Question

After watching What the Health, Hungry for Change and Forks Over Knives, my husband and I have decided to eat according to the whole-food plant-based diet. But we have concerns about our physique and I would like to know if this still helps body builders to build muscle or will we be at a loss in terms of strength and muscle mass?

Sandra

Answer

If someone is more physically active, whether for endurance or weight training, the approach for optimal health is to simply eat more of the right foods, meaning whole plant foods. When we do this, we provide the body with the increased energy and nutrient needs in balanced ways, without exaggerating unnaturally any one nutrient, most specifically protein.

As plant-based athletes and bodybuilders have now proven, everything the body needs is supplied by a whole food plant-based diet without any animal products, and there is not only a competitive advantage that often surfaces but faster and better recovery. Although this is a foreign concept to many, especially in the fitness industry, it is not a new concept by any means. There is even literature going back to the times of the ancient gladiators and how they relied on plant-based diets for optimum strength and performance. It is worth mentioning here too that the biggest and strongest animals on Earth are all herbivores who have no problems getting enough protein or building the right strength and muscle mass. This is the power and potential of plants that has been grossly overlooked by our animal food-obsessed society — plants provide all the protein and other nutrients we need. In fact, plants provide the cleanest and highest quality of protein (and other nutrients) for our human needs. Our job is just to eat enough of them for our particular needs.

Unfortunately, the field of fitness has some of the worst ideas about food and nutrition, which do not factor in optimal or long-term health but only focus on short-term gain. All too often the information is also coming from individuals who are much less equipped and educated to talk about it than those who are sharing information contrary to their regime. As such, individuals who train for events or lift weights as part of any bodybuilding programs are often steered toward diets high in animal foods and protein supplements, which both carry with them many health risks and negative attributes. Given that these two industries, animal farming and protein supplements, have such immense leverage throughout society, the result is that most of the population believes that animal foods, often incorrectly called animal protein, and additional protein supplements are a requirement for good health and fitness results. So it is completely understandable and valid that you would have some fears or concerns about losing out on something without animal foods in your diet.

Before I explain further, though, it is important to just consider the concept of bodybuilding and extreme sports themselves from a health perspective. My approach is to teach people how to have optimal health, meaning the best health possible for today and the future in a sustainable manner. While exercise is an important part of healthy living, the truth is that bodybuilding and extreme sports are not. These are often very stressful and unnatural activities that have been created by our modern society. If a person needs to do heavy physical activity, like heavy lifting and physical labor, and they eat enough of the right foods, the body naturally adjusts to build more muscle and strength to the point it needs. Otherwise, excess weight, whether through too much muscle or fat is stressful for the body, and not its most efficient state. Bodybuilding and extreme exercise of any kind also take more of a toll on all of the body’s tissues and require more food and digestive processing on a continuous basis. This is directly opposite to how we gain the best health and longevity benefits, which are tied to diets lower in calories and less oxidative and similar stress. The more natural our exercise is and the more optimized our diet is for the human body, the more our current and future health and longevity benefits.

Diet Quality and Bodybuilding

Without going to any extremes, it is possible to be athletic and focus on building muscle in more natural and balanced ways that are in alignment with optimal health and wellbeing. If this is your priority, then as shared above, the approach for best results is much simpler than the fitness industry has made it out to be. As plant-based bodybuilders and athletes have shown, no animal products are required for these activities, and better results are achieved without them. When a person eats for optimal health, there isn’t even a need for any protein powders or similar processed foods and supplements.

Optimal eating for any health or fitness needs you may have, first entails eating enough food for your lifestyle needs, from all of the major plant food groups — fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. For many athletes and bodybuilders, this means eating 5 to 6 times per day in the form of quality meals and snacks made of these foods. Keep in mind that plants are naturally much lower in calories than animal foods, so it is important to eat enough calorie-rich plant foods, like starchy vegetables, grains, beans, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Then, making sure that we are eating these foods in their whole forms, not processed or refined forms, as this is what gives us exceptional nutrient-density. Other food quality considerations, like freshness, organic, local, and seasonal foods will offer even more benefits. Finally, eating a basic variety of foods, meaning some foods each day from the plant groups just listed, helps to ensure that all of your macro and micronutrient needs are met. This means that you get all the carbohydrates, fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals that you need. There is no need to count anything and no need to micromanage anything. Focus more instead on eating intuitively and in alignment with your body’s needs.

