We put a lot of effort into working out and we want to see results. If your fitness goals include maintaining or even increasing muscle mass and strength, good job – you are doing lots of good for your health! After the age of 30, we start to lose muscle mass by about 3-5% per decade[i], unless we work to maintain it. Muscle mass loss can contribute to unwanted changes in body composition, and even affect our bone health and functional ability in later years. If you’re concerned about maintaining (or increasing) muscle mass and also curious about plant-based eating, this post is for you!
As we know, our bodies aren’t only made in the gym but also in the kitchen. Nutrition provides the building blocks and energy necessary to gain muscle. The building blocks needed to repair and build are amino acids, which we obtain from protein sources. Foods that usually come to mind here are animal products – beef, eggs, chicken, dairy-based whey, and so on. However, vegetarian and vegan eating have come on trend recently, and for good reason. Plant-based eating can improve health, waistlines, and more when implemented correctly. So can one follow a vegetarian or even vegan diet and still gain muscle?
In one study, researchers split a group of older men into two groups: one to follow a vegetarian diet and one to follow a non-vegetarian diet for 12 weeks. During these 12 weeks, both groups participated in equivalent resistance training twice per week. The researchers found that after 12 weeks of resistance training, there was no difference in vegetarian versus non-vegetarian diets for increasing muscle mass.[ii] Therefore, it is possible to gain the same amount of muscle mass following a vegetarian diet.
Plant-based eating provides health and environmental benefits (not to mention being friendly to the bank account). Vegetarian protein sources include beans and lentils, tofu and other soy-based products, and nuts and seeds. Most vegetarian protein sources (with the exception of soy) are incomplete, meaning they do not provide all essential amino acids by themselves. This is where food planning becomes important. Some vegetarians choose to include dairy products, fish, and eggs in their diet, which can make meeting nutrient needs – including protein – much easier compared to going completely vegan (eating only foods that are plant-based). Other nutrients that can become difficult to meet daily needs for when following vegetarian and vegan diets include vitamins B12 and D, iron, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, and calcium.[iii]
Whether we get protein from plant-based or animal sources, we need to get adequate protein as well as overall energy every day to see changes in muscle mass. Dietitians of Canada, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that athletes consume between 1.2 – 2.0g of protein per kg body weight, spread out throughout the day, for muscle repair and growth.[iv] Equally important is the quality of our workout. It must be challenging enough to cause muscular adaptation to meet increasing demands.
If you are thinking about trying a more plant-based diet, speak with a Registered Dietitian to ensure your diet meets your nutrient needs to optimize health and fitness performance!
[i] Harvard Health Publishing. (2016). Preserve your muscle mass. Retrieved Janaury 7 2018 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/preserve-your-muscle-mass
[ii] Campbell WW, Barton Jr ML, Cyr-Campbell D, Davey SL, Beard JL, Parise G, et al. (1999). Effects of an omnivorous diet compared with a lactoovovegetarian diet on resistance-training-induced changes in body composition and skeletal muscle in older men. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70(6):1032-9. Abstract available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10584048
[iii] Dietitians of Canada. (2014). Healthy Eating Guidelines for Vegans. Retrieved December 30 2017 from https://www.dietitians.ca/Downloads/Factsheets/Guidlines-for-Vegans.aspx
[iv] Dietitians of Canada. (2017). Nutrition and Athletic Performance: Position of Dietitians of Canada, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American College of Sports Medicine. Retrieved December 30 2017 from https://www.dietitians.ca/Downloads/Public/noap-position-paper.aspx