Op-Ed: The Case for Gaining Muscle on a Vegan Diet

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

When I began my vegan journey after 20 years of being a vegetarian athlete, the transition was surprisingly smooth relative to my power output, performance, and overall strength and mechanics.

From Bodybuilder to Fighter

As a teenage bodybuilder, weight training had always been a large part of my regimen and who I am as an athlete. When I transitioned into fight sports around 19, I learned that my muscle power needed to be explosive without hindering my speed and agility. Fluid movement is a must: turning angles, abruptly snapping your right hand, and shifting your hips in one fast motion to drop your opponent. My body also had to be hardened to cope with the punishment I’d receive in the ring and in the cage.

When I decided to completely cut out animal products in my early 30s, I never second-guessed my decision to go vegan, because it was an ethical choice to abstain from using any animal product. Nonetheless, I wanted a body based on symmetrical science and to still be the strongest guy in the cage. I hoped my mission to go plant-based would be a plus and not a hindrance to developing powerful muscles.

When I won my first USA Boxing Metro fight at 34 years old and went on to win several MMA matches, including Extreme Cage Fighting bouts, I knew veganism wasn’t a weak man’s diet.

Emphasizing Protein

In America, and much of the Western world, veganism is generally thought of as a weakling’s diet — not just in the strength community.

Science holds that protein is not only a source of regenerating new cells but also the primary source for building muscle tissue. In the late 1900s the “father of nutrition”, Carl Voit, established 52 grams of protein as the requirement for adequate consumption. Nonetheless, Voit recommended 120 grams a day for the average person. During this time, animal protein was associated with physical strength and body size and a higher biological value. This notion of animal protein being the best source for our bodies continues to this day.

Are Plant-Based Proteins Incomplete?

To the strength community, a plant-based or vegan lifestyle is sometimes seen as inferior when it comes to “complete protein,” a term that indicates a protein has all of the essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts. But the notion of “complete protein” is irrelevant for two significant reasons.

Firstly there are plenty of “complete” vegan proteins, like soy, quinoa, and buckwheat. But all plant foods contain all the essential amino acids, including the branched chain amino acids — just not always in equal amounts.

But there’s a solution. Plant-based meals like Mexican bean burritos, Jamaican rice and peas, chana saag (chickpeas, spinach, and Basmati rice) are complete meals in terms of amino acids. Legumes tend to be low in methionine and high in lysine, while rice is low in lysine and high in methionine, so combining them makes a “complete” protein.

These meals also provide an excellent source of fiber, iron, B-vitamins, and other vitamins and minerals while being complete protein meals.

[Why do athletes go vegan? Hear them explain in our article, the 5 strongest vegans on Earth.]

Are Plant-Based Proteins Less Digestible?

For power and strength athletes, plant protein is normally written off as useless protein because of the myth about plant protein’s lack of digestible indispensability. In a 2015 rodent study conducted for the American Society for Nutrition, Shane M. Rutherford, et al compared the digestible indispensable amino acid quality of several plant and animal proteins. The study produced scores for each protein from both the ileum (small intestine) and fecal matter.

Interestingly, they found that pea protein concentrate, roasted peanuts, and soy protein isolate were all comparable to animal proteins, landing scores in the mid-to high 90-percentage in both ileum and fecal tests. Not only did the study show high digestibility as protein sources, but pea protein concentrate and soy protein isolate produced higher scores of true nitrogen digestibility in both ileum and fecal matter tests than whey protein concentrate and milk protein concentrate.

Cooked peas and cooked rolled oats scored 88% in their ileum tests, only 11 points lower than whey protein isolate. Rice protein concentrate produced a 95% score in fecal tests. Kidney beans and rice protein ranged from 70% to 88% in both ileum and fecal matter tests. Although, whey protein isolate produced a relative score of 99% and 102% in ileum and fecal tests, is it really worth using whey when it edges out pea protein by a measly 2-3 percentage points?

The Rutherford study suggests that plant-based amino acids can provide mammals with mostly usable protein.

B-12, Iron, Calcium & Vitamin D

Can a plant-based diet be a long-term solution? Regardless of the misinformation, vitamin B12 derives from bacteria and can be sourced straight from rich soil, mushrooms, nutritional yeast and seaweed, but in any case, vitamin supplements are cheap and easy to obtain.

Most legumes such as lentils, black beans, and kidney beans have above sufficient amounts of iron. For your calcium and numerous phytonutrients, dark leafy greens rank among the highest food sources per 100-gram serving. With regards to another nutrient thought to be missing from a vegan lifestyle, vitamin D, we can be absorb it just like a plant or Superman: directly from the sun.

Plant-Based Recipes

Here are a couple of my favorite recipes when I need carbs and protein to fuel a workout.

Pea Patty (sandwich) recipe

Grab a cup of cooked peas, mix in seasonings, mash them, add to a pan on medium-high with a little olive oil. Top with lightly cooked red onions, kale and tomato and slide it in-between breads made from whole grain, kamut, spelt, oat, or teff flour. Now you have enough delicious protein to match a monster workout.

Calories: 134
Carbohydrates: 25 grams (76%) Fat: 0.4 grams (2%) Protein: 8.6 grams (22%)

Sweet Plantains & Spinach

Choose a large darkened yellow plantain and slice several pieces and a cup of spinach cut down. On medium-high, fry the plantains in a little coconut oil on both sides until brown. After draining the excessive oil on a paper towel or napkin toss them in sea salt, black pepper and garlic powder. In a separate pan on medium stir-fry onions and a little garlic. Add a cup of chopped spinach.

Calories: 225
Carbohydrates: 193 grams (76%) Fat: 8.5 grams (6%) Protein 19.5 grams (18%)

Wrapping Up

It is possible as an athlete focused on developing better power and strength to incorporate a healthy diet and not miss a step in maintaining strength. Just increase your healthy macros, get plenty of rest, and kill it in the gym.

Featured image via @omowaleadewale on Instagram.

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