Do you really need meat to build muscle?
Vivo Life’s nutritionist, Charlotte Cliffe, explains the science behind building muscle on an entirely vegan diet.
One of the key factors in building muscle is your diet. The amount of protein you consume, for instance, is crucial. Many people think this equates to how much meat you eat, as meat and fish are a great source of protein. However, they are not the only source. With a solid understanding of the science behind how you build muscle, you can easily bulk up – even on an entirely vegan bodybuilding diet!
How do you build muscle?
Firstly, it’s important to understand how you build muscle. Muscle growth – or hypertrophy, to give it its technical name – comes from an increase in a certain type of long protein (myofibrils). This increase can be stimulated through working out. Weightlifting, for example, can stimulate this increase by damaging the muscle tissue on a small scale. It is not the damage that causes hypertrophy, but rather, the recovery process.
Our body goes through several changes during exercise; minute muscle damage is just one of them. It can also lead to an increase in temperature, dehydration, and a disruption to the nervous and cardiovascular system. This is because exercise puts the body under stress. Having the right diet ensures that you recover from these things efficiently. You should also take other steps to encourage recovery, such as stretching, drinking lots of fluids, and getting sufficient rest.
What plant-based sources are there for protein?
As mentioned, protein is key. But ‘protein’ is a complex term that encompasses many different amino acids. Some of these amino acids are essential – meaning your body cannot produce them itself. Others are non-essential – meaning your body can produce them. It is important that your diet includes the essential amino acids your body cannot synthesise itself. These essential amino acids are:
One reason meat is often considered essential for muscle growth is that it contains all of these essential amino acids. Many plant based protein sources, such as nuts and beans, do not. However, by carefully researching vegan bodybuilding recipes, you can ensure you do get the amounts you need. Soy, buckwheat, and quinoa all contain these amino acids – with soy being the most efficient per portion size.1 You can also eat a mix of incomplete sources, as long as, between them, they provide all the essential amino acids.
What other nutrients do you need?
Protein alone is not enough to ensure muscle growth. As with many biological processes, it is a complex balance. Other important nutrients include:
Most people think of calcium as being related to strong bones and teeth (which it is), but it is also important for building muscle. This is because it contains actin and myosin which can stimulate muscle growth. A lack of calcium can cause your body to store more fat than it should. Dark, leafy greens are a good source of calcium in plant-based diets – particularly spinach.
Iron helps ensure your body can maintain energy levels during exercise. It helps get oxygen to your muscles, as well as assisting in the repair process. Like protein, most people think of meat as the best source, but it is possible to have a sufficient iron intake on a plant-based diet. Again, dark leafy greens like kale or spinach are good sources, along with lentils, nuts, and seeds.
Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron more effectively. If you are getting your iron from plant sources, then this is even more important. You want to be absorbing the iron you are getting as efficiently as possible! Luckily, plant-based diets excel at containing vitamin C – fruit and vegetables are key here.
Vitamin D is not as directly impactful as the above three, nonetheless, it still has a role to play in muscle growth – and many people are deficient without realising. The best source of Vitamin D is sunlight, but in some areas of the world this can be hard to obtain. There are not many foods containing high amounts of vitamin D, and most of them are meat-based – oily fish, liver and red meat. However, it’s very easy to add a supplement to your diet for this. Many vegan supplements will contain Vitamin D sourced from lichen.
B12 is often overlooked, but it helps your body produce red blood cells. These, in turn, help bring oxygen to your muscles. This is one nutrient that is not usually found in plant-based foods, but that does not mean you need to add meat to your diet. Instead, fortified yeast or breakfast cereals have high levels of B12 and are easy to incorporate into your diet.
Building muscle on a plant-based diet
It is possible to build muscle on a plant-based diet – it just requires a little more research and careful meal planning, but there is plenty of help available!
It is important to make sure your nutrition is spread regularly throughout the day, so eating five or six meals instead of the usual three can help with this. Switching to snacks with high levels of protein or other vital nutrients can ensure your intake is high. Pumpkin seeds, pistachios, and other nuts and seeds are good for this.
Whilst eating meat does have health benefits – eating fish and poultry can be associated with a lower risk of heart disease and strokes, for example – so too, does a plant-based diet. In fact, it can help you achieve improvements in cholesterol and blood pressure.
The most important thing is to eat a healthy, balanced diet with all the essential nutrients, regardless of whether it is meat or not! But those looking to investigate plant-based diets can certainly still work on building muscle.
Charlotte Cliffe is the marketing manager and in-house nutritionist at the leading plant-based protein and vegan supplement brand, Vivo Life. The company was voted as the UK’s best vegan superfood and supplement brand in the VegFest awards.