It's All About the Gains
The stereotype of the skinny vegan has become so normalized that it is difficult to believe that anyone could attain huge amounts of muscle mass while living a plant-based lifestyle.
Observing nature, however, should challenge these assumptions.
Consider the largest land animals on Earth— elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes, and gorillas— who eat only plants. (Some species of gorillas also eat insects.)
German Strongman Champion Patrik Baboumian stated, “One person asked me how can you get as strong as an ox without eating meat? And my answer was, have you ever seen an ox eating meat?”
It is understandable to some degree where this stereotype comes from.
Until recently, most people who chose to eliminate animal products from their diets did so for ethical reasons such as animal compassion or environmental sustainability. Even those who did so for health reasons were not concerned with gaining muscle mass or otherwise maximizing athletic performance. This narrative is changing.
There is an ever-growing movement toward the plant-based lifestyle for both strength and endurance athletes.
Consider plant-based athletes from current and former NFL players Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick, to current and former NBA players Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, and John Salley, to bodybuilders Torre Washington and Mischa Jeniec, to Olympic champion weightlifter Kendrick Farris, to German champion strongman competitor Patrik Baboumian, to mixed martial artists Nate Diaz, to tennis professionals Serena and Venus Williams, to endurance athletes Scott Jurek, and Fiona Oakes, to U.S. Olympic gold medal sprinter Carl Lewis, to Australian champion sprinter Morgan Mitchell, to 8-time U.S. Champion and Olympic Silver Medal cyclist Dotsie Bausch.
The proof is in the performance. These athletes excel at their sports while living the plant-based lifestyle.
Whether you are eating plant-based foods or animal-based foods, eating for muscle gain is the same—you must consume more calories than you burn. The concept of calculating macros does not change when you are eating plants versus eating animals or animal products.
Where do you get your protein?
This is the most common question for anyone who is considering living a plant-based lifestyle.
Thanks to billions of dollars of marketing and lobbying, we have been conditioned to focus on isolated nutrients such as protein and calcium and have been further convinced that we will be deficient in these nutrients if we don’t consume animal-based food.
This belief is especially prevalent in men. Adopting a predominantly plant-based lifestyle in recent years, actor and former body builder Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaims, “Selling that idea that real men eat meat, you’ve got to understand that’s marketing. It's not based on reality.”
But nevertheless, meat, eggs, and dairy have become the central focus of most American meals, with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans being relegated to side dishes. In other words, put that big hunk of animal-based protein on your plate while making sure that you “get in some veggies.”
Protein is, without question, one of the main building blocks of the body, helping us grow and repair tissue. Protein is made up of molecules called amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, of which 11 of them our bodies produce. The other nine, called essential amino acids, we must get from food.
As important as protein is, most people don’t need much protein in order to meet their daily requirements.
It turns out that our bodies are very efficient at recycling protein, and we also have an essential need for carbohydrates for fuel, something that is almost completely absent in animal-based food.
Athletes, body builders, and others involved in strength training often need more protein to aid in muscle recovery and repair, but it is not necessary to get that protein from animal sources.
Kendrick Farris, the only weightlifter to represent the United States in the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games, learned about the benefits of clean protein, pure energy, and improved muscle recovery from eating plants.
“When I made the switch to a plant-based diet, people were like how are you going to lift all that weight and you’re not going to be eating anything. You’re gonna be eating nothing but grass. How are you going to be strong? I qualified for my third Olympic team. I broke two American records. I won the Pan-Am Games. I was like man, I should have done this a long while ago. Why didn’t I research this before?”
Citing an injury rate of 100% in his sport, former NFL linebacker Derrick Morgan concurs, “I was reading the research, and it seemed that a plant-based diet could be beneficial, specifically for recovery. And so, I started incorporating it, and I started seeing really good results with it. I was recovering better. I wasn’t getting as sore. I was a lot less swollen.”
But what about endurance?
Contrary to popular belief, whole plant foods have all 9 essential amino acids in various proportions. But what about protein quality?
All animals get their protein from the plants that they eat. Therefore, as long as we are consuming a variety of whole plant foods, the source of the protein is irrelevant.
However, there are two distinct advantages for athletes in getting their protein from plants.
First of all, whole plant foods provide immediate carbohydrate energy, essential for optimal athletic performance. And by getting these carbohydrates from whole plant foods, as opposed to refined or processed foods, the fiber remains intact.
Fiber digests slowly, resulting in a sustained release of energy, promoting endurance and stamina. This can be beneficial for workouts and a strategic advantage against athletic opponents.
Regarding switching to a plant-based diet, Australian National Champion sprinter Morgan Mitchell states, “A lot of people doubted me when I first became vegan, but my energy levels increased incredibly. Sometimes you have to do things that you know your competitors aren’t doing, getting every single advantage you can.”
Other athletes have talked about going plant-based as a secret weapon or a cheat code. Former Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis reflects, “I changed my diet to a vegan diet, and I set all my personal bests at 30 years old.”
Secondly, animal products contain pesticides, mercury, and various inflammatory compounds.
For example, eating even one hamburger has been shown to increase inflammation by as much as 70% while also impairing blood flow.
Decreased blood flow can result in increased muscle fatigue during intense workouts and athletic competition. Additionally, stressors from inflammatory compounds result in short-term consequences such as increased soreness and recovery times, as well as long-term consequences such as increased body fat.
U.S. Olympic cyclist Dotsie Bausch switched to a plant-based diet mid-career and faced a lot of backlash. She stood firm in her convictions amidst both cultural pressures and concerns for her athletic performance.
“I grew up in Kentucky, so that’s the land of casseroles and barbecue and meat. So when I transitioned over to an entirely plant-based diet, I wasn’t sure if I was going to survive. And I actually became like a machine.”
Dotsie points out the importance of training and recovery to reach peak athletic performance. “If you can do more work and more repair, you're going to be the better athlete.” Dotsie stood on the Olympic podium at 39-and-a-half years old, the oldest cyclist ever to be in the Olympic Games. She boldly proclaims that her diet was the reason for her Olympic success at that age.
Whether you are a current athlete, or you are trying to live with vitality in the second half of life, it is plant-based eating for the win.
At the age of 60, former NFL cornerback Lucious Smith, a jiu jitsu black belt, strength and conditioning coach, and a 10-year plant-based eater, declared, “Most guys my age can’t keep up with their grandchildren. My grandchildren can’t keep up with me.”
Suggested viewing: Game Changers Movie