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The ultimate guide to vegan bodybuilding part 1

Der ultimative Ratgeber für veganes Bodybuilding Teil 1

Many people believe that a vegan diet and bodybuilding are mutually exclusive. But these people are wrong - you can also build muscle with a purely plant-based diet. However, you need to know what you are doing.

One of the reasons that vegan bodybuilding has such a bad reputation is that it's much easier to mess things up compared to the traditional "carnivore approach". This is also the reason why studies show that carnivores tend to have more muscle than vegetarians or vegans (1).

There are also some dietary myths that persist among vegans that make it harder to build muscle. We will identify and debunk these myths in this article.

The bottom line is this: If you don't know and address the disadvantages and limitations of a vegan diet in the context of bodybuilding, then you will only achieve disappointing results.

However, if you are aware of these points and plan and adapt your diet accordingly, then you will have no problem building muscle, losing fat and getting strong.

And that's what this article is all about. It will show you the most common mistakes vegans make when trying to build muscle and show you how to get the most out of your plant-powered training.

Let's start with the first hurdle that trips up so many would-be vegan bodybuilders: protein intake.

The truth about protein and vegan bodybuilding

When it comes to building muscle, decades of anecdotal and scientific evidence have shown that certain elements of your diet and training are more important than others.

For example, if you want to maximize your muscle growth, you should...

  • Ensure you are not in a calorie deficit.
  • Progressively overload your muscles.
  • Focus on multi-joint exercises.
  • Limit your cardio training.
  • Eat plenty of carbohydrates.
  • Consume adequate amounts of protein.

The last point is particularly important.

Dozens of well-designed and well-executed studies have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that a high-protein diet is superior to a low-protein diet for building muscle and losing fat. As for exact amounts of protein, scientific research shows that an optimal protein intake for bodybuilding purposes is between 2 and 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

And this is where many would-be vegan bodybuilders will falter.

Where many vegans go wrong with their protein intake

In terms of macronutrients, the biggest difference between a carnivore's diet and a vegan's diet is protein intake. Most people who eat a reasonably healthy diet already get a large percentage of their carbohydrates and fats from plant-based foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and oils.

Switching to a vegan diet will not change this.

What will change is your protein intake as you replace your favorite protein-rich animal foods like meat, eggs and dairy with lower protein plant foods like beans, grains and nuts.

But that's not all - many people are replacing these protein sources that are particularly good for building muscle with protein sources that are less so. (More on this shortly).

Instead of acknowledging the fact that a vegan diet requires a little more intelligent planning than an omnivorous diet to get enough protein, many vegans choose to propagate myths. Instead of admitting that their diet is not perfect and unique in every way, they embellish.

And they usually rely on the following untruths to do so:

1. you don't need a lot of protein to maximize your muscle growth

This is categorically false. A low protein diet is popular among vegans and this type of diet is almost solely responsible for the misconception that they cannot build muscle to the same extent as meat eaters.

2. there is no such thing as a protein deficiency

Here is the dictionary definition of a protein deficiency:

"Reduced or inadequate consumption of dietary protein and/or amino acids or excessive protein excretion due to impaired kidney function."

3. all/most vegetables are excellent sources of protein

Vegetables are an excellent source of carbohydrates and micronutrients, but protein? Not really. Here are a few examples:

  • Broccoli contains about 13 grams of protein per pound.
  • Brussels sprouts are slightly better, providing about 15 grams of protein per pound.
  • A cup of green peas contains only 8 grams of protein.
  • A cup of cooked spinach contains a meager 5 grams of protein.

As you can see, it takes a few buckets of these types of vegetables per day if you need to eat about 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

4. all plant protein sources are just as good for building muscle as animal proteins

Not all proteins are created equal - and this is especially true when it comes to building muscle. To understand why this is the case, we first need to talk about amino acids.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and the tissues of the body, including muscle tissue. The body needs 21 amino acids to stay alive and 9 of these need to be supplied through food.

These 9 amino acids are also known as essential amino acids and one of them is particularly important in connection with muscle building. It is called leucine and stimulates protein synthesis directly by activating an enzyme responsible for cell growth known as the mammalian target of rapamycin or mTOR (2).

This is the reason why scientific studies show that the leucine content of a meal directly influences the amount of protein synthesis that occurs in response to that meal (3). In other words, leucine-rich meals have a higher muscle-building potential than lower protein meals.

So when it comes to evaluating a protein source, we need to consider two things:

  1. How well the protein is absorbed by the body.
  2. What the amino acid profile of that protein source looks like.

And while it's not true that plant proteins are "incomplete" proteins that lack essential amino acids (4), it is true that some plant proteins are not as well absorbed by the body and contain lower amounts of certain essential amino acids than other proteins. Hemp protein, for example, is relatively poorly absorbed by the body (5), while rice protein and pea protein are quite well absorbed (6, 7).

The point is that bioavailability is important, as consuming 100 grams of hemp protein is not the same as consuming 100 grams of rice and/or pea protein. The former has a lower muscle-building potential than the latter two.

To understand the importance of the amino acid profile, let's compare the protein found in broccoli to the protein found in a steak. Here's what 275 kcal of both (120 grams of steak vs. just over 9 cups of broccoli) will give you in essential amino acids:

Essential amino acid






























As you can see, broccoli doesn't even come close to steak. You'd have to eat an insane 18 cups of broccoli to get the amount of essential amino acids contained in 120 grams of steak.

