When you picture a vegetarian or vegan, you might picture some skinny person wearing birkenstocks. That's been the stereotype for a long time now, and it still persists today.
Well tell that to world-class vegan body builders like Torre Washington. Or fitness moguls like Mike Mahler and Brendan Brazier, or professional cyclist Molly Cameron. I could go on and on about how many dominant athletes follow plant-based diets, but I think you get my point!
In fact, there is some evidence that suggests a plant-based diet is the most healthy and efficient way to get lean and muscular.
Plant-Based Diet Myths Busted
There are a lot of myths out there regarding plant-based diets. (And for simplicity, let's focus on strictly vegan diets that exclude all animal products including dairy and eggs.) Even though they've mostly been debunked, they still persist among athletes and bodybuilders today.
Myth #1: Plant-Based Means Low Protein
One of the most common questions vegans and vegetarians get is: how do you get your protein?
Setting aside the question of how much protein we actually need to grow muscle (more on that later), let's look at the facts:
- There is virtually an unlimited number of plant-based sources of protein
- Plant foods that are rich in protein tend to also be rich in other essential nutrients
- More and more protein supplements are vegan if you're still not getting enough
A diet rich in lentils, beans, quinoa, nuts, hemp, and tempeh will give you more than enough protein to pack on muscle. A cup of lentils contains about 18 grams of protein. Combine that with a cup of cooked quinoa (~8 grams of protein) and you've got an incredibly protein-rich lunch.
But some will say: That's still not as much protein as chicken breast! True. But do you really need to take in 30-50 grams of protein each meal?
Myth #2: You Need To Eat Tons of Protein To Build Muscle
This might be the most stubborn muscle-building myth of all. Visit most bodybuilding forums and you'll see claims like “You need to eat 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.”
These claims are almost always based on anecdote and not real evidence. A person might build muscle while eating 200+ grams of protein every day, but that doesn't mean they built muscle because of all that protein.
So how much protein do you actually need in order to build muscle?
According to Robert Cheeke, vegan bodybuilder and author of Shred It!, only 10-15% of your total macronutrients should be protein. This breaks down to around 0.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight – much less than what typical gym-goers say you should eat.
Myth #3: Plant Protein Is Incomplete
This is simply false.
It's true that you need to get all of our essential amino acids if you want to build muscle, but you don't need meat and eggs for that. The American Heart Association studied this over a decade ago and concluded that plants can indeed give you all the amino acids you need.
Myth #4: Plant-Based Meals Are Tasteless And Boring
Wrong again! Of course this is a matter of opinion, but suffice it to say that vegans eat a lot more than just tofu and salad. Popular books like the Forks Over Knives Cookbook or The Thrive Diet provide tons of unique ways to make vegan food delicious.
Myth #5: Vegans Become Too Deficient In Iron and B-12
It's true that most people get their iron and vitamin B-12 through meat. But it's still possible for vegans to get plenty of each. It just requires proper planning.
If you switch to plant-based you will experience many health benefits, but you need to be diligent about getting your iron and B-12. Failing to do this will result in anemia and neurological problems. I'll address this issue later on and will provide some good resources for more information.
Now that we've debunked some of the most common myths, let's take a look at how to use a plant-based diet to build some serious muscle!
How To Build Plant-Based Muscle
There are three main components to building muscle: diet, training, and hormones. In this post I'll mostly be discussing diet, but let's take a brief look at the other two components.
There are a million types of exercise that will help you build muscle. It all boils down to breaking down muscle through resistance training, allowing your body to build it back bigger and stronger (a process called hypertrophy).
If you're a beginner, or if you're trying to get back in shape, any type of resistance training will help. A simple routine consisting of bodyweight exercises (pushups, crunches, bridges, air squats) will get results. Add in some cardio like walking, jogging, bike riding or swimming to improve your circulation and you will see very fast results.
For those of you who are already regular exercisers, bodyweight exercises are still extremely effective for building muscle. If you can already do 50+ air squats easily, try doing pistol squats or burpees. If you can do 50 pushups without pausing, try pushup variations like diamond pushups or wide-grip pushups. You can also develop your back with pull-ups and chin-ups.
Weight training is still valuable, though, and can be a great way to supercharge your gains. There's no single correct weight training regimen, so you'll need to browse around to find something fun and challenging for you.
There is a ton of information out there about optimal hormone levels. Unfortunately a lot of it is written by people trying to sell you supplements. While supplements to balance your hormones might be necessary I recommend them as a last resort.
