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Can vegetarians build muscle?

Können Vegetarier Muskeln aufbauen?

Q: John, what do you do and why do you do it?

Dr. John Berardi: I've always been interested in a vegetarian diet - simply because of all the discussions around this topic. However, at the beginning of my career I tended to be more anti-vegetarian.

As an athlete and weightlifter, I grew up with people who liked to eat meat. This is no longer scientifically questioned. There are no longer any sensible discussions. It's almost religious. Eat meat and you're good. Give up meat and you're an idiot.

The fascinating thing is that vegetarians and vegans take exactly the same approach - just from the other side.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of trying it out on yourself?

Dr. John Berardi: I was approached at the gym by a vegan who was having trouble building muscle. He was a big fan of my work and said he had read all my articles. My first reaction was "If you've read all my articles, why are you vegan? All these articles recommend meat!"

Turns out the guy had a slight "grain phobia" and as a vegan you have to eat a lot of grains. He had no chance of building muscle. He simply wasn't eating enough calories. So I helped him modify his eating plan.

When I finished, I thought to myself that this didn't look too bad. The food looked delicious and it seemed like an enjoyable way to eat - at least for a while. I mentioned to my friends that I was thinking about trying it myself and of course their reactions were along the lines of "You can't build muscle on a vegetarian diet. It's completely impossible. You'll even lose muscle!"

Well, this made the whole thing a challenge. I am a born self-experimenter. I love trying out nutrition theories on myself. So I decided to give this diet a try. I wanted to see if I could follow an almost vegan diet and build muscle in the process.

Q: Wait - your goal is actually to build muscle on a vegetarian diet?

Dr. John Berardi: Absolutely. Over the last few years, I haven't been that concerned with building muscle mass. I'm in my thirties now, I'm focused on my business and I'm pretty happy with the way my body looks. So I was basically in a maintenance phase. So I thought, why not try to build some muscle and try it the vegetarian way?

Q: What is your goal?

Dr. John Berardi: My goal is to gain 5 kilos of muscle over the next month. Maybe I will extend that to two months.

Q: We've talked about "vegetarian" and "vegan" here, but I know you don't really like those terms. Why is that?

Dr. John Berardi: I use the term "vegetarian" because people know what that means, but I like the term "plant-based" better. Bodybuilders in particular have a negative reaction to the word "vegetarian". Perhaps this is because all the vegetarians they have met so far have been quite militant and have called them "animal killers" or something similar.

Abstaining from eating meat often has moral, emotional or philosophical overtones. I don't have these problems at the moment. I am conducting my experiment for the people and not for the animals.

Furthermore, "vegetarian" can also mean that you still eat a lot of low-quality, processed food and just avoid meat. I've seen these vegetarians eating convenience foods that are chock full of processed chemicals. Their diet was defined only by the absence of meat and not by what was in the diet.

Q: Good point. So what is included? Is it all plant-based, or are there animal-based foods included?

Dr. John Berardi: I will eat three eggs in the morning and also have some honey, which I recently learned is a no-go for vegans. I also take a digestive enzyme supplement that contains about 15 mg of ox bile, so strictly speaking my diet is not vegan. The rest is purely vegan, so that makes me a lacto-ovo vegetarian.

Q: Is meat really that bad? Are vegetarians on to something or are they just weird smelly guys in hemp sneakers?

Dr. John Berardi: I see good arguments on both sides. There's no question that eating the right kinds of meat in the right amounts fits into a healthy diet. You're getting large amounts of protein, B vitamins and other vitamins and minerals that you're not going to get any other way except in the form of supplements. Health and muscle building will be seriously compromised if any of these nutrients are missing. That's the argument for meat.

But there is also a relationship between eating meat and cancer risk

Q: I just heard the state of Texas screaming.

Dr. John Berardi: That's not just speculation. Over 100 published scientific studies show a link between eating meat and cancer.

T Nation: But what does that link look like? Can we reduce this risk?

Dr. John Berardi: In large part, this link exists because carnivores tend to eat fewer other healthy things, so their diets tend to be high in calories and saturated fats and low in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

The solution is not to not eat meat, but rather to create a healthy balance between meat and other healthy foods.

Q: This reminds me of an article you wrote about the problem that carnivores tend to substitute other foods for things like green vegetables.

Dr. John Berardi: That's exactly what I mean, but that's not the only problem.

There is some pretty compelling evidence that potentially carcinogenic compounds enter our bodies when we eat cooked meat. The most problematic seem to be processed foods such as sausage and tinned sausages, as well as overcooked and charred meat.

However, to say that we should not eat meat is a mistake. These risks can be controlled.

Q: So what should we do?

Dr. John Berardi: Don't overheat your meat, especially on the grill. And avoid processed meat foods like sausage, or at least limit your consumption of these foods.

Last but not least, you need to increase your intake of fiber, fruits and vegetables. Fiber has protective properties against the specific cancers associated with eating meat - stomach cancer and colon cancer. Eat more fiber and reduce your risk.

Q: I've also heard that meat is overloaded with hormones and antibiotics given to slaughter animals. But the solution to this problem seems simple to me - just switch to pasture-raised and free-range meat and stop worrying about this issue.