In my Eat Real Food course I aim to educate people about the foods that should be a part of the diet for optimal health, rather than focus on the foods that should not. This is a much more effective dietary approach for long-term and sustainable change to happen and is more capable of meeting different people’s needs and personal food journeys. It is often counterproductive to focus on that which one should not eat, as it often creates a mental state of deprivation, stress, and resistance.

However, there is no doubt that proper education in both directions is required, and I offer this via other resources that I offer, like my articles on this website and health and nutrition book to help and educate people about the negative impacts and health risks associated with animal foods. I know and respect that it is often very difficult for many people in our society to hear that animal foods do not belong in the human body if our priority is optimal health, longevity, and human potential. This is not yet a popular message or one that is easily accepted, given how heavily we are all conditioned by our cultures, parents, traditions, and industries to think that we must eat certain foods, like animal foods to have proper health, fitness, or simply just to fit in. I fully empathize, as I personally know how hard it is to see things differently when we’ve been taught something our whole lives to be a certain way. But today we can no longer ignore the facts that quality science has brought forth, not to mention factor in environmental, ethical, social justice, and spiritual considerations.

Workout Quality and Bodybuilding

In addition to eating enough food to sustain endurance and/or muscle building from clean, whole food, nutrient-dense, plant sources, the quality of your actual workout is what is going to determine whether you achieve the results you desire or not. You need to use your muscles to actually build muscles, and you cannot be in any kind of caloric deficit during this undertaking. This is why the right strength training workout coupled with eating enough food for your needs is so important.

Typically, activities like HIIT — High-intensity interval training and yoga are very beneficial and some of the most effective for creating a strong and lean body. However, you may wish to experiment with other training programs and exercise routines that are most suited to your needs and preferences. The point is that you need to do the right physical work to get the right physical results. Eating more food, even if it is of the highest quality, can easily create excess weight if it is not paired with the right energy expenditure. Likewise, and contrary to what many people would like to believe, eating more protein does not equal having more muscles. Protein does not just enter the body and become muscle; it is broken down just like all other nutrients, and then the body builds and creates what it needs from all of the nutrients together. This is why a high protein diet alone will not lead to more or stronger muscles, but it can put a huge strain on your body and overall health. A smart and balanced approach is the key to effective results and long-term success.

Mental Health and Bodybuilding

There is one more important area to consider as part of this topic for the most holistic approach and understanding. Aside from focusing on your diet and workout, it is important to keep things in perspective and be honest about how you feel about your body and why you want to do any kind of bodybuilding or extreme activities. Is it really about health and fitness for you or is it about body issues, insecurities, and feeling like you need to prove something to yourself or to others? The more you are able to get honest with yourself about what is pushing you in this direction, the faster you can align yourself with optimal wellbeing. This then helps you achieve excellent physical, mental, and emotional health and be guided by the right motivations, instead of any fears or insecurities. Most importantly, don’t compare yourself to others or reject the body you have, as these are sure ways to create mental disharmony, emotional upheaval, and physical disease. Create a healthy lifestyle but be sure to keep things in balance to enjoy a meaningful life, inner peace, and satisfaction.

Here is a great video from Jeff Morgan of Plant Based News that addresses how possible and beneficial it is to build muscle on a plant-based diet:

Here are some more beneficial resources to further educate and empower you about muscle-building with whole food, plant-based vegan eating.

  1. Film: The Game Changers

  2. Article: 8 Protein Myths About Plant and Animal Foods

  3. Article: How to Build Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet — Staple Foods, Meal Plans, and Philosophy

  4. Website: Brendan Brazier — Vegan Endurance Athlete

  5. Website: Robert Cheeke — Vegan Body Building Athlete

  6. Website: Torre Washington — Vegan Body Building Athlete

  7. Website: Great Vegan Athletes

  8. Article: How I Fuel Myself With a Plant-Based Diet as a Competitive Bodybuilder

  9. Article: Whole-Food Plant-Based Vegan Diet — It Does a Bodybuilder Good