You'll have the same problem with most other plant-based protein sources (bioavailability and amino acid profile), which brings us to our first important aspect that needs to be considered to make vegan bodybuilding work:

You need to make sure you're getting enough protein that is both well absorbed and rich in essential amino acids.

This is the main reason that it's easier to mess up vegan bodybuilding than it is with a diet that includes animal protein.

The most popular sources of protein in the non-vegan western diet (meat, eggs and dairy) are very well absorbed by the body and are also very rich in essential amino acids (and leucine in particular). This alone makes a non-vegan diet very conducive to muscle growth.

And based on my experience, having spoken to hundreds of people who have struggled to build muscle on a vegan diet, I have found that the average vegan eats too little high quality protein to build muscle efficiently. This makes it much harder for vegans to build muscle than it should be.

However, many don't realize this and think that a vegan diet as a whole is responsible for their inability to get strong and muscular without animal foods.

Well, these people are wrong. You just need to know how to put together a suitable vegan bodybuilding diet plan.

How to put together a vegan bodybuilding diet plan

Meal planning is very simple. It involves just four steps:

  1. Determine your calorie requirements
  2. Determine your macronutrient amounts
  3. Work out your meal timing and portion sizes
  4. Compose your food for each meal

In this article, we will focus on step number four, as this is the point that trips up many vegans. They face two problems in particular:

1. adequate protein intake

For many, a protein level of 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight seems unattainable.

2. a balanced ratio of macronutrients

The wrong food choices can make it very difficult to meet not only protein requirements, but also carbohydrate and fat requirements. Many vegans, for example, struggle to get anywhere near the standard bodybuilding macronutrient breakdown of 40% of calories in protein, 40% of calories in carbohydrate and 20% of calories in fat.

You often find that reaching one macronutrient goal makes another hopelessly unattainable. Fortunately, these problems are quite easy to overcome.

Let's talk about protein first.

What are the best vegan protein sources?

As we've already seen, the best vegan protein sources are those that are both easily absorbable and rich in essential amino acids, with a particular focus on leucine content.

There is a whole range of protein sources that meet these requirements:

  • Cereals such as wheat, rice and oats
  • Vegetables and pulses such as peas, beans and potatoes
  • Nuts such as almonds, peanuts, walnuts and pistachios
  • Seeds such as quinoa and buckwheat (unfortunately, most of these seeds are difficult to digest if they are not finely ground)

The whole thing is quite simple:

If you consume the majority (70%+) of your daily protein intake in the form of high quality protein sources like these, you're in the clear. On the other hand, if you consume the majority of your protein intake in the form of lower quality protein sources, you will struggle to build muscle.

One popular protein food is missing from this list: soy.

Here's why...

The problem with soy protein

Soy protein is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's a well-rounded source of protein for building muscle (8), but it's also a source of ongoing controversy. According to some research, regular consumption of soy foods has feminizing effects in men, which is attributed to estrogen-like molecules found in soybeans called isoflavones.

A study conducted by scientists at Harvard University, for example, analyzed the sperm of 99 men and compared the results with their soy and isoflavone consumption over the previous 3 months (9). The scientists came to the conclusion that both the consumption of isoflavones and the consumption of soy were associated with a reduction in sperm count. Men in the group who ate the most soy products had an average of 41 million fewer sperm per milliliter than men who did not eat soy products.

Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph, in which 32 men consumed either high or low levels of isoflavones from soy protein for 57 days, found no effect on sperm quantity or semen quality (10).

In addition, several study reviews suggest that neither soy foods nor isoflavones alter male hormone levels (11-13). There is even evidence that isoflavones can help normalize estrogen levels by either suppressing or increasing estrogen production when needed (14)

So what is the answer? So far there is no simple answer to this question. What we do know so far is that the effects may vary depending on the presence or absence of certain gut bacteria (15). These bacteria, which are present in 30 to 50% of the population, metabolize a soy isoflavone called daidzein into an estrogen-like hormone called equol.

This is also the result of a study conducted by scientists at Peking University, which found that when equol-producing men ate large amounts of soy foods, their testosterone levels decreased while estrogen levels increased. These effects were not observed in women - regardless of whether they produced equol or not.

So that's the overview of soy and men? And what about women?

Well, scientific research shows that soy is even less likely to negatively affect their hormone levels (17). However, there are a few things that should be considered.

Studies have shown that soy protein contains substances that inhibit the digestion of protein molecules and the absorption of other nutrients (18, 19). In addition, there are several known allergens (20).

While there are studies suggesting that soy may have specific benefits for women, such as reducing the risk of heart attack and other diseases (21, 22), other studies cast doubt on these results (23).

Taking all of these factors into consideration, I would say that completely avoiding soy products is probably unnecessary. If I were a vegan, I would probably limit my soy consumption to 30 to 40 grams of soy protein per day (and if I'm being completely honest, I would probably choose rice or pea protein instead).

In the second part of this article, I'll talk about the rest of the nutrients and give you example nutrition plans for vegan muscle building and fat loss.


By Michael Matthews

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