Dr. John Berardi: That's absolutely right. If you're eating primarily factory farmed meat, then you're getting hormones, environmental toxins and antibiotics.

Q: I guess some bodybuilders reading this are now thinking "Hey, if these hormones make cows grow, maybe they'll help me grow too!"

Dr. John Berardi: A large percentage of what is given to beef cattle in some countries is estrogen because estrogen increases the marbling of the meat, making it more tender. But to repeat: why not simply eat hormone-free meat from free-range livestock? There's no need for vegetarianism.

Q: Every crazy vegetarian I know mentions the large amount of "undigested, rotting meat" in my digestive tract. What are these people talking about?

Dr. John Berardi: Have you ever heard the John Wayne story?

Q: That they found 20 or 25 pounds of meat in one intestine?

Dr. John Berardi: Exactly, that's the story. The story goes that after John Wayne died of cancer, they did an autopsy on him and they found 20 kilos of compacted fecal matter. Some vegans use this story as proof that, in evolutionary terms, humans did not develop to eat meat.

Well, no autopsy was ever performed on John Wayne. The whole story is made up. It is possible for fecal matter to condense in the intestines, but even at one pound it becomes quite painful. 20 kilos is completely impossible.

One pound of undigested food is possible under some circumstances. Some people seem to have a genetic predisposition to this. This is exacerbated by the fact that many people in the Western world eat very little fiber and take medications such as certain blood pressure medications and antidepressants that interfere with and slow down the movement of food through the digestive tract.

So something like this could happen, even if it's not particularly likely - and if it does, it's not meat that's the cause. It's more what's missing in the diet and what medications the affected individuals are taking.

Q: Before we go any further, I have to mention Bill Pearl. Bill won his fourth Mr. Universe title in 1971 when he was a 41-year-old lacto-ovo vegetarian. He said he had been steroid free for 10 years. What does it mean that he won his fourth Mr. Universe title without meat after winning his first three Mr. Universe titles as a meat eater?


Dr. John Berardi: Most bodybuilders who claim to be vegetarians only became vegetarians after they had built up their muscles - or after they had retired from competitive sports. So these people are not really proof that you can be a successful bodybuilder as a vegetarian. Bill Pearl is the only example I know of a bodybuilder in professional bodybuilding who was successful on a vegetarian diet.

However, I do believe that you can build a pretty impressive body as a vegan. I don't think this should be a problem. I believe that you can be a successful athlete even as a vegan. However, I also believe that it is a tough challenge to be a very successful bodybuilder as a vegan. You need to build the maximum amount of muscle mass, get hard and defined for the stage and win at the highest level of competition. This will be very hard and probably won't happen.

As a vegan, you will not be able to avoid carbohydrates to get your protein. You need to have the right genetic predispositions to do well with carbohydrates.

Q: One more question about vegetarianism before we get back to your specific plan: Is there a blanket positive effect of a vegan diet on health? Vegetarians often claim that such a diet has a "cleansing" effect.

Dr. John Berardi: I don't agree that being vegan is fundamentally healthier. Yes, a good vegan diet is healthier than the typical Western diet. And there is such a thing as a "cleansing" effect - but this only applies if your diet was previously unhealthy. But all of this can happen when you start eating healthier - regardless of whether your new diet is vegan or not.

A short story about this: A gal told me that she wanted to do a "detox". I thought it was this juice cleanse nonsense and was about to make fun of her, but then she told me that her "fast" consisted of eating nothing but chicken breast, brown rice and broccoli for a month. She told me that she felt great doing this.

She gave up all the fast food, all the sugar and all the junk that makes you feel bad.

A lot of vegetarians experience something similar. They feel great because they cut out all the food chemicals, all the processed foods, all the sugar, all the caffeine, all the hormones and all the other unhealthy stuff. In addition to that, they're eating more fiber, more antioxidants, more micronutrients - and for the first time in their lives, they're eating adequate amounts of it. So it's not some magical vegetarian thing - they're just eating healthy.

In addition to this, they usually eat fewer calories initially when they switch to a vegetarian diet. And that helps some people feel more energized and better.

Q: Let's break down your plant-based diet and talk about the macronutrients. Where is your protein going to come from?

Dr. John Berardi: I will be eating 150 to 200 grams of protein per day on my plan. This will come from eggs for breakfast, a small amount of soy milk throughout the day, vegan protein supplements that will give me 60 grams per day, and two cups of beans per day with whole grain bread made from sprouted grains.

A few of my snacks include seeds and nuts. I will also supplement with branched chain amino acids. When I wake up in the morning I take 5 grams of BCAAs and during my workout I take 14 grams of liquid amino acids.

Complete proteins are probably the best option. So the most important question is whether you can build muscle on a plant-based diet with an adequate amount of calories and a reasonable amount of protein.

I think the answer is yes, but there aren't many studies where men training with weights ate more calories than they consumed and looked at whether they could build muscle on a vegan diet.

Q: I remember some studies like that, but the results were mixed.

