Vegan muscle? Is that a thing? Absolutely! In this article, we explain the key facts of building muscle on a vegan diet and how to overcome common hurdles. Plus did you know these elite athletes are vegan?
People become vegan for a variety of reasons, some ethical, some purely health-driven (weight loss and reduced risk of developing chronic disease, for example). For many people, veganism and muscle building may seem difficult to reconcile at first. Ask any vegan (weightlifter or otherwise) what the most common question they get asked is, they’ll reply “Where do you get your protein?”. It’s common knowledge that protein synthesis is vital to muscle growth. And for most people, protein is heavily associated with animal-derived products like meat, eggs and dairy. This is due, in part, to successful campaigning by the meat and dairy industries. So the equation most people understand looks something like this: muscle = protein = meat. But this doesn’t have to be the case as this article adapted from The New Power Eating and Sport Nutrition, 3rd Edition explains.
What is veganism?
Veganism can and has been defined in a myriad of different ways, both by vegans and non-vegans. But for our purposes in specific regard to muscle building, being vegan means you do not eat any products from animals at all. Vegetarians don’t eat meat. Vegans don’t eat meat but also exclude dairy, eggs and anything else which may derive from an animal (many vegans also avoid honey, for example). Followers of veganism are called vegans. The name ‘vegan’ was coined by Donald Watson of the Vegan Society and first appeared in The Vegan News in 1944.
Several famous studies (The China Study is perhaps the most influential) have shown that people who eat vegan diets have less chronic diseases, including heart disease than people who do not follow a restrictive diet.
Vegan muscle and athleticism
Can vegans build muscle? The short answer is yes, as long as they plan their diet properly. According to the author of The New Power Eating, Susan Kleiner PhD, the key is to mix and match foods so that you get the right balance of amino acids. But before we get into that, here are just a few examples of elite vegan athletes and bodybuilders.
Many athletes eat plant-based diets. And we aren’t talking about average athletes. Some of the world’s greatest living athletes actually eat a vegan diet.
The greatest football ever? Definitely in the top 5? Messi eats a vegan diet. After appointing physio, dietitian and doctor Giulano Poser as his nutritionist, Poser advised Messi to lay off the animal products. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s diet largely consists of water, good quality olive oil, whole grains, fresh fruit and a variety of nuts and fresh vegetables.
Many call him the greatest quarterback of all time, he is one of only two players in NFL history to have won five Super Bowls. Brady also adheres to a predominantly plant-based diet.
Arguably the greatest female tennis player ever with 23 Grand Slam Titles (only Margaret Court has more with 24). Serena and her sister Venus adopted a vegan diet when Venus was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, a debilitating and so far incurable autoimmune disease that causes excessive fatigue (not good for any athlete). In solidarity, both the Williams sisters are now fully Vegan. A side note, tennis superstar Novak Djokovic also eats a predominantly plant-based diet (even opening a vegan restaurant in Monte Carlo). But he confesses he does occasionally eat fish.
Five-time World Champion, the UK’s most successful F1 driver and the second most successful F1 driver in history (behind the great Michael Schumacher) is Lewis Hamiliton. He’s also vegan. In the video above, he talks about the benefits.
Numerous fighting stars also adopt vegan diets such as boxer David Haye who held multiple world championships in two weight classes (it doesn’t look like he struggled to pack on muscle despite being a Vegan). UFC superstar Nate Diaz is also a vegan.
One of the best goal scorers around, a previous winner of the Premier League’s golden boot and three Premier League titles with Manchester City. Agüero says switching to a plant-based diet helped speed his post-injury recovery and reduces the severity of injuries.
Another world class striker and the most professional of professional athletes. Now coming to the end of his career, he’s well known for his conscious eating and his in-season plant-based diet. He explains: “During my vegan experiment, I experienced a very real performance and strength boost which I attributed to my increased healthy carbohydrate intake, purely due to the food choices I was intuitively making by following a plant-based diet.”
