Articles


Curb Your Veganism

by Robert Novitsky | May 22, 2019

Photo by Form on Unsplash

Health fads come and go in developed countries, like ours here in the United States, but some have teeth. Among them, veganism carries staying power in our society, and a lot of it has to do with legitimate concerns for animal welfare and environmental sustainability. I'm not here to dump on these things because that would require a separate article, but let's just say that it's not as simple as foregoing animal products altogether. What I'm here to talk about is veganism as it pertains to strength training, and why this diet is not going to be the optimal choice for most people.

Veganism, though not a favored diet for the majority of people living in the U.S., has certainly left its mark on our public awareness. A recent 2018 Gallup poll was conducted to see how many Americans were estimated to adhere to this diet. They interviewed a random sample of 1,033 adults, and found that fewer than 1 in 10 Americans were either vegetarians or vegans (5% vegetarians and 3% vegans).

Yet, animal-free diets are still being discussed, particularly in athletic sports, which tend to embrace all the fads, like the paleo, gluten-free, and ketogenic diets. You can believe there will be a new one just around the corner. However, veganism is far more resilient because it's political, and somewhat of a religion. I don't mean this as a critique, but as an observation.

Yes, you can get strong on a vegan diet, but only if you know what you're doing. Below, I'll discuss the key downsides of this diet when it comes to doing this in conjunction with a strength training program, such as Starting Strength.

Strength is the application of force against an external resistance, such as fighting against gravity to pick up a barbell off the floor. In order to attain any reasonable amount of strength to lift a significant amount of weight, a person would not only need to train, but also eat properly in order to provide his or her body with fuel for muscular adaptation to occur. This requires a knowledge of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat), the amino acid profile of the protein one consumes (which needs to be addressed for vegans, since all nine of the essential amino acids (EAAs) are found in meat, and in higher amounts), and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

Protein Quality

A vegan needs to eat meals that are both digestible and rich in essential amino acids. There are certain foods in a vegan diet that do contain all nine essential amino acids, but the amounts vary. Leucine, for instance, is a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) that's primarily responsible for stimulating muscle protein synthesis, though one would need other amino acids to support muscle growth too.

Vegans can use a metric like the Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) to assist them in getting the highest quality protein in their diet. For example, soy protein has a score of 1, which is the highest value rating.

One downside of the PDCAAS is that it doesn't take into account how much protein is actually used for muscle protein synthesis, but rather just taken up by bacteria in the GI tract. Also, a score of 1 can be used for both soy and whey, even though whey is far superior in amino acid profile and bioavailability. Because of this, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN has recommended replacing it with the DIAAS, which allows for a more accurate ranking system and digestibility measurement, but this is still in the process of being adopted.

Just looking at the PDCAA score of each food item can be deceiving because one can combine different food sources together in one meal. In other words, each may be deficient in some amino acid amounts, but when combined, will be optimal.

As a rule of thumb, you should focus on your overall amino acid profile. Aim for 3 g of leucine per meal to maximize muscle protein synthesis. Eat a lot of grains and legumes for methionine and lysine, respectively. For overall daily protein intake, most meat-eating athletes need about 0.8 g/lb-1.2 g/lb of bodyweight to hit these numbers, but vegans may need more because the protein will be of lower quality. Vegans can use a web app like Cronometer to track their amino acid intake to make sure they're getting enough.

Calories

Hitting that calorie count for the day is very important since you want to be in a caloric surplus. It's more difficult to reach these goals on this diet, but not impossible. Vegans would normally have to eat a large volume of food to achieve this, so they would do well by getting more calories from fat. Fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient, having more than twice the number of calories per gram as both protein and carbs. The standard daily fat and carb recommendation for strength training is about 0.5 g/lb. and 2 g/lb. of bodyweight, respectively. Shoot for between 3,400–4,000 calories per day if you're following a strength program, and adjust accordingly depending on your needs.

Deficiencies

There are a number of deficiencies that can occur in an animal-free diet that are important for proper physiological function. Vegans need to make sure they're getting enough omega-3 fatty acids (250 mg of combined EPA and DHA minimum) to counter a larger omega-6 intake. Since nuts and seeds only contain the omega-3 ALA, and ALA is not efficiently converted into EPA and DHA, they will either need to supplement with microalgae, buy fortified products, or eat enough foods with a low omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

Creatine supplementation is a good idea for strength training, whether vegan or not. It's especially helpful for vegans, since they have lower amounts of creatine in their muscles compared to those who consume meat. Creatine has been shown to increase energy production in skeletal muscle, thus, assisting in developing strength and muscular hypertrophy.

A number of micronutrient deficiencies can be found in a meat- and dairy-free diet, as well. These include: Vitamin B12 for red blood cell count, calcium and vitamin D for bone health, iron for energy production, zinc for immune system and metabolic function, vitamin A for vision and other functions, and iodine for thyroid hormone production.

The Realization

You might now be realizing how this diet might complicate a few things. A truly committed individual can make it work by eating lots of oats, peanut butter, bread, pasta, rice, soy, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, fruits and greens, and supplements/fortified foods to eliminate any deficiencies. To make progress in the big lifts (squat, deadlift, press, and bench press), one will have to get enough quality protein and calories by being as meticulous as possible. Without significant planning, little progress can be made as a novice trainee without some voodoo. 

If your priority is strength, perhaps you might want to reconsider meat, dairy, and eggs.


Discuss in Forums




Starting Strength Weekly Report

Highlights from the StartingStrength Community. Browse archives.