The vegan diet is no longer a fad—there is an increased acceptance of veganism in the mainstream. In fact, veganism is gaining momentum in India too. According to a survey by Rakuten Insights in November 2021, over 47% of respondents said they consumed plant-based food products due to concerns regarding animal welfare in food production and 44.5% followed a vegan or vegetarian diet1. It won’t be wrong to say that many Indian vegetarians are practically vegan because of comparatively low consumption of paneer, yogurt, milk, and cheese.
With various celebrities and sportspersons including Lewis Hamilton, Virat Kohli, Venus Williams, and David Haye following a vegan lifestyle and still performing better, there is an interest in understanding the sufficiency of this diet for athletes, bodybuilders, and exercisers.
Let us dive in and understand more about the vegan diet, whether it meets your nutritional needs, and how you can optimise it for muscle growth.
Vegan Diet: What’s Included and What’s Not
According to the Vegan Society, a vegan diet is a plant-based diet that avoids all animal-based or derived foods such as meat, fish, shellfish, dairy, eggs, insects, and honey2.
As per the experts, the plant-based diet by definition consists of minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, herbs, and spices3.
Interestingly, veganism goes beyond diet and is a lifestyle choice that also excludes materials derived from animals, products tested on animals, and places that use animals for entertainment2.
There are also other variations of the vegetarian diet that you should know about.
- Lacto-vegetarian: A vegetarian diet that includes dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, or low-fat and fat-free milk. It excludes meat, poultry, fish, and eggs.
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: A vegetarian diet that includes eggs and dairy products but excludes meat, poultry and fish.
Does Vegan Diet Offer Health Benefits?
People usually turn to vegan diets due to environmental, health, and ethical concerns. With that being said, a vegan diet offers many potential health benefits.
Reduced risk of heart disease
Research has shown that vegans are thinner, have lower blood pressure and lower total and LDL cholesterol4. Vegans also consume comparatively more quantities of fruits and vegetables which are high in fiber, folic acid, antioxidants, and phytochemicals associated with lower blood cholesterol, lower incidence of stroke, and also lower risk of mortality from stroke and ischemic heart disease4.
Protection against cancer
A study revealed that non-vegetarians had an increased risk of colorectal and prostate cancer than vegetarians4. In fact, red meat and processed meat consumption have been associated with a high risk of colorectal cancer. Additionally, BMI is significantly lower in vegans than in non-vegetarians and it may be a protective factor in lowering the risk of cancer4.
Traditionally, a vegetarian diet has been known to have cancer-protective properties.
Vegans also consume more tofu and other soy products than omnivores, and research has shown that consumption of isoflavone-containing soy products during childhood and adolescence can protect women against breast cancer later in life4.
But There Is More to It…
A recent follow-up of EPIC-Oxford study showed that there is an increased risk of total and site-specific bone fractures in vegans and vegetarians than in meat eaters5. Another 18 years follow-up study revealed a higher risk of developing haemorrhagic and total stroke compared to meat-eaters6.
The reason for these conflicting results on whether vegetarians diets always promote health and longevity can be linked to the varied dietary habits of vegans, lacto-vegetarians, ovo-vegetarians, semi-vegetarians, lacto-ovo-vegetarians, etc. when compared to meat eaters including pescatarians. Additionally, the duration for which people stick to a particular diet can also differ.
There is one more interesting point to consider. You may have heard about blue zones where people live longer (over 100 years of age) than in other places in the world. One of these zones includes Sardinia, Italy. A study on longevity in Sardinian men revealed an important dietary link.
Their traditional diet majorly included animal-derived foods which they have been consuming most of their lives. However, after lifestyle and economic transitions, there was increased consumption of fruits and vegetables with a moderate amount of meat intake. These changes in diet have been linked to their extended lifespan7.
Hence, even non-vegan diets can get the benefits of a nutrient-rich diet by incorporating more plant-based food sources with a moderate intake of meat.
Vegan Food Vs. Animal-Based Food: What’s the Difference?
Yes, there is a difference in terms of nutrients when it comes to vegan versus animal-origin food. A poorly planned vegan diet can lead to deficiencies of some critical nutrients discussed below. This can be problematic if vegans pay little attention to getting these nutrients due to the absence of animal-based products from their diet.