Indian cricket captain and the top-ranked ODI batsman in the world, he is currently the leading batsman in the Test rankings too. In a recent interview, he said since going vegan he is feeling stronger as his digestive power has increased.
Perhaps a little less known than some of the household names listed above, however, Fiona is iconic in the vegan community and an incredible athlete. Sometimes referred to as the queen of extreme, she is a British marathon runner, who holds four world records for marathon running.
In 2013, she won both the Antarctic Ice Marathon and the North Pole Marathon. Even more miraculously she has broken these records despite losing her kneecap from an illness when she was 17. Fiona has been vegan since she was six years old and now runs her own animal sanctuary.
Forrest Green Rovers
OK, not the biggest club in the world but this tiny football club punch well above their weight. They play in the professional ranks of the English league and the players all eat a mostly vegan diet. There are no meat, fish, dairy or animal products available to players at the training ground or before matches. We wrote an article about Forrest Green Rovers, last year in our post The Successful Green Vegan Story of Forest Green Rovers FC.
More vegan athletes
Some other elite athletes who are vegan include:
- Carl Lewis – The former American sprinter and one of the first well known vegan athletes. He won nine Olympic gold medals and one Olympic silver medal. He also won 10 World Championships medals, including eight gold.
- Neil Robertson – Former World Champion snooker player and one of only 10 players to win the ‘Triple Crown’ (World Championship, UK Championship and Masters).
- Héctor Bellerín – Arsenal and Spain wing back, regarded as one of the fastest and fittest players in the Premier League.
- Meagan Duhamel – Canadian figure skater. Two-time world champion and a 2018 Olympic gold medalist.
- Ben Cohen MBE – Former England Rugby Union player, won the World Cup in 2003, played 57 times for his country and has over 200 games under his belt at club level for Northampton, Sale and Brive. Turned vegan along with his professional dancer girlfriend Kristina Rihanoff and they claim it saved his life.
- Anthony Mullally – The Irish international is one of the biggest and strongest Rugby League players around, standing at 6’5 and weighing 115kg (252lbs) he believes “we are not designed to eat meat”. He played 71 times for Leeds Rhinos and 38 times for Huddersfield Giants and is now on loan at Featherstone Rovers.
- Erin Phillips – Played both women’s AFL in Australia and women’s basketball in USA. She won AFL Women’s Best and Fairest medal and its Players’ Most Valuable Player Award after an outstanding season with the Adelaide Crows.
There are numerous vegan bodybuilders, many of which you can find on Instagram or YouTube. There are a few listed below who may be worth a follow if you are in need of some ‘fitspiration’.
Jon Venus (@jonvenus)
Jon can lift! Check out his Instagram or YouTube channel which has over 250,000 subscribers. He keeps his followers up-to-date on the challenges and successes of being a vegan bodybuilder on his various social media accounts. Recently he also became a busy dad!
Torre Washington (@torre.washington)
AKA “The Vegan Dread,” Torre has been a vegan for nearly two decades. When asked in an interview if there’s a disadvantage between vegans and meat-eaters, Washington said there’s no difference since muscle is built based upon your training regimen. “If anything, I am at an advantage being vegan, since plants expedite recovery and recuperation”. The Vegan Dread puts lots of great workouts on his Instagram page.
Jordan David (@conscious_muscle)
Jordan supports animal rights a lot on his pages and also has some good food/diet tips and vegan muscle building workouts.
Jehina Malik (@ifbbjehinamalik1)
Jehina is a Women’s Physique bodybuilder and claims to be vegan since birth as both her parents were also vegan. Her advise is “Be knowledgeable before you become a vegetarian or vegan.” She admits to eating roughly every three hours. Her Instagram page is full of workouts and bodybuilding posing.
The key to planning a muscle building vegan diet
As previously mentioned, Susan Kleiner believes that the key to successfully building muscle on a vegan diet is mixing and matching foods to gain a complete amnio acid profile.
