Optimising Health, Fat Loss & Muscle Building On A Vegan Diet
Even though veganism may seem like a relatively new idea, the beginnings of a plant based diet actually seem to have appeared in ancient Greece. The famous philosopher Pythagoras (yes, the “triangle guy”) and his disciples consumed a diet devoid of animal flesh as it was deemed immoral. Back then, many believed in the idea of reincarnation; meaning if they were to consume an animal, it would be just like eating another human being. Many other religions such as Buddhism and Jainism adopted a vegetarian diet based on this same premise.
In fact, up until the 1800’s a vegetarian or plant based diet was called the “Pythagorean Diet” and the main emphasis was always on morality and ethics.
Today, more and more people are starting to adopt a plant based diet with even greater interest in veganism. In 2021, 582,000 people signed up for “Veganuary” where the goal is to try eating vegan food for at least the month of January. As a comparison, there were 3,300 people in 2014.
In the UK alone, the number of vegans quadrupled between 2014 and 2019. In 2019 there were 600,000 vegans, or 1.21% of the population; 276,000 (0.46%) in 2016; and 150,000 (0.25%) in 2014.
From what we have gathered, the main reasons for individuals adopting a vegan diet are to reduce the exploitation of animals, reduce their carbon footprint on the environment and improve their overall health. Unfortunately, many vegans can run into problems if health isn’t really a priority and their decision was solely based on the first two points.
In this article, we are going to strictly focus on the health and performance aspect of a vegan diet to provide you with everything you need to know if you choose to go down this specific path.
Can I Get Enough Protein On A Vegan Diet?
One of the biggest concerns when adopting an entirely plant based dietary pattern is the consumption of high quality protein. We have spoken about the importance of protein here and how fundamental it is to not only improve your physique, but for cognition, appetite regulation, bone density and detoxification.
It is well established that protein derived from animal products are of higher quality based on the amino acid composition of a protein as it relates to its ability to be digested, absorbed and retained by the body. This is due to food items such as beef, chicken and dairy products containing all the 9 essential amino acids in adequate amounts (especially leucine) to stimulate muscle protein synthesis while also being more bioavailable, leading to more of the protein being absorbed.
Despite popular belief, many plant foods do actually contain all of the essential amino acids but can vary in their distribution of those amino acids. This is where the idea of “complete” vs “incomplete” proteins came from and was the driving force behind the recommendation of combining various foods at each meal. It appears that this advice can be traced back to a book released in 1971 named “Diet For A Small Planet” by Francis Moore Lappe but on the tenth anniversary of the book's release, the author actually did change her mind on this very idea.
“With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on fruit, or on some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat). Fortunately, relatively few people in the world try to survive on diets in which these foods are virtually the sole source of calories. In all other diets, if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein.”
This is true when looking at populations who are just trying to be healthy where protein requirements are low but for those looking to optimize their body composition, more attention does need to be paid towards protein but it doesn’t have to be overly complicated as most think.
Proteins that are found in plants are usually accompanied by a much more robust food matrix that can impede digestion. For example, phytic acid that is found in legumes, nuts and seeds has been shown to impact protein digestion which is why fermenting, soaking and sprouting of these food items is usually recommended.
Either way, the above problems can easily be resolved by focusing on two main points.
Making sure we are opting for a variety of foods (including complete and incomplete proteins) to hit our protein quota vs trying to rely on one source exclusively. As depicted in the chart below, certain plant foods will fall a little short on certain amino acids but when you eat a whole foods based diet consisting of grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables you can easily get the full spectrum of essential amino acids throughout the day.
This recommendation is virtually the same regardless of whether an individual is plant based or not but it wouldn’t hurt opting for the higher end to factor in the reduced digestibility of plant protein.
You still want to be looking at an even distribution throughout the day while prioritizing leucine rich foods as leucine is responsible for “initiating” the muscle building process. For those wanting to get the most out of their training, recovery and overall body composition then opting for soy, legumes, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds is highly recommended.
The latest research shows that for active individuals, aiming for 50mg/kg/BW of leucine per day is all you need to capitalize on the muscle building effects. For someone who weighs 75kg, this would equate to 3.75g of leucine which can easily be hit on a plant based diet.
As you can see, it’s very easy to get enough protein and leucine through plants only even without the use of supplements or processed “mock meats” if you really want to. Where issues may arise though is when it comes time to dieting where calories need to come down while being able to keep protein high.
Outside of soy products, many protein sources also come with a decent serving of carbohydrates which is why supplementing with a good quality protein powder (70:30 pea/rice protein blend) can be extremely beneficial for the serious trainee throughout a dieting phase.