Dr. John Berardi: One of these studies was conducted by Bill Campbell in the late nineties (1). Two groups of novice exercisers consumed identical amounts of calories and trained with weights. One group ate a vegan diet, while the other also ate meat.

The vegetarian group neither lost fat nor built muscle with the help of strength training. In fact, the members of this group even lost a small amount of muscle mass. In the group that ate meat, muscle loss and fat loss were observed. We have used this study for a long time to prove that vegetarianism is not for people who train with weights.

However, another study conducted by Mark Tarnopolsky replicated the original study and found no difference between the meat-eating group and the vegetarian group (2). It is important to note that both of these studies were vegetarian, not vegan. The subjects who did not eat meat were able to eat dairy products and eggs.

So there is no good study that looked exclusively at a vegan diet.

Q: What is your total calorie intake on this plan?

Dr. John Berardi: About 4,000 kcal per day.

Q: Where do your fats come from?

Dr. John Berardi: I get my fats from eggs, mixed nuts, homemade hummus, flaxseed oil and olive oil, as well as a vegan EPA/DHA supplement made from algae.

Q: Getting adequate amounts of carbohydrates is the easy part, right?

Dr. John Berardi: It is. But here's the interesting part for me: I feel like it's pretty easy to build muscle on a vegan diet plan - you just have to eat a lot. What's probably difficult would be getting super defined. These foods contain a high percentage of carbohydrates compared to protein and fat.

It's no problem to get lean with the help of a vegan diet. But really maintaining muscle mass and getting bodybuilder lean could be a challenge.

I tolerate carbohydrates quite well. I'm a natural ectomorph, which is why I need a diet high in carbohydrates from the start. However, the classic endomorph, who builds up fat quite easily and is less able to cope with carbohydrates, will have their problems as it is simply not possible to avoid carbohydrates on a vegan diet.

Q: What's it like to eat all those beans and grains?

Dr. John Berardi: The first day I was pretty much farting all the time. I really didn't think I could handle it.

On the third day, I measured my abdominal circumference when I woke up and it was 81 centimeters, which is normal for me. Then I measured it again at 10 o'clock in the evening after a whole day of vegetarian food and it was 106 centimeters. I looked like a mini version of Ronnie Coleman.

My abs were visible, but they were extremely prominent. It wasn't fat or water, it was just air. Then I started taking digestive enzymes and now it's much better.

It takes about two weeks for the body to get used to this way of eating - no problem at all. However, it is something to be prepared for.

Q: What lessons can a typical "omnivore" bodybuilder learn from a vegetarian?

Dr. John Berardi: I've already learned some valuable lessons. But let me tell you, you should learn from the real vegetarians and vegans who are actually eating the right foods, getting all the nutrients they need, and staying lean and healthy.

Q: For example?

Dr. John Berardi: Real vegans find some really interesting ways to eat their fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Most "omnivores" don't, and maybe that's why they don't like these foods. They simply don't know how to prepare these foods.

Vegan cookbooks are some of the best sources for ways to prepare vegetables in a tasty way.

The second is to eat more whole, unprocessed, natural foods. I don't know many people who eat things like whole grain quinoa. Real vegans spend more time learning about where their food comes from.

Carbs aren't that bad for your body development if they come from whole, unprocessed sources. But I don't think people really know what "whole" and "unprocessed" effectively mean.

I'm talking about things like quinoa, which looks like an uninteresting bag of pellets, but tastes really fantastic once you learn what to do with it. Real vegans know how to incorporate these foods into their diet. And you won't get fat from whole, high-fiber, low-glycemic, unprocessed grains to the same degree that you will from other carbohydrates.

I don't want to glorify the vegan lifestyle in any way, because many vegans could learn something from non-vegan bodybuilders - especially when it comes to protein intake. The learning can go both ways if both camps are open-minded.

Q: What is your status at the moment?

Dr. John Berardi: So far, I'm doing well with my food choices. I don't have any cravings for steaks or anything else. If you eat 4000 kcal a day, you're actually always pretty full.

My training is going well, my pump is great because of all the carbs, my energy is high and I've already put on 2 kilos. So far it looks like lean muscle mass.

Q: Any other findings?

Dr. John Berardi: I don't think meat - whether it's on your diet or not - is the most important factor in your success. It's all the other things - all the food choices.

And while I don't think I'll hate this diet anytime soon, I will go back to eating meat after this experiment is over.

I would say that most vegans could probably do with some meat in their diet, and that most meat lovers could do with a little less meat. We would probably live in a healthier world if we met somewhere in the middle.


  1. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Dec;70(6):1032-9. effects of an omnivorous diet compared with a lactoovovegetarian diet on resistance-training-induced changes in body composition and skeletal muscle in older men. Campbell WW, Barton ML Jr, Cyr-Campbell D, Davey SL, Beard JL, Parise G, Evans WJ. Nutrition, Metabolism, and Exercise Laboratory, Donald W Reynolds Department of Geriatrics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Little Rock 72114, USA.
  2. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002 Sep;76(3):511-7. Effect of protein source on resistive-training-induced changes in body composition and muscle size in older men. Haub MD, Wells AM, Tarnopolsky MA, Campbell WW. Department of Human Nutrition, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66506.


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