involved in cell division.
Dairy products can cover the calcium requirement. However, a deficiency can lead to muscle cramps, weak bones, and cardiovascular problems. Therefore, supplementation is particularly important for vegans.
These deficiencies have a negative effect on your recovery. If your body is not sufficiently supplied with nutrients, your performance will also suffer as a result. Your performance in the gym can therefore decrease, and you will not be able to build up as much muscle.
Therefore, you should try to prevent these deficiencies with the help of vitamin B12 supplementation, as well as iron and calcium supplementation.
Building muscle as a vegan - Does it work?
Yes, vegan muscle building works. There is no doubt about this. Vegans, if they pay attention to proper protein balance and supplement with omega-3 fatty acids, can build muscle just as well as omnivores.
Nevertheless, it is important to compensate for certain deficiencies. If you choose a vegan diet and want to build muscle, your body needs proteins with a good amino acid profile.
In this case it can be beneficial for you to consume vegan EAAs or vegan multicomponent protein. Furthermore, the lack of omega-3 fatty acids can be compensated with supplements derived from algae.
Nevertheless, you should consider whether or not you want to restrict your diet. After all, vegan muscle building only works if you specifically compensate for the resulting deficits.
This concerns not only essential amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids, but also vitamin B12 as well as iron and calcium. Without these essential nutrients, your performance will decrease and your health will be negatively affected. Of course, this also has negative consequences on muscle building.