Will Eating Soy Ruin My Hormones?
This is one of the few plant based protein sources that contains all the essential amino acids in ample amounts, making it one of the best and most versatile protein sources.
Tofu (the firmer, the more protein it has), natto, edamame and tempeh are all fantastic and highly recommended.
Soy protein powders have also been shown to be just as effective as whey protein powders when it comes to stimulating muscle protein synthesis with the slight caveat of needing more (due to the leucine content) to get the same effect.
And no, consuming soy does not lead to the development of “man boobs” or any other testosterone related ailment. This myth has been and well truly debunked by a recent meta analysis that examined 41 peer reviewed studies between 2010-2020 concluding that there just isn’t any evidence to support these claims.
“Regardless of the statistical model, no significant effects of soy protein or isoflavone intake on any of the outcomes measured were found. Sub-analysis of the data according to isoflavone dose and study duration also showed no effect. This updated and expanded meta-analysis indicates that regardless of dose and study duration, neither soy protein nor isoflavone exposure affects TT, FT, E2 or E1 levels in men.”
Average intakes of soy isoflavones were between 75-100mg/day which would be the equivalent to three to four servings of soy based foods per day. A serving being one cup (240 mL) of soymilk, ½ cup (∼85 g) of tofu or one ounce (28 g) of soy nuts. Even though these were the reported amounts, the researchers mentioned that the chances of higher quantities leading to hormonal issues was extremely small.
There was one case study where a 19 year old lost his libido and saw dramatic reductions in testosterone by consuming a vegan diet that consisted of 360mg of soy per day but there were too many other confounding variables that could have explained this such as being in a calorie deficit for too long, maintaining an unhealthy body weight, not sleeping enough, etc.
So what’s the verdict here?
Soy can be a fantastic protein option for many plant based eaters but we still recommend staying within the serving sizes mentioned above. Not because of anything related to sex hormones or health, but due to the gastric impact soy can have on people. This is very individual but from what we have seen, our members do the best when they have a mixture of protein sources vs just relying on one.
Can I Still Build Muscle On A Vegan Diet?
For a long time, one of the biggest concerns many of us had about a vegan diet was its ability to help with muscle building. A lot of this did come down to the protein myths that we have already debunked but at the time, there just wasn’t a lot of research comparing a vegan diet to an omnivorous diet.
There was a lot of mechanistic data showing that animal based proteins spiked muscle protein synthesis more which should lead to more muscle mass but this is one of those situations where it’s important to focus on the outcome we want (more muscle) vs mechanisms of action.
Luckily, a research paper that was released in 2021 did exactly that. They compared a vegan and omnivorous diet where minimum protein intake was met (1.6g/kg/BW) and the subjects were resistance training over the course of 12 weeks.
“Subjects could not participate if they had been resistance training within a year of enrollment, had ever used anabolic steroids, had used ergogenic or protein-based supplements within three months of enrollment, or had implemented an energy-restricted diet within one year of enrollment.”
For a research study on training, those are some pretty strict guidelines meaning we can take a lot from the results which showed virtually NO difference in changes over the course of the study. Both made similar gains in the same muscle groups, both trained with similar volumes and both were able to adhere to their respective diets.
This is only one study but considering the methodology, the subjects and the protocols, it just goes to show that when the basics are in place you can grow muscle mass on any dietary strategy. If you’re consuming enough calories, enough protein, enough water, vitamins and minerals then you have all the “building blocks” to add more muscle.
You combine that with hard training, adequate sleep and stress management then there is absolutely no reason you cannot grow muscle.
Calcium & Vitamin D For Bone Health
Due to the relative infancy of veganism, it’s very difficult to establish how the diet can impact individuals over the long term as the research is quite scant. One particular paper that examined the dietary and lifestyle interventions of Seventh-Day Adventists across 5 years but had participants within the study who were on a strictly vegan diet for over 21 years, making it the longest longitudinal data on vegan diets in epidemiology.
When compared to other dietary interventions such as vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, omnivore and pesco-vegetarian, vegans did have the lowest calcium and Vitamin D levels along with a 55% increased risk of hip fractures.
Within the vegan group, the researchers were then able to assign specific interventions across three cohorts to see how no supplements (group 1), supplemental calcium (group 2) or supplemental calcium + vitamin D (group 3) would impact their results.
Group 1 had the worst outcomes (a threefold increase in hip fractures)
Group 2 was slightly better than group 1.
Group 3 showed the most improvement with no association found between their diet and hip fracture risk.
