Transcript of the No-Bullsh!t Vegan podcast, episode 118
Coach K's fundamentals of strength training and body composition goals on a vegan diet
Karina Inkster: You're listening to The No Bullshit Vegan podcast, Episode 118. We're going back to the basics today to make sure you're covered on all things vegan strength training: how to fuel it effectively, special things vegans need to consider, the most important movements to include in your training, changing your body composition, and much more.
Hey, thanks for tuning in. I'm Karina, your go-to no BS, vegan fitness and nutrition coach. Today I'm sharing the audio from a presentation I put together for Sophia DeSantis of veggiesdontbite.com. She was actually a guest here on the show back on episode 105, on mastering and demystifying vegan meal prep. So if you haven't checked out that episode yet, I highly recommend you do as soon as possible. Sophia recently had an online summit event with several health and fitness professionals taking part, and I was honoured to be included. So I'm happy to be able to share that presentation on this show today. So let's jump in.
Hey everyone, I'm Karina Inkster, fitness coach, author of four books, soon five actually, and host of The No Bullshit Vegan podcast. My team and I work with vegan clients all over the world, creating and holding them accountable to their strength training programs and making sure that their plant-based nutrition is supporting their training physique and health goals.
So today I'm gonna speak to you about veganism and strength training. How do you make sure you're fuelling your workouts properly? Are there any nutrients that vegan athletes need to pay special attention to? And the spoiler here is yes, there are. And the perennial question, of course, where do you get your protein? So what I'm presenting is based on my ebook Sprouted Gains. You can check that out at sproutedgains.com. It's basically a vegan athlete starter kit, and it's a guide to gaining muscle, losing fat, and fuelling your strength training on a plant-based diet.
So let's jump in. Let's start with what strength training is in the first place. It's also called resistance training and it's one of the most effective ways of improving your body composition, preventing injuries, increasing your bone density, revving up your metabolism, and all-around improving your day-to-day functioning. So strength training is a pretty broad term that refers to any type of exercise that uses some form of resistance to strengthen and build your muscles.
We can create this resistance by using dumbbells, barbells, weight and cable machines at the gym, kettlebells, medicine balls, our own body weight, resistance bands - the list goes on. Now, most government and health organizations recommend a minimum of two days a week of strength training, making sure that you're working all of your major muscle groups each time. Now, of course, more is going to be more beneficial. But if you're just starting out, then aim for two days a week, 30 minutes is fine, training every muscle group each workout.
So what I would like to present now are the six fundamental strength movements, or strength patterns we call them sometimes, that you wanna make sure you include in your workouts. So once we have a basis of what your workouts might actually look like, we can then go into how we're gonna fuel them and how veganism fits in with this picture here.
So six fundamental strength training movements: number one is the squat. Squatting is a super important and fundamental movement that improves your overall strength and your hip mobility. And it has really excellent carryover into daily movement patterns, like standing up from a seated position or lifting objects off the ground. There's a lot of carryover into everyday life here. Squats can also help increase your athletic performance in pretty much any sport that requires lower body power, which is most sports.
Now, the second super important strength training pattern to include in your workouts is a hip hinge. So a hip hinge trains the muscles of the back of the body. And this is often called the posterior chain. So this includes your hamstrings, your glutes, and your low back. Hip hinge strength moves have a lot of different benefits, including improved posture, preventing and decreasing low back pain, and being able to lift objects off the ground with good form i.e without messing up your back. The most well-known example of a hip hinge is a barbell deadlift, but there's a ton of other options like kettlebell swings, single-leg deadlifts, and a whole lot more.
Number three is the lunge. Lunges develop your ankle, knee, and hip stability, which all translate into better balance, in addition to strengthening all the muscle groups of your legs. Now much like any other main moves here, you can perform lunges with countless different pieces of equipment, including just your body weight. You can add load by using a barbell on your back, or you can hold dumbbells or kettlebells.
Next is the upper body push movements, which focus on your pecs, your deltoids and your triceps. So horizontal push movements primarily use your pecs, like pushups or incline pushups, resistance band chest presses, dumbbell chest presses, all those kind of moves. And the vertical push movement focuses on your deltoids, your shoulder muscle group, like the overhead press.
