Can you build muscle on a vegan diet?

Can you build muscle on a vegan diet?

Quiz any vegan on what they’re asked by meat eaters, and they’ll say ‘where do you get your protein?’ is right up there with ‘is it because of Cowspiracy?’ and ‘but, cheese?’

Whether you’re flirting with flexitarianism or wondering what to do when #meatfreemonday coincides with leg day, it pays to know how to fuel your gains the green way.

The basics of muscle building

Building muscle effectively and healthily requires a few things, not least sufficient calorie intake and a strength training programme that involves lifting heavy weights.

Protein, of course, plays a vital role because it delivers the raw materials for muscle repair and new muscle growth. But does it make a difference whether your protein is coming from animals or plants?

Are plant proteins as good as animal proteins?

The results of one 2017 study seemed to suggest yes. When it comes to muscle mass—the amount of muscle in your body—plant proteins are just as good as animal proteins.

Researchers looked at how the preferred protein source of study participants related to their muscle mass. Unsurprisingly, those with the highest protein intake had the most muscle mass. However, there was no link between muscle mass and the type of protein consumed – plant or animal. So when it comes to maintaining muscle mass, vegans turning to tofu, lentils and soy aren’t necessarily at a disadvantage, providing enough protein gets eaten.

Can plant protein really build muscle?

Right, so what about gains on a vegan bodybuilding diet? Research (on men only, at this point) has found that animal proteins, such as whey, are more effective at switching on muscle manufacture after weight training than plant-based proteins, like soy. The reason? Animal proteins contain more leucine – a protein building block that drives new muscle growth. As a guide, animal-based proteins provide 8-11% leucine, and plant proteins only 6-8%.

But, get enough leucine from your plant protein (2-3g post-workout being the magic number), and it could rival animal sources. In one 2013 study, male college students were given 48g of either rice protein (3.8g leucine) or whey protein (5.5g leucine) after strength training sessions and both groups had similar gains in muscle mass.

Leucine seems to be the key

Right now, we don’t know whether the same results from a vegan bodybuilding diet could apply to women, or how the gains compare long-term, but getting enough leucine post- workout is an important factor.

If you’re vegan, this probably means using a leucine supplement, which can be added to a protein shake or a glass of water. You could always just eat more plant protein, but this might leave your plate heaving under the weight of your portions. You’d have to put away 200g cooked lentils to get your 2.5g leucine. Tag-teaming two or three plant proteins is a good strategy.

As for daily protein intake, the consensus is to aim for 1.2-2g protein per kilo of body weight if you want to gain muscle.

That said, it’s not all about the protein. Carbs reduce muscle breakdown and provide energy for tough sessions, so team protein with carbs and healthy fats, too. That way, as long as you get your leucine hit, you’ll smash your swole goals.

No Whey!  

Vegan picks for post-workout muscle gains

What Serving size Leucine content
Soy protein isolate 30g 2.5g
Vegan L-Leucine 3g 3g
Rice protein powder 35g 2.7g
Oats (dry weight) 150g 2g
Lentils (dry weight) 100g 1.8g

(This article was originally commissioned and written for Women’s Health magazine)  See the print version here. 


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