Nutrients Lacking in Vegan Diet
Vegan or vegetarian diets tend to be low in protein and typically contain 0.6–0.8 g/kg/day of proteins9. In fact, research has shown that plant proteins also have a lower bioavailability than animal proteins. When it comes to the quality of protein which is assessed using the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS), vegan soy protein and pea protein have ideal or almost ideal scores of 1.0 and 0.93 respectively, equivalent to that of animal proteins.
However, amino acids such as leucine, methionine and lysine are typically lower in plant-based proteins10.
When compared to lacto-ovo vegetarians and omnivores, vegans have low levels of vitamin B12 and a higher prevalence of vitamin B12 deficiency4. Vitamin B12 deficiency has been associated with a reduction in healthy red blood cells and can result in fatigue, breathlessness, poor balance, etc. It can also affect your nervous system11.
According to the EPIC-Oxford study, vegans had the lowest intake of vitamin D which is primarily obtained from sun exposure and consumption of vitamin D-fortified foods12. With that being said, vitamin D synthesis in your skin during sun exposure depends on various factors such as location, duration of exposure, skin colour, age, use of sunscreen, season, etc. Another point of concern for vegans is that plant-based sources provide vitamin D2 form which has less bioavailability than vitamin D3 obtained from animal sources.
Diets that lack egg or fish usually lack omega-3 fatty acids including EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which play a role in maintaining eye, heart, and brain health4. Plant-based omega-3 fatty acids only contain ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) and its conversion into EPA and DHA is quite low13. In fact, vegans tend to have lower levels of EPA and DHA compared to vegetarians and non-vegetarians4.
Iron usually has two forms—heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron has considerably better absorption than non-heme iron, which is obtained from plant-based sources. Interestingly, haemoglobin concentration and the risk of iron deficiency anaemia are similar in vegans, omnivores, and vegetarians4.
Generally, vegetarians are at increased risk of zinc deficiency. This happens because of the presence of phytates in grains, legumes, and seeds that bind to zinc, thereby decreasing the bioavailability in your body4. Zinc deficiency can result in hair loss, lethargy, eye problems, poor immunity, weight loss, etc14.
Getting enough calcium may be an issue for vegans as dairy products are excluded from their diets. Many may argue about getting calcium from vegetables. However, the amount of calcium present in vegetables is very low when compared to dairy products15.
Additionally, low calcium intake has been linked with bone loss and hip and spine fractures in the elderly population4.
Iodine is critical in the production of thyroid hormone and thyroid function16. Iodine content in plant-based foods is lower than that of food of animal origin. This is because of the low iodine content in the soil. In fact, one-fourth of vegetarians and about 80% of vegans suffer from iodine deficiency17. The risk of deficiency is higher when avoiding iodised salt.
Taurine is an amino acid which is abundantly found in fish and meat-based food. It is present throughout the body in muscle tissues, retina, brain, etc. and plays role in bile salt formation, muscle function, etc.18 Vegans tend to have lower levels of taurine than omnivores19.
CoQ10, a potent antioxidant, is found to be significantly lower in vegans and vegetarians when compared to omnivores20. This may be attributed to the fact that the richest sources of CoQ10 include fish, meat, and some oils, whereas most dairy products, vegetables, fruits, and cereals have lower levels of CoQ10.
What If You Don’t Get the Right Nutrition During Your Fitness Regimen?
If you are working out to get bigger, stronger muscles, then the right training and nutrition are critical. Strength training leads to the breakdown of muscles, and to recover and repair while making muscle gains, your diet has to offer more than what it does for non-exercising adults, especially if you are a vegan.
Skimping on the right nutrition (both macronutrients and micronutrients) can result in the following problems21,22.
- Reduced muscle mass
- Impaired muscle function
- Lower bone density
- Reduced endurance work performance
- Risk of injury or fractures
- Increased recovery time
- Hormonal or menstruation-related issues in women
Additionally, protein and some micronutrient deficiencies have been linked with immune system dysfunction. Intake of iron, zinc, and vitamins A, B6 and B12 are particularly important for immune function23.
So, make sure your vegan diet plan is nutrient dense and calorie-rich to support your fitness and muscle-building goals.
Vegan Diet for Muscle Building: Meeting Your Nutritional Needs
We now know the downsides of pushing physically without fulfilling your nutritional needs. So, how do you optimize your dietary needs whilst being conscious of your food choices?
A vegan diet, when well-planned with the right food and dietary supplements, can help achieve fitness goals in recreationally active adults, athletes, or regular exercisers.
Here’s how you can do it!