Then we have our upper body pull, which focuses on the muscles of your upper back, including the rhomboids and your lats, but it also includes muscles like your biceps and your forearms. So upper body pull movements are super crucial to maintaining good posture and also healthy shoulders and a pain-free back and neck. So there are tons of examples here: your seated cable row, a vertical pull that involves starting with your arms overhead - so like pull-ups and chin-ups.
Lastly, we have something most folks have not heard of, or have not tried unless they've worked with a coach before, and this is weighted carries. They're also called loaded carries. Basically, it involves picking up heavy objects like kettlebells or dumbbells and slowly walking with them for a set distance, keeping all of the upper body and core muscles engaged. The goal eventually is to carry the equivalent of your total body weight. So half your body weight in each hand, which is quite challenging, but it's very underrated And it's one of the most fundamental moves that we need to include in our strength training.
Now let's get into veganism and how that relates to athletic performance. For my first book, Vegan Vitality, and then for its second edition, The Vegan Athlete, I interviewed Susan Levin who's a registered dietician and the director of nutrition education for the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine.
She says, “I think a lot of athletes approach training as a time to teach the body how to get faster or stronger through repetition of a specific exercise. What training really is, is a time to figure out how the body excels at a particular event. That means among other things, figuring out of fuel for optimal performance. Many professional athletes have realized through trial and error that a vegan diet allows them to train more often because of the shorter recovery time needed. There are several theories as to why a vegan diet would be better than other diets. Training is actually a stress on the body and its immune function. A vegan diet full of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes provides a clear immune boost with its high antioxidant content and avoidance of pro-inflammatory products found in meat and dairy products. This immune boost could be what allows vegan athletes to train and recover in rapid succession.”
Now I asked Susan, as an active vegan person, what are some of the things I should pay extra attention to? And she said, “Well, there's basically two main things that you need to be extra mindful of when you're on a plant-based diet and you're also super active. One is overall food volume. So how much food are you eating? And the other is a few extra important nutrients.” And we're gonna talk about those in a little more detail. Just things that vegans, especially those who are extra active should be thinking about.
So let's do overall food volume. First, whole plant-based foods are typically very nutrient-dense and not often very calorie-dense. I mean, you could basically eat a salad, the size of your torso for only a few hundred calories, right? Now to fuel a super active lifestyle, you're gonna need to ensure that you're consuming enough calories for your specific goals. And you may notice that on a vegan diet, you need to eat a larger overall volume of food, like more food on your plate, to get the same number of calories you used to get as an omnivore. I always use myself as an example; when I was training clients in a gym setting before going completely online with my business in 2017, I was on the gym floor, eight hours a day, demonstrating exercises, not necessarily working out the whole time, but using up calories, walking around.
And so I was consuming between 3000 and 3,300 calories every single day, just to maintain. That was not muscle gain or anything - that was just maintenance! That is a lot of vegan food if you're eating mostly whole foods. So my second full-time job was basically eating. So sometimes really active people who go vegan will actually lose weight unintentionally because again, the whole plant-based foods are very nutrient-dense, but typically not quite as calorie-dense as most animal products. Which is good news, of course, if your goal is to lose weight, but if you're very active, just keep in mind that you will likely need to eat a larger overall volume of food as a vegan to get the same number of calories as before.
Now, a few extra important nutrients that vegans need to consider. A really well-planned, mostly whole foods plant-based diet, of course, as you know, is extremely beneficial to your health. There are a few nutrients though that are found abundantly in animal-based foods that you may need to pay special attention to just to make sure you're consuming enough of them on a plant-based diet, especially if you're active. And to make extra sure you're not just consuming, but also absorbing enough of the nutrients you need, I always recommend that our clients and anyone we work with get regular blood tests at least annually, but maybe every six months, if you need to. So you can check for things like B12, iron, zinc, vitamin D. If it turns out that you're low on any of these, you can work with your healthcare provider on supplementation. By the way, just a note here, being low in nutrients like iron and B12 is not a vegan-specific issue. Many, many people are low in these nutrients, whether they're vegan or not.
Okay, so the first nutrient here that we're gonna consider is iron. It is very important for producing red blood cells and it helps to carry oxygen throughout your body. It is a little more difficult for the body to absorb plant-based sources of iron. So you wanna make sure you're regularly including lots of iron-rich foods in your diet like soy products, dried apricots, fortified grain products, molasses, beans, lentils, artichokes - you got a lot of options. You can also cook with your cast iron frying pan, especially if you're using acidic foods in it like tomatoes.
