With environmental concerns piling up, and the negative health effects of red and processed meat becoming hard to ignore, veganism has never been more popular. Following a plant-based diet can be better for the planet and may be better for our health, too, but for anyone into fitness it casts two major doubts: won’t going vegan affect protein intake and, therefore, muscle gains? And won’t such a dietary shift take its toll on day-to-day energy levels? RSNG put both questions to nutritionist and founder of Meat Free Fitness TJ Waterfall, to find out.
Pack In The Protein
The internet is awash with figures for how much protein regular gym users and sportsmen should consume. To add, or train to maintain, lean muscle mass, the generally accepted recommendation is to include 0.5-0.8g of protein per pound of bodyweight (or 1.2-1.7g per kilo). Some recommend more than that, but there’s no need to go overboard, says Waterfall.
‘Protein is important, but only up to a point. Studies show that for strength training athletes, doubling the recommended intake of protein – of 50g – can increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS). However, increasing the protein intake further, to triple the recommended intake, made no further difference.
So, the beneficial effects of increasing protein intake are only seen up to a point. Not only is increasing protein intake beyond this point a waste of money, but you could be filling up on unnecessary foods while missing out on nutritional benefits from other foods.
‘Just buying the biggest tub of pea protein in Wholefoods isn’t going to cut it’
How To Get Enough Protein From A Vegan Diet
There’s no denying the power of meat when it comes to giving your system bio-available, complete proteins, which contain all of the amino acids needed to build and maintain muscle. So how can those on a plant-based diet get enough protein?
‘There is much more protein in vegetables than many people think,’ says Waterfall. ‘For instance, just one cup of peas contains 8g of protein, which is already 16% of the recommended intake.’ Legumes, wholegrains, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds are other good sources, but bear in mind that plant proteins are not complete. So, just going out and buying the biggest tub of pea protein in Wholefoods isn’t going to cut it – you need to mix up your plant proteins to make sure they cover all of the amino acid bases.
It’s also getting more convenient to train on a vegan diet. ‘There are some brilliant vegan protein shakes and bars available nowadays,’ says Waterfall. ‘They’re definitely not necessary, but can be a convenient and quick way to consume a high amount of protein, which can be useful before and after exercise to prevent muscle breakdown, and to promote MPS.’
The Energy Issue
Any meat eater might think such a radical shift in their primary food source – from an animal to a plant-based diet – will inevitably lead to a dip in energy and performance, even if only temporary. But Waterfall disagrees. ‘All of my clients who have switched to a vegan diet have continued to make impressive progress with their fitness and strength,’ he says. ‘And the science backs this up, too – it’s extremely easy to get plenty of protein, energy, and everything else that’s required to make progress on a vegan diet that’s balanced and varied.’
‘Whole-food vegan diets can help improve recovery from exercise’
As well as providing protein, as long as you switch it up, plant foods have other exercise benefits, says Waterfall. ‘Plant-based foods are incredibly antioxidant-rich (plant foods on average have 64 times the antioxidant properties of animal products). Therefore, whole-food vegan diets can help improve recovery from exercise.’
The science backs this up his point with studies showing reduced antioxidant stress with increased intakes of various plant foods. In one study, published in Health & Medicine Week, runners eating spinach every day saw their muscle damage and antioxidant stress reduce significantly.
This means you could recover faster between intense workouts and return to training without the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) holding you back. One study even suggests that you can improve maximum power output in the days following these workouts with increased consumption of various fruits and vegetables.
If you’re thinking you could pop antioxidant pills for the same effect, then think again. ‘The nutrition of whole plant foods is far more complex than just taking single nutrients in isolation,’ says Waterfall.
There is one exception to dosing up with vitamin pills: vitamin B12 is not commonly found in plant foods. So, to combat any potential deficiency, Waterfall recommends taking a daily or weekly supplement. He also suggests that everyone, meat eaters included, ‘consider taking a vitamin D supplement, especially in the winter months, as studies show that around 40% of people have low levels during the winter.’
Whether your goal is maintaining muscle, adding muscle or increasing strength, all your nutritional needs can be met on a plant-based diet. However, ‘vegan’ doesn’t automatically translate as ‘healthy’. To get all the nutrients you need for peak performance and recovery, a varied diet – consisting of all the foods Waterfall mentions – is critical. Get that right and there’s no reason ditching meat has to mean sacrificing muscle.
WHAT NEXT? To find out more about the lifestyle of a vegan bodybuilder, read the RSNG interview with Jon Venus...
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.