Photo: John Arano
The notion that a person can’t be strong without eating meat belongs in the same category as “low fat diets are best” and “jogging is the one ideal form of exercise.” It’s outdated.
Performing at one’s best as a plant-based athlete is by no means easy, nor would we say every single person should make the switch. But many strength athletes, from Olympic weightlifter Clarence Kennedy to record holding strongman Patrik Baboumian, excel without meat and if it’s something you’re interested in trying, there’s enough data to suggest that it’s completely feasible.
In this article we’ve pored through a lot of studies and spoken to a registered dietitian to get the answer to the most common questions people have about using plant-based diets to build muscle, lose fat, and improve performance.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
In the long list of objections typically lobbed at vegans, or indeed anybody who elects to forego meat for even one day a week, is the question of protein.
It’s worth noting, first of all, that athletes likely don’t need quite as much protein as they’ve been told. There’s a common maxim in the world of fitness: consume 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight every day.
But while that’s very easy to remember and won’t do you any harm, it doesn’t seem to be the minimum amount needed for building muscle or strength. Remember that above all, calorie intake is the most important component for weight management — speak to a dietitian or nutritionist to get an idea of how many calories you should consume to achieve your goals.
Once you have that number, make sure you’re consuming at least 0.7 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, or about 1.6 grams per kilogram. The USDA recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram for the general population, but for those looking to optimize muscle gain or muscle retention, the position that’s been taken by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine is to hew closer to 1.6 grams per kilogram.
Precision Nutrition’s Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, adds, "The 1.6 grams is your floor, essentially that’s your target to hit. If your goal is muscle gain, the evidence doesn’t really suggest that eating more protein than that helps you gain more muscle."
Vegan Protein Sources
By and large, the Western palate is built around meat as the protein source, but with a little meal prep, it’s not tough to devise plant-based meals that can provide a solid hit of protein. Consider the following sources.
Photo: Stefan Schauberger
Firm tofu (9 grams per 3oz serving)
Tempeh (16 grams per 3oz serving)
Seitan (24 grams per 1oz serving)
Legumes (18 grams per 1 cup serving)
Quinoa (8 grams per 1 cup serving)
Nut and seed butters (8 grams per 2tbsp serving)
Spelt and teff (10 grams per cooked cup)
Hempseeds (10 grams per 1oz serving)
Oats (6 grams per half cup serving)
Are Vegan Proteins Inferior?
Animal proteins are always complete, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids — the building blocks of protein — in roughly equal amounts. Most plant-based proteins don’t, and experts continue to debate how important that is.
For starters, there are a lot of vegan proteins that are complete, such as soy, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat. Furthermore, if a protein’s completeness is very important to you, you can combine “incomplete” proteins to produce one: rice and beans is a very popular example. Rice is a bit low in the amino acid lysine but it’s high in methionine, beans have the opposite issue. Add them together and you’re good to go.
As far as overall health goes, it doesn’t seem that important to get all your amino acids at once, just to get enough of them throughout the day — which isn’t difficult if you’re eating a varied diet. As far as muscle gain goes, it may be prudent to keep an eye on how much of the three branched chain amino acids — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — you’re eating at a time.
“Leucine is one of the main triggers of muscle protein synthesis and it has what they call a threshold effect,“ physiologist Dr. Mike T. Nelson told BarBend in our article that explored the pros and cons of soy. “You need a certain amount of leucine to start that initiation process and then more beyond that doesn’t appear to be beneficial, but you do need enough to kickstart that whole process.”
Muscle protein synthesis is a process that switches on genes responsible for muscle gain and while it’s not the be all, end all of that process — calories, exercise, overall macronutrient intake, and sleep are way more important — if you really want to maximize muscle protein synthesis when you eat, it’s not a bad idea to try and reach that leucine threshold of about 3 grams. That’s roughly the amount you’ll get in 20 or 30 grams of quality protein.
Again, it’s unlikely to make a game changing difference to your physique and performance, but advanced athletes who need everything dialed in may want to think about it.
“The best way for any person following a new approach with food is to track their eating on an app like Cronometer to seriously get to know the nutrients and amino acids that are commonly lacking,” says Sylvia North, MS, RD, a New Zealand-based dietitian. “We can then be strategic about adding in certain protein-rich food, essential fats, and micronutrients.”
Iron Sources for Vegans
The following foods contain decent hits of iron and the good news is that they’re mostly good sources of protein as well.
Photo: Ella Olsson
Soybeans (49% RDI per cup)
Tempeh (10% RDI per 3oz serving)
Lentils and most legumes (37% RDI per cup)
Pumpkin seeds and flaxseeds (15% RDI per 2 tbsp)
Hummus (17% RDI per half cup)
Cashews (9% RDI per 1oz serving)
Leafy greens (20% RDI per cooked cup)
Potatoes (18% RDI per large potato)
Mushrooms (15% RDI per cup, cooked)
Oats (19% RDI per cup, cooked)
Quinoa (16% RDI per cup, cooked)
Multi-grain bread (10% RDI per two slices)
The Problem With Vegan Iron Absorption
Iron deficiencies aren’t unheard of on plant-based diets, and that has a lot to do with the fact that there are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. The first comes from blood and the second from plants, and non-heme iron doesn’t absorb very well.
“Nutrient tracking according to our generalised reference ranges is often not good enough,” says North. “Some plant-sourced nutrients are also more difficult to absorb than their animal-sourced counterparts, such as inorganic iron and zinc. I usually recommend having higher goals for these nutrients in a vegan diet to make up for poor conversion. “
Research suggests that the body absorbs non-heme iron much more effectively when it’s paired with Vitamin C, so consume fruits or vegetables whenever you consume iron. It also may be worth avoiding tea or coffee with meals, as it’s possible — though not totally, definitively proven — that the tannins and caffeine may interfere with iron absorption as well. Research suggests waiting an hour after you’ve eaten your iron to sip your cuppa.
Vegan Calcium Sources
Leafy greens, fortified foods, and legumes can be good sources of calcium
There’s no denying that dairy is a great source of calcium and that it is a little tough to meet your requirements of 1,000 milligrams per day without dairy or supplements — and that’s true for both omnivores and for vegans.
But you may not need supplements.
Fortified plant milks: 300mg per 8oz serving
Collard greens, cooked: 268mg per 1 cup serving
Tempeh: 184mg per 1 cup serving
Kale/bok choy/mustard greens, cooked: ~160mg per 1 cup serving
Almond butter: 111mg per 2 tbsp serving
Navy beans, cooked: 126mg per 1 cup serving