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Vegan Gains? Can You Build Muscle on a Vegan Diet?

August 6, 2016 | 0 Comments
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There’s no denying that when someone describes themselves as a vegan or a vegetarian most of us immediately question how they get adequate protein in their diet. With the popularity of veganism on the rise, and the ever increasing number of people involved in health & fitness choosing the vegan diet over the conventional carnivor diet, it begs the question… Can you actually build muscle on a vegan diet? Can you make “Vegan GAINS?”

To help answer this question, and once and for all put an end to the great vegan bodybuilding debate, we have consulted with numerous sources to discover whether the various myths surrounding vegan bodybuilding hold true, and to provide recommendations to ensure our vegan brothers & sisters in iron aren’t missing out on any gains!

A vegan is someone who abstains from the consumption of anything that is derived from an animal (both land and sea). This includes all meat, dairy and poultry foods. As a result, vegans will commonly eat a large quantity of vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes in order to meet their daily protein requirements. Some high protein foods that vegans commonly consume include tofu, quinoa, chickpeas and sunflower seeds, which contain an impressive 42g of protein per 100g. The following chart illustrates the protein content of some other common vegan friendly foods.

With what most of us would consider surprisingly high protein content, it seems as though it is actually quite easy to meet your daily protein requirements without consuming foods derived from animals. However, that’s only half of the story. Most non-vegans will argue that the protein they consume derived from animal sources is of a higher quality and is more complete than the sources eaten by their vegan counterparts. If there is anything that the Bro vs IIFYM diet debate has taught us, it is that a calorie is not simply a calorie and a carbohydrate is not simply a carbohydrate. So logically we have to ask the question “Are all proteins created equal?”

What is Protein?

Proteins are one of the three macronutrients, along with carbohydrates and fats. The molecules of proteins are comprised of individual amino acids, which are commonly referred to as the building blocks of proteins. Proteins are required by the body to rebuild and repair tissue, provide structure, and participate in every chemical process that occurs in living organisms. Proteins are what create muscles, ligaments, tendons, organs, glands, hair, skin, nails, body fluids, hormones and chromosomes. There are 23 proteinogenic amino acids that exist and each protein molecule will contain some combination of several hundred amino acids arranged in branches and chains. The combination and quantity of amino acids that belong to a protein type will determine the specific function they are to carry out in the body.

Amino acids are also essential to ensure vitamins and minerals can perform their roles in the human body. Even if vitamins and minerals have been consumed and absorbed by the body, they will not be effective in the absence of amino acids. For example, low levels of the amino acid Tyrosine has been associated with low levels of Iron, while low levels of Methionine and Taurine have been associated with autoimmune disorders and allergies. Finally, another major role that amino acids are responsible for in the human body is assisting neurotransmission, which allows information to be carried from one nerve cell to another. Certain amino acids allow neurotransmitters to cross the blood-brain barrier, which is vital for the brain to be able to communicate messages to all parts of the body.

It’s pretty incredible to think just how integral proteins and amino acids are for the human body, not only to grow muscle size and strength, but to perform a multitude of chemical processes which allow you to function normally. To learn just how much protein you should be consuming each day for you personal goals, check out our FREE Nutrition Plan.

Essential Amino Acids

The human body is able to create some of the 23 amino acids on its own by using other amino acids and nutrients present in the body. However, there are 9 amino acids, appropriately called Essential Amino Acids (EAAs), which must be directly consumed from wholefood or supplementary sources as the body is unable to create them on its own.

These EAAs are:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

Are All Proteins Created Equal?

Now that we have more of an understanding about what protein actually is and what it is responsible for in the human body, we can revisit the question of whether all proteins are created equal. The nutritive value of food measures the quality of food with reference to the quantity of essential nutrients it contains, including amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Therefore, foods which contain a high number of EAAs will generally have a high nutritive value.

Animal derived proteins have a similar amino acid profile to humans, which means that they typically deliver all of the EAAs required by the human body. When a protein source has a high nutritive value and therefore adequate quantities of important amino acids, it can be absorbed and used more immediately by the body. The major difference between animal and plant derived proteins is their amino acid profile, and hence their nutritive value, which is why plant based proteins are often referred to as incomplete sources of protein. To demonstrate this, two food sources commonly consumed by carnivors and vegans are compared in the following table with specific reference to the amount of essential amino acids they contain per 100 Calories.

Comparison of Essential Amino Acid Content: Steak vs Broccoli (grams per 100 Calories)

However, it is important not to look at this table in isolation. To further investigate the debate as to whether plant derived proteins are indeed inferior to animal proteins with respect to essential amino acid content, the following graph should also be consulted. It displays a range of common vegan foods and their subsequent essential amino acid content relative to human needs (as determined by the World Health Organisation).