About Amino Acids
In The New Power Eating Kleiner states that you can think of amino acids as a construction crew building a house. Each crew member has a specific function, from framing to wiring. If just one crew member doesn’t show up for work, then the construction job doesn’t get finished. It’s the same with amino acids.
There are 22 amino acids, all of which combine to construct the proteins required for growth and tissue repair. For your body to build protein, all of these amino acids must be on the job. If just one amino acid is missing or even if the concentration of an amino acid is low, protein construction comes to a halt. Of the 22 amino acids, eight cannot be made by the body; they must be supplied by the food you eat. These eight amino acids are called the essential amino acids.
The eight Essential Amino Acids
- Isoleucine (Branched Chain Amino Acid)
- Leucine (Branched Chain Amino Acid)
- Valine (Branched Chain Amino Acid)
How to get enough essential amino acids on a vegan diet
Foods that contain all the essential amino acids in the amounts required for health and growth are called complete proteins. Proteins found in dairy products, eggs, meat, poultry, fish and other animal sources are complete proteins. Various plant foods typically provide incomplete proteins that either completely lack or are low in a particular essential amino acid. The essential amino acid that is missing or in short supply is called the limiting amino acid.
Mix and match
To get enough essential amino acids from a vegan diet, select foods that complement one another’s limiting amino acids. In other words, mix and match foods during the day so that foods low in one essential amino acid are balanced by those that are higher in the same amino acid. It’s not necessary to combine these proteins at one meal; you can simply eat a variety of protein sources throughout the day. For example, grains contain a limited amount of lysine but a higher amount of methionine.
Legumes such as navy beans, kidney beans, and black beans are high in lysine but low in methionine. Thus, by combining grains and legumes, you create a complete protein meal. Soybeans are an exception and are considered a complete protein. Other fully nutritious protein combinations are as follows:
- Rice and beans
- Corn and beans
- Corn and lima beans
- Tortillas (corn) and refried beans
- Pasta and bean soup
If you are a vegetarian who chooses to eat milk and eggs, you needn’t worry about combining foods. The protein in milk, eggs, cheeses and other dairy products contain all the essential amino acids you need for tissue growth, repair and maintenance. A word of caution, though: dairy products can be high in fat.
Vegan nutritional deficiencies
Kleiner and Greenwood-Robinson, the authors of The New Power Eating advise that if you decide to go vegan, you should plan your diet carefully to reduce the risk of illness and avoid certain nutritional danger zones—namely, deficiencies in iron, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, creatine and the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA. These deficiencies can hurt exercise performance and if extreme, your general health.
Considerations for vegans
The challenge to obtain the two grams of high-quality protein per kilogram of body weight (that Kleiner advocates) daily to support muscle growth can be difficult for vegans. If you aren’t strictly vegan you can do this by including plenty of low-fat dairy products and protein-rich plant sources into your diet. If you are strictly vegan, the advice from The New Power Eating is to increase your daily protein intake to at least 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Be conscious that you might easily fill up on fibre since all your protein sources (unless you use supplements) are high in fibre, so plan your meals and snacks carefully to allow yourself to be fully fuelled, but feel empty enough to train. Having said this, you might consider plant protein powder supplementation to get in all the protein you need and avoid feeling overly full around training.
Include some sources of heme iron in your diet. As noted, all types of animal protein contain the more easily absorbed form of iron, heme iron. if you are vegan, you may have to look at supplements. Fruits, vegetables, and other foods that contain vitamin C help the body absorb nonheme iron. For example, if you eat citrus fruits with an iron-fortified cereal or tomato sauce with spinach, your body will absorb more iron from the cereal and the spinach than if either had been eaten alone. Some foods contain phytates, oxalates, or other substances that block the absorption of iron and zinc in the intestine. Coffee and tea (regular and decaffeinated), whole grains, bran, legumes, and spinach are a few examples of foods containing blockers. These foods are best eaten with sources of heme iron or vitamin C to help your body absorb more iron and zinc. In addition, consider iron and zinc supplements. Our bodies don’t absorb the iron that comes from vegetables as easily as the iron that comes from animal foods. Those who don’t eat meat, especially active people or menstruating women, must pay attention to their dietary iron needs.
