Fitness Focus: Is It Possible to Build Muscle on a Vegan Diet?

Maintaining a vegan diet can have numerous health benefits. Research suggests that a vegan diet can offer protection against type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancer types.

Individuals who eliminate meat and animal products typically increase their consumption of wholegrains, legumes, pulses, nuts, seeds, fruit, and vegetables. Studies suggest that a vegan diet delivers more antioxidants, beneficial plant compounds, and fiber, as well as being richer in folate, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, C, and E.

Of course, not all vegan diets are created equal. A poorly planned plant-based diet may lack essential nutrients. As with any diet, it is important to steer away from nutrient-poor, fast-food options. But is it possible to build muscle on a vegan diet? Here are the facts.

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Building muscle takes more than lifting weights. Although working out is a vital component, rest is also important, providing tired, damaged muscles with an opportunity to heal from the stresses they experience during exercise.

In order to recover, an athlete must consume all of the nutrients required for muscle recovery and repair. Building muscle requires adequate protein intake. The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism recommends that strength athletes consume 1.2g to 1.7g of protein per kilo of body weight a day. Meat is an excellent source.

Meat contains essential amino acids as well as zinc, which supports the immune system, and aids the repair, recovery, and growth of muscle cells. It is also rich in selenium, an important antioxidant that prevents oxidative damage in muscle cells. Meat also contains B vitamins that support muscle growth.

Iron helps athletes to combat fatigue, as well as boosting production of red blood cells to transport oxygen around the body, stimulating cell growth, particularly in muscles. Creatine is also found in meat. Creatine improves protein synthesis, encouraging muscle gain.

Although meat is popular with weight trainers, quality is very important. Nutritionists recommend that athletes opt for lean cuts, like chicken breast, lean steaks, or turkey, removing excess fat prior to cooking.

The association between veganism and a skinny, weak physique is practically universal. We have been conditioned to believe that we must eat lots of animal protein in order to build muscle. This simply is not true. Take for example man’s evolutionary cousin, the gorilla. Gorillas are herbivores, yet a fully grown silverback has the strength of 20 humans, enabling it to lift up to 4,000 lbs.; up to 27 times its own bodyweight.

You would be hard-pressed to find someone who had leveraged their physical prowess more than actor, producer, businessman, former politician, and retired bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is recognized globally as one of the most important figures in the history of bodybuilding.

Today, the seven-time Mr. Olympia winner cautions against eating too much meat, explaining that whereas he was once under the misconception that he needed to eat significant amounts of animal proteins to get big and strong, he has cut back significantly. Schwarzenegger points out that today he eats more oatmeal, vegetables, greens, and healthy foods, and he feels all the better for it.

Raised by Argentinian Hare Krishna parents, bodybuilder Nimai Delago has never eaten meat. Delago explains that he grew up 95 percent vegan, with the exception of dairy products.

A Pro Card bodybuilder with IFBB, Nimai Delago bases his diet on unprocessed, plant-based foods, explaining that he was still able to build significant muscle. He is keen to address the belief that all vegans are protein deficient, conclusively proving these stereotypes wrong. Delago has won several prestigious contests, including the NPC USA Championships.

Jehina Malik is a vegan bodybuilder who has been competing since she was 19 years old. She was raised a vegan along with her five siblings, explaining that this was the only way of life she knew. Malik remains committed to veganism, explaining that she is living proof that it is possible to be healthy and strong without eating animals.

Malik won first overall in the 2013 NPC Eastern USA Bodybuilding Championship, as well as claiming first place in women’s physique. Malik was awarded a Pro Card at her first international show, Team Universe, in 2014.

Building muscle on a plant-based diet requires significant dietary and lifestyle changes. Weight trainers need to eat protein, and contrary to popular belief, it is possible to get enough without eating meat. From beans and lentils to soy-based foods, many plant-based foods are rich in protein.

Vegans do have to maintain a careful diet to ensure they do not become deficient in vital vitamins and minerals. However, it is possible to get all of the necessary nutrients from plant-based foods.

It is entirely possible to become a successful bodybuilder while following a vegan diet. The key is careful planning, incorporating healthy calories, and maintaining a diet rich in valuable nutrients, including protein, vitamins and Omega-3.

Douglas Healy is a Springfield, Missouri-based attorney with nearly 20 years of legal experience.