In reality, the best way to achieve the right hormone levels is to start with the basics: nutrition, sleep, and decreasing stress. A huge proportion of hormonal issues are due to problems with at least one of these three things. So if you're concerned that yours are out-of-whack, I suggest you take a look at your diet, sleep and stress levels before you buy supplements.
And if you do decide to try a supplement (like one of the many “testosterone boosters” that men are buying these days), talk about it with your doctor. Hormones are complex and there's a good chance a cheap supplement on the internet won't help you at all.
Now that we've covered exercise and hormones, let's talk about the most important component: diet. Of course all three are important, but a solid diet plan is absolutely essential to building muscle. It can even make up for shortcomings in the other two areas.
Screw Calories! Pay Attention To Macronutrients Instead
Macronutrients are the main building blocks in our diets: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Calorie content alone is basically meaningless.
Robert Cheeke recommends a breakdown of 80/10/10 or 70/15/15, meaning 70-80% of your macronutrients should be carbohydrates, 10-15% fats and 10-15% protein. This is much different than 25-30% protein diets that many bodybuilders preach.
Now, if you're not a professional athlete or bodybuilder, keeping track of these percentages can be inconvenient. Instead what you can do is keep a list of staple foods that have roughly this same ratio of carbs-to-protein-to-fat. You can build each meal around them and that should give you the right ratio at the end of the day.
The Staples: Eat These Foods Regularly and You WILL Build Muscle
You'll be able to build a lot of muscle if you eat these foods on a regular basis:
- nuts (almonds, peanuts, cashews, walnuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios)
- sprouted grains (Ezekiel brand of bread is perfect)
- seeds: sunflower, pumpkin
- yams/sweet potatoes
- carrots & turnips
These staple foods will give you the right ratio of macronutrients for optimal muscle building.
I know it seems counterintuitive to not include things like eggs and fish and chicken breast on this list, but that's because popular health publications have been preaching the high-protein gospel for a long time now. The people who promote them aren't necessarily building muscle because of all the protein they eat. And they may even be hurting their health by consuming too much of it.
Stick To Real Food
Author Michael Pollan wrote a book called In Defense of Food, which was about limiting the amount of unnatural food in your diet. He says you should stick to foods that your great-grandparents would recognize – whole foods that haven't been processed or engineered in a lab.
This is a great way to think about your diet. There are almost no processed foods that are positively healthy for you. Your body has a much easier time digesting the same types of foods that humans have eaten for hundreds of years.
A Note About Digestive Enzymes
One of the reasons a high-protein diet is a waste of time is because we can only digest a limited amount of protein. Our digestive enzymes in our stomach and intestines need to break down protein into its component amino acids in order for our body to utilize it.
Unfortunately our modern diets have eroded our natural digestive enzymes. Processed food is extremely difficult for our bodies to digest. And since our energy is limited, if we keep eating foods that we can't digest well then way too much of our energy will be devoted to digestion. This makes you fatigued and hurts your fitness goals long term.
One solution is to eat lots of plant-based food (surprise!) because they tend to have digestive enzymes built in. This makes digestion much more efficient and ensures that you make the most of what you eat.
Another solution is to take a digestive enzyme supplement. There are a number of such supplements on the market, and you tend to get what you pay for. Look for the quality digestive supplements at your health food store, or find a reputable supplement online (like this one made by a vegan bodybuilder).
Iron and B-12
Iron and Vitamin B-12 deficiencies are common among vegans, but they can be avoided.
A few of the staple foods I listed have a high amount of iron, including sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and kale (plus other leafy greens). If your diet includes plenty of these foods then you should have adequate iron in your system.
Vitamin B-12 is a bit trickier, as not many foods have it in large quantities. It's also not very efficient taking it in pill form because most of it ends of getting excreted. I recommend liquid B-12 extract that you can squirt under your tongue for quick absorption.
Gaining Mass Versus Getting Lean
The beauty of following a whole food, plant-based diet is that it's very difficult to gain excess fat. Your body is able to utilize all of the foods in our staple list and the chances of leaving fat deposits is low. Just by following this diet (and avoiding processed junk) you will likely burn fat, even if you don't pay attention to overall calorie intake.
Now, if you are already carrying a lot of extra fat, you can simply stick to 2 meals a day instead of 3, and snack as you go. On the other hand if you're skinny and want to gain more muscle weight, you can just eat an extra meal or two using our staple foods. You'll be able to add lean muscle without adding fat, so you won't be stuck on the types of “bulking and cutting” cycles that are popular these days.