Common Vegan Foods: Essential Amino Acid Content

The foods listed in this graph appear to meet, if not exceed, the essential amino acids required as determined by the World Health Organisation. It is important to note however, that the required amount of EAAs as determined by the World Health Organisation is far lower than that typically required by athletes and bodybuilders. For the average person who isn’t attempting to build muscle, increase strength, or doesn’t participate in performance-based sports, these recommended essential amino acid levels may be adequate. But for the rest of us, our protein needs, and therefore essential amino acid needs, will be far higher.

So what’s the issue with plant derived proteins? While many common plant-based protein sources do indeed contain a variety of essential amino acids, animal sourced protein yields a higher total quantity of EAAs and therefore has a higher nutritive value. So are all proteins created equal? The definitive answer is no, they are not.

Protein Combining

Protein Combining is the method of pairing certain plant derived proteins in a single meal to ensure that EAAs are being consumed in sufficient quantity and the nutritive value of the meal is improved. For example, a vegan relying on a wheat-based meal will not receive an adequate amount of the EAA Lysine. However, if this wheat was to be paired with black-eyed peas, the result will be an improved nutritive value as black-eyed peas are high in Lysine. For those who prescribe to a vegan diet, it is useful to become familiar with the specific essential amino acid profile of your favourite vegan foods to discover how best to use Protein Combining to your advantage. The following table provides a great starting point and a good example of how to incorporate Protein Combining.

Veganism and Supplementation

So do vegans still need to supplement like non-vegans? And which supplements are vegan friendly?

When it comes to post-workout nutrition, the rule still stands for vegans that you should opt for fast digesting nutrients to support muscle recovery and growth. Obviously all whey based protein powders are out of the question as they are derived from cow’s milk, but fortunately there are a growing number of vegan compliant protein powders available on the market. Most of these vegan protein powders contain both rice and pea protein, which when combined provide a full spectrum of essential amino acids. A great option we recommend is HPN Pro(Zero), which is a premium grade, plant-based protein powder abundant in amino acids that is not only vegan friendly but 100% vegan compliant and approved (it even uses BCAAs derived from sunflowers). You can also add some fast digesting carbohydrates for accelerated nutrient uptake and recovery, such as Creation Supplements DextroPure, another vegan friendly supplement.

There are some other supplements that should be utilised by vegans and vegetarians which are commonly lacking due to being found only in animal-derived foods.

Creatine: commonly found in red meat, creatine is extremely important for those who avoid consuming animal products. Creatine increases the synthesis of a compound called Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the body’s primary source of energy for the phosphate energy system; the energy system which the body uses to power short, sharp muscle contractions and other anaerobic exercise. In short, the more creatine you have available in your muscles, the more energy your muscles can create. A great, vegan-friendly option is Optimum Nutrition Creatine Monohydrate.

Glutamine: commonly found in both meat and eggs, glutamine is another important amino acid which assists muscle recovery and prevents muscle breakdown. It has also been shown to maintain muscle cell volume and hydration, and increase the body’s production of Human Growth Hormone. Glutamine also has powerful effects on digestive health by repairing and maintaining intestinal and bowel health. While it is a non-essential amino acid and typically abundant in the body, levels deplete during training which can impact strength and recovery. A great, vegan-friendly option is Optimum Nutrition Glutamine.

Beta-Alanine: commonly found in carnosine rich foods such as chicken, beef and fish, beta-alanine improves muscular endurance by acting as a buffer to fatigue toxins within working muscles. The longer it takes for muscles to fatigue, the longer and more intense workouts can be. A great, vegan-friendly option is Core Nutritionals Beta-Alanine.

BCAAs – BCAAs describe a group of three key essential amino acids; leucine, iso-leucine and valine, which play a vital role in regulating protein metabolism, commencing protein synthesis and preventing muscle breakdown. These three amino acids are necessary during exercise to improve recovery and reduce fatigue during training. A great, vegan-friendly option is Function 2WO Intra-Workout Formula.

When it comes to determining which supplements are vegan friendly, be sure to always read the ingredients list and pay particular attention to the “Other Ingredients” part of the label, as this is where supplement manufacturers will often list animal based ingredients that may not be apparent on the main part of the label.

Can You Build Muscle On A Vegan Diet?

We have not only established that it is possible for vegans to consume enough protein, but also to consume all of the EAAs in the correct quantities required to build muscle. Although all proteins are not created equal, Protein Combining allows vegans to improve the nutritive value of their meals and consume adequate amounts of EAAs to support muscle growth.

Of course, the key to any muscle building diet is caloric surplus; ensuring you are consuming more calories than your body requires in any given time period. This applies to vegans just as it does to non-vegans.

Provided you are using Protein Combining to your advantage to ensure your are hitting your EAA intake requirements from different plant based protein sources, eating in a caloric surplus each and every day, stimulating muscle growth through resistance based exercise, and supplementing correctly to support muscle growth and recovery, yes, it is indeed possible to make VEGAN GAINS!

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