It is a common misconception that bodybuilding and following a vegan diet are mutually exclusive. This is false! Bodybuilding is all about eating right and training hard, whether animal products are included or not.
Diet plays a huge part in building muscle. Traditionally, bodybuilders include eat a lot of meats, due to their high protein and calorie content. As vegan diets exclude a lot of food groups, it is important to know which foods contain key nutrients to build muscle.
For muscle gain, protein intake should be around 0.7-1.0 grams per pound of body weight and a calorie surplus of around 10-20% is recommended. Vegan diets do tend to be lower in calories than those including animal products, so you will need to significantly increase your portion sizes to be successful and avoid unwanted muscle loss.
Attempting to lift heavy weights and carrying out intense workouts with insufficient calorie or protein intake can be dangerous, so careful meal planning is absolutely vital. If you are new to the vegan diet, start with low intensity workouts until you have fully adjusted to avoid injury! Click below to learn how to safely lift heavier weights.
What To Eat & When?
For the best results, it is critical to get the right balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and to schedule meals around your workouts. Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are also important to remember, as they are crucial for maintaining good health and aiding the muscle building process.
Eating protein is key for bodybuilding, as it is responsible for maintaining nitrogen balance within the body. When the body has sufficient protein, it has a positive nitrogen balance, therefore is in an anabolic state. This means it uses proteins to build muscle tissue. However, if you have a negative nitrogen balance, your body will break down muscle tissue to use for energy and enter a catabolic state.
Proteins are made up of of amino acids. Most of these are made by the body, but there are nine essential amino acids that can only be obtained by consumption – foods containing all of these are “complete proteins”. Nutritional guides can tell you which amino acids are in various foods.
For bodybuilders, protein intake should occur every 2-3 hours. This is easily achieved by having 5-6 smaller meals a day or having plenty of snacks ready. High protein intake is recommended 1 hour pre-workout and within an hour post-workout. It is common to use protein shakes or other sports drinks for this, as they are not too heavy. The largest protein intake should occur approximately 1 hour before bed as the body will naturally enter a catabolic state during sleep.
Carbohydrates can be a controversial topic for some, but the fact remains, that they are the primary source of energy for the body and the macronutrient that is most easily broken down for energy. Therefore, carbohydrates are essential for bodybuilding. Your body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose for immediate use or stores it as glycogen for later use.
Some glycogen is stored in muscles. When those muscles are used, the glycogen is converted into energy to be used instead of breaking down muscle tissue. Glycogen stores are also essential for the muscle repair that happens post-workout.
Your biggest meal of the day is usually your highest carbohydrate intake, this should occur 3-4 hours before your workout. Many athletes also benefit from another smaller carbohydrate intake about 1 hour pre-workouts to ensure the body is energized. High carbohydrate intake is also essential post-workout to top up depleted glycogen stores.
Carbohydrates are made up of sugar, fiber and starch. Simple carbs are higher in sugar and should be avoided – these include cakes, biscuits, sugary cereals and white bread. Instead, bodybuilders opt for complex carbs, high in fiber and / or starch, e.g. fruits, vegetables, whole grains and rice.
Contrary to popular opinion, fat is essential for a healthy lifestyle. As the third macronutrient, it is easily overlooked by bodybuilders and there is a heavier focus on protein and carbohydrates.
Vegan diets are already lower in calories, so fats can help bodybuilders consume enough to stay in a calorie surplus as they are caloric dense. Many key vitamins are fat soluble, this means that they can only be absorbed in the presence of fat – some examples include vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E and vitamin K.
There is no specific recommended time to consume fats, however it is important to remember that fats slow down the digestion process. This means they are great to consume before sleeping, to keep your body in an anabolic state for longer overnight.
Omega-3 fats are highly praised in the health community. This is great news for vegans as nuts and seeds are rich in omega-3.
Vitamins and minerals are essential for maintaining good health. Most fresh fruit and vegetables are high in macronutrients anyway which is great news for vegans!
When bulking, the most important micros to look out for are iron, vitamin C and calcium. Iron is vital for transporting oxygen to the muscles and vitamin C helps increase the amount of iron absorbed by the body. Calcium intake is closely linked to metabolism in that insufficient calcium levels will trigger the hormone responsible for storing fat.
Head to https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-vegan-diet/ for more information on vegan nutrition.
5 Staple Foods
1) Tofu & Tempeh
These soy derived products make for great meat substitutes as they are packed with protein and extremely versatile! Tofu provides 13g protein per 100g and tempeh provides 19g protein per 100g.
Vegan essentials such as beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas all come under this category. They are rich in protein, fiber and are a great source of vitamin B. Chickpeas, black beans and lentils are also great sources of carbohydrates.
As a great source of fatty acids and protein, nuts are a staple for building muscle (even for non-vegans). Almonds and cashews are among the most popular as they are rich in iron, but all nuts provide great health benefits. Many are also available as nut butters or non-dairy milks.
As a complex carb and a complete protein, quinoa is a great addition to any vegan pantry. It is high in carbohydrates and protein, as well as packing in micronutrients such as zinc, magnesium and iron.
5) Fruit & Vegetables
This one seems obvious, but fruit and vegetables are a great source of vitamins and minerals, essential for any vegan meal!
Now you have the diet nailed, check out some great exercises for full body workouts and muscle gain – good luck!