By now, most of us are familiar with the many benefits of a plant-based diet. Plant-based diets may provide a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes, just to name a couple of examples (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Not only this, but the evidence also suggests that plant-based diets aren’t just beneficial to humans–they’re also beneficial for the environment (6). The production of foods derived from plants requires far fewer resources and results in much less energy consumption than the production of animal-based food (6).
But, traditionally, there has been one significant disadvantage associated with the plant-based diet. Vegans and vegetarians have been shown to have much less muscle mass on average than do omnivores (those with diets consisting of both plant and animal products (7, 17). This can be a cause for concern: For aging adults, skeletal muscle loss can accelerate the aging process, contributing to an increased risk of falls and fractures, and an increase in overall frailty (8, 9, 10).
But it’s not only the aging who can be detrimentally affected by the loss of skeletal muscle. Athletes, amateur and professional alike, may well experience the detrimental effects of muscle loss when it comes to strength, stamina, and overall performance (11).
Despite these considerations, however, there is also plenty of evidence to indicate that muscle loss and its effects can be minimized or even avoided in those who prefer to eat a primarily or exclusively plant-based diet (6, 7, 11). The key is to be thoughtful and strategic, understanding your particular nutritional and fitness needs and designing a diet and exercise regimen that supports musculoskeletal health in general and muscle growth in particular.
How Muscles Grow: A Primer
To understand how you can build muscle mass while on a plant-based diet, it’s helpful to first examine how skeletal muscles develop in the first place. In essence, it all comes down to a cycle of destruction and rebuilding.
When you subject your skeletal muscles to stress, such as through robust physical activity or demanding exercise, the muscle fibers will inevitably stretch and tear. In response to the trauma of the physical demand you’ve placed on them, the body will activate its satellite cells to generate new muscle fibers, using proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and insulin.
The central ingredient in this process of muscle growth (also known as hypertrophy) is protein and, as you may recall from high school science class, amino acids are the essential building blocks of protein.
And therein lies the rub when it comes to muscle mass and plant-based diets. Animal-based proteins are often significantly different from plant-based proteins both in regard to the types and quantities of amino acids provided by each particular protein type and in the digestibility and ultimate bioavailability of muscle-building protein (6, 12, 13). In most cases, proteins derived from plants are either missing the essential amino acids that satellite cells require to generate new muscle fibers or they appear in far lower quantities than in animal proteins.
More specifically, amino acids such as leucine, isoleucine, and valine (6, 12) are often found in significantly higher quantities in animal-based proteins than in proteins derived from plants. This helps to explain, at least in part, why vegans and vegetarians may experience muscle loss and why they may well have greater difficulty in building muscle than their omnivorous counterparts. This is particularly true when you factor in other nutritional deficiencies that may be encountered in a plant-based diet, including deficiencies in vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and iron (14).
Making It Work
To be sure, plant-based proteins may not always be as conducive to muscle growth as are most animal proteins. That doesn’t mean, though, that you have to give up the many proven benefits, both physical and environmental, of a plant-based diet if you want to get (or remain) strong and fit. In fact, with commitment and know-how, you can create a nutrition and fitness regimen that serves your health goals.
The answer lies in a combined approach that includes increasing the amount of plant-based protein you consume, eating specific types of plant protein, using supplements to compensate for any deficiencies in your diet, and building a fitness regime that promotes muscle maintenance and growth.
The evidence suggests that both potato protein (PP) and rice protein isolate can facilitate protein synthesis in the production of muscle fibers (myofibrils) (15, 16, 18). These studies also suggest that such proteins are also more readily absorbed by the digestive system, increasing protein bioavailability (15, 16, 18) for use by the satellite cells.
Personalizing Your Plan
As we’ve seen, the key to building muscle while on a plant-based diet is four-fold: It’s about increasing your protein consumption, selecting plant proteins with the highest quantities of essential amino acids, supplementing your diet with key micro and macronutrients, and using physical activity and exercise to stimulate muscle growth.
Though the plan is a comprehensive one, the specific details will depend very much on your particular needs and goals. For example, how much plant protein you need to consume each day will depend on your body mass, your current muscle mass, your health status, and your particular nutrition and fitness goals. The same is true for the types and amounts of supplementation or physical activity and exercise you will need to achieve your health targets.
There are, however, a number of foods rich in muscle-building proteins and essential amino acids that you can begin adding. These include:
Beans and legumes such as mung beans, soybeans, kidney beans, fava beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils
Nuts and peanuts
Tofu and tempeh
Vegetables such as asparagus, cauliflower, and artichokes
Fruits such as bananas, apricots, avocados, jackfruit, guava, and golden raisins
How AFT Can Help
At AFT, our experienced team of fitness and nutrition experts can help you design a health regimen that meets your needs and supports your short-term and long-range fitness and nutrition goals. This includes designing a plant-based diet and exercise plan to optimize strength, performance, and endurance. Contact us today to discuss how our highly-qualified trainers and coaches can put their years of experience and expertise to work for you!
Our parent company, AF Training Solutions, was founded in 2008. Since then, we’ve grown into one of the largest personal training and coaching organizations in the country. Currently, we operate the fitness departments for about 100 health clubs across the United States. As an organization, we have always had two main areas of focus; the customer experience and company culture. Over the years, we have invested heavily in people, process, and technology to ensure that our customer experience is second to none.
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