B12 is pretty much a non-negotiable for me. My coaching team and I always tell our clients B12 is a non-negotiable supplement if you're vegan. You can either take it as a liquid, or you can do a sublingual pill that goes under your tongue. B12 is produced by bacteria. So in centuries past, we would get B12 from soil particles on our food, but this is no longer the case. We're getting our food from grocery stores now. And by the way, just so you know, the reason animal products contain B12 is because those animals themselves were given B12 supplements. Not because there's any B12 inherent in meat or eggs. Vitamin B12 is crucial for keeping blood and nerve cells healthy and also helping the body to use fats. B12 deficiency is no joke. It's extremely dangerous. It can result in nerve damage. So you do not wanna take any chances. Definitely take your B12, supplement. And you don't have to worry about taking too much because your body will just excrete what it doesn't need. In addition to your supplement, really good sources of B12 include nutritional yeast, which is a vegan staple, of course, any sort of fortified non-dairy milks - soy, almond, rice, you've got tons of options, and fortified meat alternatives.
Next, we have calcium, which is necessary for healthy bones, of course, and it helps muscles to contract. Plant-based sources of calcium include almonds, tahini, figs, tofu, collard greens, fortified non-dairy beverages, like your soy milk, again. Actually, did you know that a glass of fortified soy milk actually has more calcium in it than a glass of cow's milk? Now, unlike nutrients like B12 or iron or vitamin D, you can't measure your body's calcium levels via blood work. So to ensure that you're getting enough calcium, we always recommend to track your food for at least a few days a week if you can, using an app like My Fitness Pal. It's never super accurate, but it will give you a general sense of where you're at.
Okay, vitamin D is next. Super essential for strong bones and teeth, helping your body absorb and use calcium and phosphorus. And you can find vitamin D in fortified cereals and non-dairy beverages, again. And of course, by spending time in the sunlight, but for most people living in the Northern hemisphere, like me, a vitamin D supplement is necessary to get our optimal levels.
Omega 3 fatty acids are next and they play a crucial role in brain function. They also reduce inflammation and they may help prevent heart disease. Plant foods rich in omega 3’s include flax seed oil and ground flax seed, walnuts, sacha inchi seeds, chia seeds, and hemp hearts. DHA is a type of omega 3 fatty acid, and you probably know that fish oil is a good source of omega 3’s, but did you know that the omega 3 in fish comes from the algae the fish eat? So why not get your nutrient straight from the source? You can get an algae-based DHA oil to use as a supplement. Research is still ongoing, so there's no consensus at this point on daily dosage. But you can check out episode 54 of my podcast with registered dietician Lauren McNeil and she does a super deep dive into vegan diets and omega 3, as well as everyone's favourite vegan subject protein, which I'm also gonna talk about lastly.
On our list of nutrients that vegans, especially active vegans, may need to pay special attention to is zinc. We need zinc for proper immune system functioning, growth and development across the body, wound healing, and a whole bunch more. You can find zinc in pumpkin seeds, almonds, peanuts, peas, fortified, oatmeal and cereals, and sesame seeds.
Now let's transition to talking about training and vegan and how they intersect. So what if you wanna make some serious muscle gains? Gaining muscle on a vegan or plant-based diet is really not that different from gaining muscle on a non-plant-based diet. What's most important is that you're eating a diet of primarily whole foods, you’re taking in a large variety of different types of foods, and you're consuming the calories you need. Protein, of course, is also important if you strength train regularly, whether you're vegan or not, but we really don't need to obsess about it, like the average gym bro will have us believe. You just need to make sure that your diet includes protein-rich foods, which we will get into shortly.
Now what if you wanna lose fat? Well much like gaining muscle on a vegan diet, losing fat on a vegan diet is not much different from losing fat on a non-vegan diet. Losing fat requires being in a calorie deficit. So that means eating fewer calories than you burn in a day. The good news for you is that many vegan foods like we talked about before, are really nutrient-dense, but not very calorie-dense. So make sure you load up on giant salads, fresh veggies and fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, tempeh, tofu, et cetera.
Now onto everyone's favourite vegan subject: What about protein? Everyone who's been vegan for more than four minutes has heard, “Well, where do you get your protein from?” The first piece of this protein puzzle is that you might not actually need as much protein as you think. The second and third pieces are protein density and variety, which we're gonna talk about.
