Can you really build muscle on a vegan diet?
Veganism is huge, but is it holding you back in the weights room? Dietitian Laura Tilt delivers the expert scoop
Non-meat eater numbers are growing – but are their muscles? WH investigates
wWe Aussies have always been an animal-loving lot (OK, maybe not when a flock of seagulls crashes our beachside fish and chips). But as the third-largest-growing vegan market in the world, according to market research firm Euromonitor International, it seems that our animal-friendly ethos is spreading to our dinner plates. Whether you’ve been vegan since before Veganuary, you’re flirting with flexitarianism or you’re wondering what to do when #meatfreemonday clashes with leg day, it pays to know how to fuel your gains the green way.
Building muscle effectively and healthily requires a few things, not least sufficient kilojoule intake and a strength training program. Protein, of course, also plays a key role because it delivers the raw materials for muscle repair and new muscle growth. But does it make a difference whether your protein is derived from animals or plants?
When it comes to muscle mass (the amount of muscle in your body), the answer is no. A 2017 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at how the preferred protein source of participants related to their muscle mass. Unsurprisingly, those with the highest protein intake had the most mass, but there was no link between that 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, as long as enough protein gets eaten.
Right, so what about gains? 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 such as 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 per cent leucine, and plant proteins only 6–8 per cent.
But get enough leucine from your plant protein (2–3g postworkout being the magic number) and it could rival animal sources.
In a 2013 study in Nutrition Journal, male university 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.
Right now, we don’t know whether the same results could apply to women, or how the gains compare long term, but getting enough leucine post-workout is important. If you’re vegan, this probably means using a leucine supp, 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.
GET A GRIP ON VEG GAINS