Can you be a Vegan bodybuilder?
In America and Europe in particular, we tend to link “protein” and “meat” pretty concretely in our minds. And, of course, protein is what we need for building muscle. That means that it’s impossible to build muscle as a vegan, right?
While getting enough protein to stay healthy – let alone build muscle – as a vegan can take some thinking, it certainly isn’t impossible.
Here, we’ll talk about veganism and other dietary lifestyles with a focus on some of the key nutrients that you need to build muscle. Then, we’ll talk about how to cook with vegan proteins to stay healthy while maintaining gains at the gym.
A Word on Veganism
If you’re reading this, you probably already know what veganism is but let’s do a quick review just in case. If you already know a lot about veganism, feel free to skip ahead.
Veganism is a dietary lifestyle that prohibits eating animal products or byproducts. That means that everything is plant-based.
In this way, veganism is different from vegetarianism, which prohibits meat but allows products like eggs and dairy. Similarly, Pescetarianism allows fish, and semitarianism allows white meat like chicken.
Some people choose to be vegan for ethical reasons, or even religious reasons. However, an increasing number of people are choosing veganism for health reasons.
While meat has a number of health benefits, which we will discuss in a moment, it also has a lot of drawbacks. Red meat, in particular, often has a lot of saturated fat. Saturated fats – fats that are solid at room temperature – can contribute to heart disease and some cancers.
Nutrients to Know
To understand how to build the best vegan bodybuilding meals, let’s start out talking about some of the major nutrients that contribute to body building.
As we’ve mentioned, meat – and particularly red meat – is particularly high in protein. Protein, of course, is one of the most important nutrients for building muscle. It’s literally what most of your muscle is made of.
To successfully build muscle, you’ll need protein in your diet before you work out to give your body something to work with. You’ll also need protein in your diet after you work out so that your body can replenish and repair muscle.
Meat and protein go together in our minds because meat contains “complete proteins.” Proteins are complicated molecules. They come in complete and incomplete forms. When you eat complete proteins your good to go. When you eat incomplete proteins (most vegan protein sources) in the right combinations, your body can build complete protein. More on that later.
A final word on protein: Protein is one of three macronutrients, the other two being fat and carbs. We won’t talk about fat and carbs a lot in this article, but it still makes sense to say a word about “Macro Ratios.”
Macronutrient Ratios are a system for finding the right balance between protein, fats, and carbs in your diet based on your activity level and current weight. Because Veganism can make protein difficult, you should probably consider using a macro-calculator for general dietary health.
Meat – and again, red meat in particular – is also high in an important muscle building nutrient that many of us tend to underestimate – iron.
Like protein, iron is an important structural component of muscle. However, it also has another function. Iron is used in the construction of heme, the molecule that allows red blood cells to transport oxygen. Not enough iron in the diet, particularly before a workout, and you can be in trouble.
Calcium isn’t a nutrient that many beginning body builders think about and it’s also not one that’s found in abundance in meat. However, it is found in abundance in dairy – another group vegans avoid.
You probably know that meat builds strong bones. Bodybuilders build muscle but they also need to be building bone. All of the stress that your muscles deal with can lead to bone damage if you’re not careful.
Your bones are actually the last place that protein goes. It’s actual main role is electrical conduction. It’s important for thinking but also important for letting your muscles work like they’re supposed to. In fact, if you don’t have enough calcium for nerve conduction when you work out, it’ll actually leech out of your bones.
Vegan Nutrient Powerhouses
Meat is a great place to find a lot of the nutrients discussed above in a convenient package. However, there are also a number of vegan-friendly foods that contain those nutrients. That includes vegan protein sources.
Mushrooms are one of the only vegan protein sources that have complete protein. Because of their hearty flavor and familiar texture, mushrooms are commonly used as meat substitutes in common recipes.
Beans are one of the best plant-based iron sources out there which should make them a staple of vegan bodybuilding. They’re also higher in protein than mushrooms. However, beans only have incomplete proteins. That means that they need to be paired with another plant-based protein source.
Like mushrooms, beans are commonly used as meat substitutes in vegetarian and vegan recipes. Many restaurants and bars now carry bean burgers. They don’t taste like the real thing but they’re delicious just the same.
Soy beans in particular are a vegan protein superhero. They actually have complete protein and a lot of iron. They are used for meat substitutes and just about everything else. That includes a lot of vegan dairy substitutes. Be careful though – some people are allergic.
These days a lot of people are getting worked up about gluten. Some people can’t eat it because of allergies and intolerances that can make them sick. However, for most people, it’s perfectly fine. But, what is it?
Gluten is one of the incomplete proteins that we discussed earlier. Eating grain-heavy meals like pastas or bread dishes won’t help you much on your road to vegan bodybuilding. That is, unless you pair it with another vegan protein source.
Grains are also a good vegetable-based iron source.
Rice is another good plant-based source of iron as well as incomplete proteins. While rice may not be a major staple in your diet right now, it’s easy to incorporate. Use it as a base to make dishes like soups go farther or as a tasty side.
Vegan Bodybuilding Meals
Now that we have the nutritional background, lets start looking into some bodybuilding meals based around vegan protein.
Making your favorite pasta sauce with vegan protein sources like soy, mushrooms, or beans instead of beef and serving it over whole grain noodles is a great option. It incorporates complementary proteins, plenty of iron, and nutrient-dense complex carbs to get you through the day.
Pasta-based soups like chicken noodle have all of the same benefits when chicken is swapped out for mushrooms or tofu.
Sandwiches and “Burgers”
From the simple PB&J to complex “burgers” made with vegan protein sources like mushroom, bean, or soy-based patties, there are endless options here. As was the case with pasta meals, these let you pack in iron while using complimentary proteins.
“Ethnic” Rice Dishes
If you haven’t experimented with rice, it’s really worth your time – whether or not you’re personally interested in vegan protein meals. From Mexico to the Pacific, people who lived where meat was scarce have come up with creative combinations that utilize complimentary protein.
A lot of Mexican-style dishes use rice and beans. That’s a classic complimentary protein situation that also brings iron and complex carbs to the table.
Similarly, a lot of Pacific cooking utilizes rice in dishes like stirfry. While American variations on these dishes incorporate meats like pork, chicken, and beef, vegan protein sources like mushrooms and tofu are classic stir-fry combos.
Go Forth and Conquer
Hopefully, this article has given you all of the information you need to incorporate more vegan protein into your diet.
Notice, however, that this article threw around a lot of umbrella terms like “grains,” “mushrooms,” and “beans.” Look deeper into these terms for more information and more recipe advice.