Interestingly, the vegans were actually consuming a decent amount of calcium (~700mg on average) meaning their levels weren’t as low as you would suspect. What this paper does show is just how powerful the synergistic effect of vitamin D and calcium is, meaning you need to have adequate amounts of both, not just one, to get the benefits.
Vitamin D is notoriously hard to get through the diet (especially with vegans) so supplementing with 1000-2000IU is highly recommended. Supplemental calcium may help but with a few dietary modifications, it shouldn't be too hard to hit the RDA especially with the fortification of “nut” milks (which wasn’t around at the time of the mentioned study) and consumption of tofu, green leafy vegetables and sesame seeds.
What About Iron & Zinc?
Despite popular belief, getting adequate amounts of iron can be much easier than most people think. The higher protein foods mentioned above along with incorporating nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables and even fortified wholegrain cereals can help many vegans stay on top of their iron and zinc status.
Interestingly, most of the iron westerners consume come from plant based sources with ~40% coming from plants, 40% coming from fortified cereals and the remaining 20% coming from meat and animal products.
The bioavailability of this form of iron (non-heme iron) isn’t as high as the form found in animal products (heme) due to various factors I will discuss below. Regardless, our bodies are a lot smarter than we are. If you are very low in iron, research has shown you can absorb just as much iron from non-heme sources as you would from heme sources.
If your iron stores are adequate, you will absorb far less non-heme iron but the same cannot be said for heme iron which is readily absorbed, regardless of iron status. Because of this, iron overload (hemochromatosis) is far more likely in individuals who are consuming a diet high in animal products but low in plants.
One of the suggested inhibitors of zinc and heme iron absorption comes in the form of phytic acid which we spoke about earlier meaning that simply cooking, heating, sprouting or fermenting your legumes, beans and wholegrains will get around this quite easily.
Also, beverages that contain tannins (a polyphenol) such as tea, coffee and red wine have been shown to inhibit iron and zinc absorption meaning it would be wise to drink them in between your meals vs with your meal.
Finally, vitamin C has been shown to be a very potent enhancer of non heme iron, increasing absorption by 6 fold in those that are deficient. Vitamin C is very high in all well balanced vegan diets and most will be getting some with virtually every meal but for your meals that are highest in iron, it wouldn't hurt to add some fresh fruit to really cover your bases.
Omega 3’s For Vegans
Just like certain amino acids, there are also essential fatty acids that we cannot manufacture meaning we must obtain them through the diet.
These are the Omega 3’s (Alpha-Linolenic Acid) which further break down into the more bioavailable forms EPA (Eicosapentaenoic Acid)/ DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid).
Omega 6’s (Linoleic Acid) are also essential, but can easily be throughout a plant based diet via nuts, seeds, wholegrains and soybeans..
Omega 3’s on the other hand appear to be the most challenging as the only bioavailable from (EPA & DHA) come from marine sources such as fatty fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, tuna, sardines) and algae for individuals who are 100% plant based.
Chia seeds do contain a good amount of omega 3’s (3.4g per tablespoon) but they are in the “parent” form of ALA meaning they cannot be converted to EPA/DHA efficiently in the body. At best, most will convert 2-3% of the ALA into EPA/DHA with some reaching a 9-10% conversion. To get enough EPA/DHA through chia seeds, you would need to be consuming between 30-40g per day which can be done but considering that’s an additional 200 calories, supplementation of EPA/DHA (DHA especially) may be a better option for those who are dieting.
B12 plays many important roles in the body involved with red blood cell formation, DNA synthesis and maintaining the structure of the “myelin sheath” which coats our neurons, allowing us to function at our best.
A B12 deficiency shares similar symptoms to someone who is suffering from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) which include fatigue, weakness, numbness and problems with memory. Also, a deficiency can take years to manifest as our body has a built up reserve that is located within the liver and could keep our B12 levels in check, despite not consuming any B12 for 3-5 years.
Vegetarians, vegans and the elderly are at the highest risk of developing a deficiency via not being able to consume adequate amounts throughout the diet, gastrointestinal disorders hindering absorption or a mixture of both.
The only sources of vitamin B12 that are usable by the body come from animal sources meaning for vegans, supplementation or getting enough through fortified foods such as plant milks, breakfast cereals, nutritional yeasts and dairy free yoghurts will be their best option. Interestingly, some protein powders such as Reflex Plant Protein are fortified with B12 too which may eliminate the need for further supplementation.
To hit the daily requirement of 2.4mcg, supplementing with 500-1000mcg from a “B12 only” product would be very beneficial. Also, there is no need to be alarmed by the high numbers as your body will absorb only as much as it needs while excreting the rest.