So if you strength train, you do need to make sure you're eating protein-dense foods, like seitan, tofu, tempeh, high protein pastas like red lentil, chickpea, edamame, et cetera, and textured vegetable protein, AKA TVP, AKA super OG like back in the day form of protein for us old school vegans. Feel free to supplement with a plant-based protein powder as well, but do keep variety in mind to ensure that you're getting all of the amino acids you need in the correct proportions. You need to make sure you're eating a wide variety of protein-rich foods, rather than just relying on one or two, or even three main sources.
Okay, so how much protein do I even need in the first place? Well, all foods contain amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. And most foods contain at least some ready-made protein. Now there are no one-size-fits-all protein recommendations like there are for nutrients like iron, B12, zinc, et cetera. Your specific protein needs depend on a whole bunch of different factors like your body weight, your overall activity level, and the type of training you do. Government health organizations recommend that most people get between 10% and 35% of their total calories from protein. Now on the low end, which includes sedentary people, that's about 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men, which is super easy to achieve. A hundred grams of rolled oats contain 16 grams of protein. One cup of tempeh has between 30 and 40 grams of protein. Now highly active people, especially those who strength train, do require higher protein intakes than sedentary people.
My friend and colleague, Dr. Anastasia Zinchenko, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and who is also a nationally competitive bodybuilder and powerlifter, has conducted research into vegan athletes’ protein needs. She found that between 1.8 and 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day is optimal for vegan strength athletes. Her research focused on advanced strength athletes who train most days of the week. So if you're just getting into strength training, or if you're at a more intermediate level, you likely won't need quite as much protein. You can actually find your specific protein needs at our vegan-specific protein calculator. So you can go to Karinainkster.com/proteincalculator and figure out based on all of your variables, how many grams of protein you need every day.
Now there's a myth out there, in the vegan world especially, that if you eat enough calories, you'll automatically get enough protein. It's something I hear very often in the vegan world. Now for sedentary people, this is probably true. But if you strength train, you're gonna definitely need to pay attention to your protein intake.
If you're inactive, you need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For a 150 pound person, that works out to 54 grams of protein per day. That's basically tofu scramble for breakfast and a black bean burrito for lunch, maybe some dry roasted edamame as a small snack, and you've hit your protein goal even before having dinner. But if you strength-train regularly, of course, you will need more protein. Most recommendations range between 1.8 and 2.5 grams of protein per kilo of body weight per day, of course, depending on the intensity of your training. So if you're a 150-pound strength athlete, you will need between 122 and 170 grams of protein per day. So a day's worth of protein for this athlete might be a tofu scramble with a couple of seitan strips for breakfast, a smoothie made with hemp hearts, chia, and flax seeds and protein powder for a snack, a lunch of edamame pasta with tomato sauce and some veggie ground round, and a black bean burrito for dinner.
As you can see hitting your daily protein goal is definitely attainable for the strength athlete. You do not have to rely on 16 protein shakes a day. It just takes a little bit more thought and planning when it comes to mealtime.
So where am I gonna get my protein? If you're a strength athlete, if you have higher protein needs, there are tons and tons of excellent plant-based sources of protein. A couple of your options are edamame, which are your steamed soybeans. You can also have them dry roasted. 50% of the calories from dry roasted edamame comes straight from protein. We have seitan, which you can make at home as well. About 75% of the calories in Satan come from protein. Of course, we have our beans and lentils, our nuts and our seeds, our nut butter, our non-dairy milks, but we should be focusing on things like tofu and tempeh and seitan and nutritional yeast, which are really condensed sources of protein without a ton of the other macros, which are carbohydrates and fats.
So a quick summary for you: a vegan diet may enhance athletic performance. We do need a little bit more research here. And if you're an active vegan, you need to pay attention to overall food volume, as well as a few specific nutrients like B12 and iron. If you strength train, and/or if you have body composition goals, you do need to think about protein, but you don't have to worry about protein.
Thank you so much for your attention. And I would love to connect with you. You can go to Karinainkster.com for all things vegan strength training and you can get in touch with me there. We have a ton of free resources, if you or someone you know are interested, including a 10 day how to go vegan course, a 350 item vegan grocery list, the protein calculator that I mentioned earlier, and tons of articles and podcast episodes. Thank you so much.
Hope you enjoyed my primer on veganism and strength training. Head to our show notes nobullshitvegan.com/118 to connect with me and to check out Sophia's episode in case you haven't yet. Thank you so much for tuning in.