Vitamin B12 is one of the most significant nutrients typically missing from the diets of vegans. That’s because it is usually found stored in animal products who ingest it whilst foraging or when it is added to their feed. (Did you know B12 is actually only produced in nature by certain bacteria? Our modern food hygiene standards effectively remove B12 from all our diets.) Fortunately, the body needs only tiny daily amounts of this vitamin (the DRI is 2.4 mcg for adults), which is used in the manufacture of red blood cells and nerves. Even so, a deficiency is serious, potentially causing irreversible nerve damage.
Fermented foods, such as the soybean products miso and tempeh, supply some vitamin B12 from the bacterial culture that causes fermentation, but generally not enough. Some foods are fortified with B12, such as breakfast cereals. However, supplements are readily available so any potential problems are easily overcome after a trip to your local supermarket or pharmacist.
Vegan friendly diets can be low in calcium. Although dairy is thought by some to be the best source of calcium (a controversial claim for others), if you are vegan be sure to include a wide array of green leafy vegetables and legumes. Also, choose calcium and vitamin D–fortified foods when available. It is often very important to use supplements for these nutrients, as well. Calcium is also lost in sweat. In our new book Sport Nutrition, 3rd Edition the authors write that calcium carbonate and calcium citrate are well absorbed, although it has been found that absorption plateaus at about 500mg therefore, intake should be spread throughout the day rather than in one big dose. Low levels of calcium may hinder bone strength and growth.
DHA and EPA
These are the two omega-3 fats that are found primarily in fish oils. If you do not eat any fish and will not supplement with fish oil, the advice is that you supplement with an algal source of DHA and EPA. Low levels for DHA and EPA are linked to fatigue, joint pain and poor concentration. As DHA and EPA are known to be incorporated into the membranes of cells, improve muscle protein synthesis and decrease inflammation. Studies have also linked supplementation to improved peripheral oxygen supply and decreased DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
Some vegans and vegetarians have been found to have lower levels of muscle creatine compared to people who eat meat. Creatine is an energy producing substance found primarily in animal tissue, particularly red meat. If you are training for strength, power and speed, your performance will most likely be enhanced with creatine supplementation. There have been a lot of studies into creatine, you can find references for these in Sport Nutrition, 3rd Edition and The New Power Eating. Creatine monohydrate supplements are vegetarian but not all are vegan so remember to double check.
In The New Power Eating, the authors talk about a case study in which they worked with a vegetarian professional basketball player and how he achieved his goals.
As we can see from the evidence above, it is possible to eat a plant-based diet and pack on size and muscle. It also won’t hinder your athletic performance, many athletes believe it has helped with performance and recovery. Just be sure to plan your macros and ensure you are getting the essential nutrients, you may want to consider the use of supplements.
Have you got any plans to start eating a plant-based diet? Or maybe you already do, if so let us know your thoughts in the comment box below.
New book coming in Spring 2019
In spring 2019 we are due to release a book titled Plant Based Nutrition. Keep an eye out for it!
- No Difference Between the Effects of Supplementing With Soy Protein Versus Animal Protein on Gains in Muscle Mass and Strength in Response to Resistance Exercise
- Vegetarian and Omnivorous Nutrition—Comparing Physical Performance
- Effect of Creatine Supplementation and Resistance-Exercise Training on Muscle Insulin-Like Growth Factor in Young Adults
- Avoiding Nutritional Risks with Vegetarianism
- Vegetarian Nutrition
- IOC Consensus Statement: Dietary Supplements and the High-Performance Athlete
Practical Suggestions for Vegetarian Athletes