Vegan Muscle Building
I spend about half of every year as a vegan. In other words, for about half of the year I never eat meat or any form of dairy—milk, eggs, cheese, butter, etc. I don’t do this because I necessarily feel it’s the healthiest way to eat—although I must admit that my blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglycerides do improve while eating this way—or because I think it’s a good way to build muscle. I do it for religious reasons. A few years ago, I converted to Orthodox Christianity. Part of being Orthodox is living an ascetical life, and that ascetical life includes “fasting”, i.e. abstaining from meat and dairy. Orthodox do this on every Wednesday and Friday throughout the entire year as well as 40 days before Christmas (the Nativity fast, sometimes called Advent), 40 days before Easter (Lent), and there are a few other fasts of a few weeks duration scattered here and there throughout the liturgical calendar—Dormition fast, Apostles’ fast, to name a couple.
I am not going to get into the “religious” reasons for fasting from an Orthodox perspective, but if you find it interesting, here’s a link to a wonderful (and short) article written by Father Stephen Freeman entitled “The Nativity Fast.” No, the purpose of this article is to explain some of the benefits and some of the problems I have found with eating vegan from a power training/muscle building perspective; and to explain how I believe you can best build muscle and strength while on a vegan diet.
First off, let me dispel a common myth: that you can’t get bigger and stronger on a vegan diet. I can say, without a doubt, that’s a load of crap. The truth is simply that it’s often harder to get big and strong on a vegan diet because you have to make better choices; primarily you have to ensure that you are getting an adequate amount of protein from your diet, as well as enough fat.
The most common problem with eating vegan—even for those who aren’t hard-training athletes—is the lack of protein, and enough protein that has a full array of amino acids. When you are eating meat and dairy, it’s incredibly easy to get adequate protein with a good amino acid profile, but when eating vegan you have to make the right choices.
One of the common pitfalls—probably the pitfall—with vegan bodybuilding is to simply get all of your protein from protein shakes—there are numerous vegan protein powders and meal replacements on the market. You will always build more muscle and strength (not to mention be healthier) when eating whole foods than when using supplements. This is the same whether you choose to go vegan or not.
The following foods are some of my favorite whole food protein sources when eating vegan:
- Beans: I prefer black, pinto, and kidney beans. One cup of any of these beans packs approximately 15 grams of protein.
- Hemp seeds
- Nut butter: This doesn’t have to just be peanut butter. Almond butter and cashew butter are also particularly good—almond butter’s my favorite.
- Veggies: Yes, you read that correctly—a lot of vegetables have more protein than you realize. Spinach, kale, and peas are some of my usual choices. (Maybe Popeye wasn’t that wrong after all!)
- Tofu: Tofu is popular among most vegans because not only does it have a good deal of protein but it’s also quite cheap. It does help, however, if you know how to cook with it. Luckily for me, my wife makes some tasty tofu dishes, which means this will always be high on my list.
- Lentils: You can do a lot with lentils, including make some kick-ass veggie burgers (another thing my wife does well). And the great thing about lentils is that they are higher in protein the rest of the stuff on this list. One cup packs about 18 grams of protein!
If you still need additional protein after eating several whole-food meals each day—I think the ol’ standby of 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight each day is still a good rule to start with—then, by all means, supplement your diet with a protein shake. I prefer a rice protein powder to other forms of vegan protein, but that’s simply a personal taste, it doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the protein necessarily. And my favorite powder is Sun Warrior vanilla-flavored rice protein. And as far as meal replacements go, I like the Raw Meal brand meal replacement.
The one thing I would not recommend supplementing your diet with is soy protein of any sort. Although the jury may still be out—soy protein definitely has its defenders as well as its detractors—I think there’s enough evidence that soy raises estrogen levels and inhibits proper thyroid function that I would stay the heck away from it.
The second thing that you need to make sure you get enough of is fat. A lot of people mistakenly believe that they get a lot of their energy from carbohydrates, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. While I don’t have the “science” to back it up, I find that my energy levels are much better when on a higher fat diet. I personally like to get around 30-40% of my daily caloric intake from fat. I’m not the only vegan lifter, by the way, to say such a thing. Here’s what Mike Mahler—a kick-ass writer, strength trainer, and vegan has to say about getting enough fat in your diet:
“Fat is a great source of energy and lasts much longer than carbohydrates. When I do not have enough fat in my diet, my energy and mood go down the drain. Fat fuel is what works best for me. You will have to experiment to see what works best for you.
“Without enough fat in your diet, your skin will dry up, your energy will plummet, and you will look like death. Getting 20-40% or more of your calories from fat is a good way to go. Load up on healthy fats such as: Hempseed olive oil, almonds, walnuts, marine algae DHA, pecans, almond butter, and avocadoes.”
As far as macronutrient percentages throughout the day goes, I don’t think you can go wrong with 40% fat, 30% protein, and 30% carbohydrates. Make sure that your carbs are from good sources. I like to get my carbs from a combination of an array of fruits, veggies, and whole grains—whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, and brown rice primarily.
When attempting to build muscle on a vegan diet, be sure that you are consuming enough calories on a daily basis. If you are trying to build muscle and burn fat (or at least burn fat and retain muscle), consume approximately 10 times your bodyweight in calories each day. If you want to gain muscle while still keeping your bodyfat relatively low, then 12 times your bodyweight in calories daily should be adequate. And if you’re trying to gain as much muscle as possible (while still not gaining much fat), then consume about 15 times your bodyweight each day.
Personal Experiences with Eating Vegan
Before I get too much further into this discussion, let me say this right from the start: When I eat vegan for extended periods of time, I feel great, however I often lose weight—muscle, fat, and water. Before Christmas and before Easter, for instance, I spend these 40 days of “fasting” by training less and by eating very little some days. However, as soon as I get off the fast, I gain a lot of muscle—and fast! It’s nothing for me to gain 10 to 15 pounds the two weeks after Christmas or Easter. The combination of doubling—maybe even tripling—my caloric intake and training on an almost daily basis does wonders for my mass gains.
Which brings up the point that perhaps this kind of eating is beneficial even for those of you who have no interest in “fasting” for religious reasons, but would like to do it in order to see “quick” gains afterward. Perhaps even “micro-cycles” of such vegan fasting would be highly productive for building muscle during the course of a week—3 days of vegan fasting followed by 4 days of high-caloric intake. Of course, you wouldn’t have to resort to eating meat or dairy during the 4 high calorie days, either. You could simply increase the amount of protein and total calories consumed during the 4-day intervals.
The other times when I eat vegan apart from Advent and Lent, I never lose muscle or am adversely affected by the lack of animal proteins. During these days—Wednesday and Friday of each week, and the other, shorter, fasts throughout the year—I always maintain my muscle mass and my strength by applying the principle discussed above.