Bodybuilders by-and-large scoff at vegetarian and vegan diets. The prevailing view in the fitness world is that meat delivers the most potent and effective proteins to build muscle. While it is true that a large, lean serving of meat post-workout delivers tremendous amounts of beneficial proteins, it is certainly not necessary to eat meat to get those proteins. Eating copious amounts of meat is also associated with high intakes of saturated fats and sodium, both associated with long term, chronic health problems if over-consumed for a long time. This means there are definite disadvantages to eating lots of meat long term. It is no surprise, therefore, that there are many people looking for ways to do bodybuilding on a plant-based diet (or mostly plant-based diet).
Bodybuilding on a Plant-Based Diet is Possible
If protein is the main concern for those thinking about transitioning to a mostly plant-based diet, fret no further. The plant world is rich in variety. When well-planned, a plant-based diet can deliver as much protein as a meat-eating diet. The key is to source your proteins appropriately. Plants for the most part do not have complete proteins (quinoa being one exception), and so for your body to fully absorb and utilize plant proteins you need to eat a variety of different plants with complementary amino acid profiles. This may sound complicated, but it’s really not.
How Protein Synthesis Works
When you eat food, your body breaks down the nutrients into their base components. This means every protein you eat, whether from a cow or a bean, is broken down into its constituent amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Your body then takes those amino acids to synthesize them into human proteins (like muscle tissue).
The argument for eating animal proteins is that it is easier for the human body to convert them into human proteins. An egg, for example, contains all the amino acids necessary for creating human proteins. 90% of an egg’s protein can be immediately turned into muscle or other proteins necessary for metabolic function. Conversely, protein from plants tend to lack the full list of amino acids required to create whole proteins. With plants, you must eat a combination of plant sources with varying amino acid profiles to provide your body with the building blocks necessary to synthesize whole proteins from your meals. It is possible, therefore, to consume all the protein necessary for bodybuilding just from eating plants – you just have to pay more attention to what you’re eating.
Benefits of a Plant Based Diet
We’ve now established that plant-based diets can provide enough protein for bodybuilders so long as they source their protein sources from a variety of plant types. As previously stated, diets that consist of copious amounts of meat tend to also consist of high levels of sodium and fats. Triglyceride levels tend to be higher in populations who eat more meat, and generally speaking, meat is associated with many of the health problems we face as we age. With this in mind, transitioning to a plant-based diet carries with it several benefits.
The first and most immediate benefit of a plant-based diet is a reduction in overall inflammation. Inflammation is a natural bodily process, but it can be exacerbated by certain factors, including eating too much sodium and saturated fat, both associated with eating meat. Be warned, eating too many fried foods in general is also a major cause of inflammation, so French Fries are still off the menu (aw!). Further benefits include higher consumption of fiber, which helps digestion, and higher consumption of most micro-nutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals). All of these come together to create a more healthful lifestyle.
Famous Bodybuilders Known for Eating a Plant-Based Diet
There have been a few bodybuilders over the decades who have made a plant-based diet work in bodybuilding. The first and most famous was Bill Pearl who competed alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in the late 60’s and early 70’s, all while eating a mostly plant-based diet (he continued to consume egg whites as a protein source). Bill Pearl is known for his mass and symmetry, and has been complemented over the years as one of the most influential athletes of his era. Here is a picture of Bill Pearl alongside a young Arnold in 1967:
There are many athletes today who eat plant-based diets and still perform at top levels. Here is a list of vegan athletes.
Methods to Eat More Whole Proteins on a Plant-Based Diet
While bodybuilding on a plant-based diet may seem like lots of extra work, there are now companies who specialize in plant-based protein powders. They draw from a variety of plant sources and list full amino acid profiles comparable to whey protein. A popular brand of such protein supplements is Garden of Life, who make outstanding plant-based protein powders and meal replacements. Their plant-based protein powders also have dietary fiber and probiotics. These help with digestive health. These protein powders in addition to a well rounded diet can help to increase protein intake for bodybuilders and athletes.