How To Put Together A Vegan Diet
As you can see, a well structured vegan diet can cover virtually all nutritional bases with the exception of Vitamin D, DHA and B12 (depending on where you live). If you really want to optimise your diet, using an app like “Cronometer” will allow you to track your micronutrients and can be extremely helpful in knowing if you truly are lacking or missing specific nutrients.
Based on everything discussed in the article, I plugged in a sample diet for a well trained, 165lb (75kg) vegan looking to drop body fat with the following targets to hit:
*There is a slight difference in how the macronutrients/calories add up due to Cronometer taking fibre into consideration, therefore changing the “net carbohydrates”.
Green= Within the RDI (Recommended Daily Intake) range.
Yellow= Under the RDI.
Red= Above the RDI.
There was supplemental pea protein powder (35g per day) included but this would be no different to most serious trainees following an omnivorous diet. It’s also important to note that ideally, more fruits and vegetables would be encouraged but the above was just to show how nutrient dense a vegan diet can be by relying on wholegrains, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, starches and soybeans.
No need for mock meats, nor a tonne of other highly processed products but these can become useful in certain circumstances that we will discuss below.
Potential Drawbacks On A Vegan Diet
Weight Loss Dieting To The Extreme
A glaring drawback to this way of eating is that for someone looking to diet down to extremely lean levels, the reliance on more processed foods will more than likely increase to allow the dieter to stay within their calorie range while meeting protein requirements.
Lentils, beans, wholegrains, nuts and seeds pack a huge nutritional punch but unfortunately, also come with a higher amount of calories meaning they will need to be reduced substantially as calories get lower.
This means our protein sources will be heavily based on products like tempeh, tofu, textured vegetable protein, mock meats, edamame pastas, seitan and more protein powder. For short periods of time (as is the case with a hard diet) this can be completely fine but it’s just something to keep in mind.
In saying that, a huge positive in this context is that even if calories get low, the nature of the nutritional approach (high in vegetables and fibre) can still allow the dieter to feel much fuller leading to better adherence and overall results.
Many think that protein is the most satiating food component but when comparing it to vegetables, calorie for calorie, vegetables reign supreme. 100g of chicken breast provides a mere 105 calories with 31g of protein whereas you can get up to either 400g worth of pumpkin, 600g of tomatoes or 750g of lettuce.
In this study, the researchers gave the subjects either a mushroom or beef based meal where the volume (or weight) of the meal was held constant meaning if they consumed 250g of beef, they would then consume 250g of mushrooms. They did a week of the beef based lunches and another week with the mushroom based lunches and found no difference in satiety despite the beef eating group consuming ~400 calories more.
Where Most Vegans Go Wrong
If you don’t educate yourself or take the time to learn more about nutrition, it can be very easy to still be extremely unhealthy. Driving through Burger King and ordering a Beyond Burger because it’s vegan doesn’t make you any healthier.
Because many make the decision to go vegan on moral and ethical grounds, as long as the food they consume is vegan, the attention to the nutrient density of their food isn’t as much of a priority. A 2021 study actually examined the consumption of “ultra-processed foods” across different dietary approaches and found that vegans consumed the most (39.5%) when compared against vegetarians (37%), meat eaters (33%) and pesco-vegetarians (32.5%).
This is not to say that other ways of eating are any better but for someone adopting a vegan diet, the learning curve is much steeper if you’re truly looking to optimise your health.
Optimising A Vegan Diet - The Wrap Up
If someone was looking to go vegan due to ethical and moral reasons but was concerned about not being able to build muscle, lose body fat or optimise their health, do not fear as all of those goals can be achieved.
The caveat being that you are going to have to pay much more attention to where you get your food from (especially protein) while supplementing with B12, Vitamin D and potentially DHA/EPA. Using an app like Cronometer to track your micronutrients can be extremely beneficial to establish a good base of foods you know will give you the most “bang for your buck”.
For a serious trainee looking to make the most out of their nutrition, the below vegan foods would be our staples.
All the vegetables
All the fruits
Nuts and seeds
Supplemental plant protein powder
For someone who is more interested in just maintaining their weight and living a long, healthy life, the above list still holds true but they don’t necessarily need the protein powder. In fact, once someone does transition into a lifestyle solution or investment phase where calories are high, the exploration of going even lower with protein (0.7-0.8g/lb/BW) could be worthwhile without any detriment to muscle loss.
Overall, going completely plant based or vegan can be a very easy way for someone to seriously improve their health. With a bit of education and some trial and error, they can avoid deficiencies, build muscle, lose fat while also doing their part for the planet at the same time.