Fulfil your protein need
When you are on a vegan diet, you need enough protein to support muscle building. There are various vegan protein sources such as soy, tofu, quinoa, legumes, etc.
You can also explore vegan protein powders such as soy protein, pea protein, hemp protein, etc. to meet your increased protein needs. Assess these proteins for quality (amino acid content), digestibility, and performance benefits before making a choice.
- Consider dietary supplements
As discussed earlier, vegans especially need to intake adequate amounts of vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, calcium, and zinc. Foundational multivitamins contain essential vitamins and minerals that can help fill the gaps in your vegan diet.
- To ensure adequate vitamin D levels, you can also consider an animal-free version of a vitamin D3 supplement that is sourced from lichen. You can also consume vitamin D–fortified foods such as soy milk, orange juice, breakfast cereals, and rice milk.
- Apart from supplements, you can also consider vitamin B-12 and zinc-fortified foods such as fortified soy, rice, beverages, breakfast cereals, meat analogues, etc.
Reach your adequate omega-3 levels
When it comes to omega-3 fatty acids, fortunately, there are vegan options available. You can consider taking algae-based omega-3 supplements that contain high amounts of DHA but little EPA. You can also consume DHA-fortified foods such as breakfast cereals.
The rising interest in the vegan diet and its potential health benefits has garnered attention from the bodybuilding community as well. If you are planning to take your fitness to the next level or gain muscle mass following a vegan diet, then it is important to consider the nutritional gaps. A well-rounded and well-planned vegan diet that fulfils your need for protein, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids, can give you the results you need!
- Reasons to choose plant-based food alternatives in India 2021. Rakuten Insights; 2022 Dec [cited 2023Feb27]. Available from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1071736/india-plant-based-food-consumption-reasons/
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- Ostfeld RJ. Definition of a plant-based diet and overview of this special issue. Journal of geriatric cardiology: JGC. 2017 May;14(5):315.
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- Tong TY, Appleby PN, Armstrong ME, Fensom GK, Knuppel A, Papier K, Perez-Cornago A, Travis RC, Key TJ. Vegetarian and vegan diets and risks of total and site-specific fractures: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. BMC medicine. 2020 Dec;18(1):1-5.
- Tong TY, Appleby PN, Bradbury KE, Perez-Cornago A, Travis RC, Clarke R, Key TJ. Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. bmj. 2019 Sep 4;366.
- Pes GM, Tolu F, Dore MP, Sechi GP, Errigo A, Canelada A, Poulain M. Male longevity in Sardinia, a review of historical sources supporting a causal link with dietary factors. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2015 Apr;69(4):411-8.
- Fraser GE. Associations between diet and cancer, ischemic heart disease, and all-cause mortality in non-Hispanic white California Seventh-day Adventists. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 1999 Sep 1;70(3):532s-8s.
- Mocanu CA, Simionescu TP, Mocanu AE, Garneata L. Plant-based versus animal-based low protein diets in the management of chronic kidney disease. Nutrients. 2021 Oct 22;13(11):3721.
- Gorissen SH, Crombag JJ, Senden JM, Waterval WH, Bierau J, Verdijk LB, van Loon LJ. Protein content and amino acid composition of commercially available plant-based protein isolates. Amino acids. 2018 Dec;50:1685-95.
- Symptoms -Vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anaemia [Internet]. NHS; [cited 2023Feb28]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamin-b12-or-folate-deficiency-anaemia/symptoms/
- Davey GK, Spencer EA, Appleby PN, Allen NE, Knox KH, Key TJ. EPIC–Oxford: lifestyle characteristics and nutrient intakes in a cohort of 33 883 meat-eaters and 31 546 non meat-eaters in the UK. Public health nutrition. 2003 Jun;6(3):259-68.
- Chevalier L, Vachon A, Plourde M. Pharmacokinetics of supplemental omega-3 fatty acids esterified in monoglycerides, ethyl esters, or triglycerides in adults in a randomized crossover trial. The Journal of nutrition. 2021 May;151(5):1111-8.
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- Groufh-Jacobsen S, Hess SY, Aakre I, Folven Gjengedal EL, Blandhoel Pettersen K, Henjum S. Vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians are at risk of iodine deficiency in Norway. Nutrients. 2020 Nov 20;12(11):3555.
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- Rana SK, Sanders TA. Taurine concentrations in the diet, plasma, urine and breast milk of vegans compared with omnivores. British Journal of Nutrition. 1986 Jul;56(1):17-27.
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