Based on the No-Bullshit Vegan podcast, episode 44.
Strength training on a vegan diet: improve your nutrition in 5 steps, how to get your protein, and 3 mistakes to avoid
The benefits of adopting a vegan diet are plentiful: better overall health, disease prevention, protecting our environment, mitigating climate change, and avoiding animal cruelty.
But what happens when you add strength training into the mix? How do vegans get enough protein? What sorts of considerations should strength-training vegans make when planning their diets? What are some mistakes to avoid?
I've got you covered.
In this article:
Before we start, in case you (or someone you know) has doubts about whether a vegan diet can effectively support strength training, allow me to turn things over to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics -- the world's largest organization for nutrition professionals.
Here's an excerpt (emphasis added):
"It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.
Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage.
Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control. These factors contribute to reduction of chronic disease.
Vegans need reliable sources of vitamin B-12, such as fortified foods or supplements."
How to optimize your vegan diet for strength training
Below is my five step approach to making sure that your nutrition supports your fitness, health, and physique goals. If you want to level-up your nutrition, you need to go through these in order. The most important step is first, and the least important step is last. (These are the steps that my team and I go through with our coaching clients, all of whom strength train regularly.)
Step 1: Nutrition quality
Your number one priority is food quality. We can't measure this like we can with things like calories or protein, but it's something we inherently know: foods in their most natural states are generally the most nutrient-dense and health-promoting. A lunch of tofu stir fry with veggies and rice is higher in nutrient quality than a lunch of French fries and ketchup. A snack of an apple with almond butter is higher in nutrient quality than a snack of Oreos.
I feel it's important to mention that there's nothing wrong with treat foods like fries and Oreos. Treat foods like these can be part of any long-term, healthy nutrition plan. It's the quantity of these foods, and their proportion compared to more nutrient-dense whole foods, that makes all the difference to whether your diet supports or detracts from your fitness and athletic performance goals.
Eating a variety of whole foods ensures we take in the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) we need, and ensures we get enough fiber in our diet -- something that the vast majority of the North American population is deficient in.
Try to prepare most of your meals in your own kitchen, and fill your plate with as many whole foods as possible.
Step 2: Calories
Calories are a measure of the energy that we get from food. Eating the right amount of calories is important for both athletic performance and physique goals. This is something you can measure, but keep in mind that calorie tracking is an estimate, not an exact science. Did you know that the calorie number printed on nutrition labels on commercially available foods is legally allowed to vary by 20%? If you have an energy bar labelled as containing 200 calories, for instance, it may in fact contain anywhere between 160 and 240 calories.
Unless you're living in a metabolic chamber in a lab, calorie tracking is never going to be 100% accurate. Use it as a guide to get a ballpark idea of how much fuel you're taking in each day.
I'd recommend working with a nutrition professional to help you set your calorie goal. You need to ensure that you're consuming an appropriate amount of energy for your fitness endeavors while also supporting your physique goals. You'll need to take in less energy than you burn if you're looking to lose fat, and more energy than you burn if you're working to gain muscle.
See this article for more information on calculating your calorie needs.
Calories and the vegan diet
The concept of calories has nothing to do with veganism. You need a certain amount of energy to fuel your body whether you get it from vegan sources or not. However, you’ll find that many healthy vegan food sources are not as high in calories as animal-based foods. Whole, plant-based foods tend to be nutrient-dense, rather than calorie-dense. What this means if you’re trying to cut calories is the overall amount of food you eat might end up being more than your omnivorous friend eats, even though her total calorie goal is the same as yours.
And if you’re trying to maintain or increase a high level of calories (like my 3000+ calories per day) for a very active lifestyle, muscle gain, and/or a high metabolism, you’ll find that you’re stuffing your face very often throughout the day to hit your calorie target.
Sometimes, athletes who go vegan will lose weight unintentionally. If you’re very active, keep in mind that you’ll likely need to eat a larger volume of food as a vegan to get the same number of calories. If you’re concerned about losing weight, it may help to keep track of your calories for the first few weeks of your transition. This way, you can know for sure if you’re hitting your mark or if you’re at a deficit.
Step 3: Macronutrients
Once you've got your food quality and calories figured out, the third step is macronutrients (a.k.a. macros). These are nutrients our bodies need in the largest amounts: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Each one has a different function in our bodies.
We each need different ratios of these nutrients depending on our lifestyles, our training, and our goals. Most of our vegan clients who strength train aim to get half of their calories from carbohydrates (whole, nutrient-dense sources whenever possible), 25% to 30% of their calories from healthy fats, and 20% to 25% from protein. These ratios vary. If you're an endurance athlete, for example, you'll need more carbs, and not quite as much protein. If you're a competitive strength athlete, you'll likely need more protein. But as a baseline, 50% carbs, 25% to 30% fat and 20% to 25% protein is perfect for people who strength train regularly.
