When it comes to building muscle, plants and persistence are all you need. Get the most from your workouts with Charlotte Willis’ essential guide to vegan supplements.
Who said being vegan means you can’t build muscle? Find out what you need to build strength and fitness in our comprehensive guide to vegan supplements that challenges common misconceptions.
Breaking Down Stereotypes
People often look at me twice when I tell them I’m vegan. For most gym-goers, particularly the muscle-chasers that I mix with in the weights room, plants are pitiful. So you’re not on a staple diet of chicken, tuna and greens? Well, I’m afraid you are dammed to a skinny physique, deemed to have the muscle mass of a Twiglet. My response to uninformed, uninspired and mind-numbing comments? I knuckle down, push myself and hip-thrust 130kg. At 5 foot nothing, I’m a strong woman, and my entire journey towards strength and fitness has been completely powered by plants.
It’s not just me. Hundreds of incredibly strong and inspirational figures in the fitness world have adopted a plant-based lifestyle and continued to build muscle, compete professionally and break strength records across the board: Robert Cheeke, Yolanda Presswood, Nimai Delgado, Bianca Taylor, Torre Washington, Dominik Thompson and Vanessa Espinoza, to name just a few.
No matter what athletic goals you are chasing, there’s truly no pre-requisite to consume animal products. A vegan diet will perfectly cater to the metabolic and macronutrient necessities of professional and semi-professional athletes, as well as the average gym user, without the need to subject our fellow animals to suffering.
No Bull. Just Bodybuilding
Let’s talk about protein for a second (I know, but stay with me here). We’re all perfectly aware that a vegan diet is exceedingly rich in naturally-occurring proteins found in beans, pulses, vegetables and wholegrains, and when we combine these protein sources together over 24 hours, you’ll provide your body with all of the essential building blocks it requires to synthesise muscle.
And despite what some traditionalists would have you believe, there’s no real difference between the qualities of protein provided by plants versus animal sources. If you break each source down into its constituent amino acids (these are the basic building blocks of proteins), a varied, wholefood, plant-based diet rich in legumes and grains has an amino acid profile comparable to that of an omnivorous diet.
In fact, the only things you’ll be missing out on as a vegan are cholesterol, hormones and growth factors found lurking in common animal-products such as whey protein powders (I know, what a shame!).
Just How Much Protein?
In order to build and maintain muscle, you’ll need to ensure you are eating enough calories, getting a regular supply of proteins, and constantly changing the ways you work out. But just how much protein do we really require to build muscle?
A common misconception is that you must flood your body full of protein every 3 hours, from a variety of sources, in many differing forms – some of which are pretty expensive. But just how much protein do you truly need in order to build muscle?
You’ll need to consume around 1.6-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight every day in order to build muscle. Why such a range? Some individuals will digest and process protein more readily than others, and as you progress with your diet and nutrition, you’ll be able to self-monitor your own progress, and adjust your intake according to your gains.
This amount of protein may seem like a lot, but when you break it down into four or five smaller meals every day, achieving this recommended intake is achievable. (See my list of my favourite high-protein staple dietary components, left.)
To Supplement or Not?
All this being said, do you really need to use a supplement if your aim is to build muscle as a vegan? What you may not be aware of, however, is that naturally-occurring proteins in a vegan diet are around 10% less digestible compared to animal-based proteins, which makes sense. Our bodies have to extract plant-based proteins from a fibrous vegetable source, and then convert these proteins into the desired amino acid chains required for new muscle growth – a process which can lead to protein losses.
For this reason, I choose to use a plant-based protein powder once or twice per day, particularly pre- and post-workout, to ensure my body gets a reliable source of complete protein, with a reduced fibre content.
Not only do I enjoy using certain supplements in my daily meals, I can personally say that I believe my supplementation has attributed a significant edge to both my progress and efficiency of my workouts. Be it psychological, physiological or a combination of the two, supplementing your diet with a few nutritious powerhouses will undoubtedly heighten your results, and help you enjoy your journey of fitness progression. Supplements extend much farther than a protein shake or bar, into the realms of superfoods, vitamins and blended isolated powders, each of which will empower your workout and help push you to achieve more.
Reading the ingredients list of certain brands of vegan proteins will leave you baffled and bemused. Take it from me, when it comes to protein powders, I prefer the motto ‘the simpler the better’. When it comes to choosing a powdered supplement, I advise you look for the following:
Where possible, opt for organic protein powders such as Sun Warrior and Vivo Life. These tend to be non GMO, which is important when soya is on the ingredient list. These powders will also tend to use fewer unnecessary ingredients and sweeteners within their formulas.
Ensure you have a complete amino acid blend within your tub and that the amino acid profile is balanced. The protein powder you choose must have a balance of both grain and legume-based protein sources such as rice, pea and quinoa. This will provide all of the essential amino acids which your body requires to rebuild those torn fibres. If you are unsure what flavour to get, buy an unflavoured powder. This will be more versatile and will best allow you to experiment with using your new powder in recipes such as oatmeal, baked goods and in smoothies. Your powder should have at least 20g-30g of protein per serving size to be worth its salt! If this number is lower than expected, consider how you might use the powder in combination with other protein-rich ingredients (such as peanut butter) in a recipe.
Taking additional vitamins is not always essential. That said, I would highly recommend investing in a good, strong dose of vitamin B12 (see our guide, page 79) and Vitamin D to support your strenuous activity. External use of magnesium oil spray is also beneficial for aching muscles and painful joints.
There are a few essential recommendations I have for specific foods you might want to incorporate into your athletic vegan lifestyle. Firstly, maca – a slightly sweet, caramel flavoured tuber-root extract powder. Maca naturally boosts your energy levels, whilst being rich in copper, iron and vitamin C. I use it in smoothies and in my breakfast oatmeal.
Next up, Matcha Green Tea Powder. This green powder contains EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), which has been shown to help aid weight loss, prevent heart disease and aid circulation.
Beetroot is an unlikely hero. Despite its unassuming nature, beetroot is a great pre-workout addition to a smoothie. Rich in Nitric Oxide, beets maximise your blood’s level of oxygenation, while ensuring optimal circulation – perfect for repping out your personal best.
Finally, hemp seeds are one of the most dense sources of protein and balanced Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, both of which help reduce joint pain and ease the stress upon the heart during exercise.
After you finish a workout, your muscle fibres are likely to be stretched, strained and torn. If gaining muscle is your aim, every time you work out, you’ll be creating micro tears in your muscle fibres (no wonder your final sets hurt so much, huh?), which your body then rushes to repair and rebuild. This process can be strenuous, and so consuming a hefty amount of natural anti-inflammatory foods is highly recommended.
Turmeric, ginger, berries and purple foods, leafy green veg and green tea are just a few of the essentials you should aim to incorporate into your diet regularly. What you might notice, is that by enjoying a balanced, plant-based wholefood diet, you can pretty much ensure you get all of the essential ingredients you require to sculpt your body, beginning in the kitchen.
Ideal Pre-Workout Meals
(Best consumed around 1 hour before exercise)
- Overnight oats: Soaked oats with soya yoghurt, Matcha green tea powder, protein powder, peanut butter, chia seeds and fresh fruit
- Peanut butter and banana bagel
- Warm oatmeal with berries and pumpkin seeds
- Scrambled tofu on toast with mixed veg
Charlotte is a freelance journalist and health writer who has worked with the Vegan Society and other online vegan publications. Her fields of expertise and interest include vegan nutrition, holistic healthcare, mindfulness and fitness. She is currently researching and studying the various links between food and psychological health while pursuing a doctorate degree in counselling.