For more on this topic, read this in-depth article on how to calculate your calories and macros.
For even more details, download my free ebook on vegan calories and macros.
Step 4: Pre- and post-workout nutrition
The fourth step, which is actually not as important as most people think, is pre- and post-workout nutrition. Assuming that the bulk of your daily diet is in line with your fitness and physique goals, pre- and post-workout nutrition doesn't usually require much preparation or forethought.
If you're training for long periods of time or you're an endurance athlete, pre- and post-workout nutrition will be more important. For most strength trainees, we recommend slow-digesting carbohydrates and a moderate amount of protein before you work out, with faster-digesting carbs and more protein after your workout. For example, oatmeal with soy milk and hemp hearts pre-workout, and an apple with a protein shake post-workout.
Many strength trainees (myself included) don't change our nutrition patterns around workouts. I just eat my usual breakfast, train about an hour later, and then eat lunch within an hour of completing my workout.
Note: if you're strength training first thing in the morning, try to fuel up with a small, easily-digestible snack before your workout. (E.g. banana and nut butter, or a protein shake.)
Step 5: Supplements
Supplements are an insurance policy rather than a top-priority strategy -- hence their position last on the list. The only supplement I consider non-negotiable for all vegans is vitamin B12. (For more on micronutrients on a vegan diet, check out this article.)
For folks who strength train, two supplements in particular may be useful: protein powder and creatine. Protein powder is not necessary, but it's super convenient. You can get 25 grams of protein without any carbs or fats. If you're on the go, at the gym, or at work, it can be a great option.
Creatine is one of the most well-researched supplements on the market. Our bodies make their own creatine, but we vegans don't get additional creatine from our diets. From an excellent research review by Examine.com:
"[Creatine] can help with exercise performance by rapidly producing energy during intense activity. Creatine may also provide cognitive benefits but more research is needed in that area."
"Where do you get your protein?!"
Everyone who’s been vegan for more than 4 minutes has heard, “But…where do you get your protein from?” High-level vegan strength athletes need between 1.8 and 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (or between 0.8 and 1.14 gram of protein per pound of body weight). Folks who train less intensely won’t need that much. Most of my strength training clients aim to get about 20% of their calories from protein.
So, the first piece of the protein puzzle is that you might not need as much protein as you think. The second and third pieces are protein density and variety.
If you strength train, you do need to make sure you’re eating protein-dense foods like seitan, tofu, tempeh, high-protein pastas (e.g. red lentil, chickpea, edamame, black bean), and textured vegetable protein (a.k.a. TVP). Feel free to supplement with a plant-based protein powder, but do keep variety in mind. To ensure you’re getting all the amino acids you need, in the correct proportions, eat a wide variety of protein-rich foods, rather than relying on only two or three main sources.
You may have come across a protein recommendation of 0.8 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight per day. According to this calculation, if you weigh 160 pounds, you need about 58 grams of protein per day. There are two important things to keep in mind here:
1. This is a minimum requirement to stave off health problems, not an optimal amount.
2. This recommendation is for sedentary people, not those who exercise (and especially not for those who strength train).
Here are a few situations in which your protein needs will increase:
You strength train and want to build muscle.
You're in a calorie deficit. (A higher protein intake will prevent muscle loss along with fat loss.)
Some research suggests that we may need more protein as we age because our rate of absorption decreases.
High-protein vegan foods:
High-protein pastas (e.g. edamame, red lentil, chickpea, black bean)
Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
Sample high-protein plant-based meals to fuel strength training:
This tofu scramble packs in 26 grams of protein for only 256 total calories.
High-protein pasta is a super simple meal option. Add pasta sauce, and amp up the protein content even further by adding nutritional yeast, tofu, or plant-based meats.
Make your own seitan -- it's easier than you think! Almost 70% of the calories in my homemade seitan come from protein.
Read more about vegan protein in our article about how to get plant protein without a crap ton of sodium.
3 mistakes new vegans often make with their nutrition (and how to avoid them)
Based on my work with vegan (and soon-to-be-vegan) clients over the past decade, here are the mistakes I see most often:
1. Cutting out animal products without replacing them
Replace animal products with a variety of whole, plant-based foods to prevent nutritional deficiencies. If you're just deleting things from your diet without adding in new items, you are setting yourself up for nutritional deficiencies.
If you need some inspiration, check out my list of 350 vegan ingredients.
2. Fostering a mindset of avoidance (versus abundance)
Rather than focusing on all the foods you can't eat anymore and all the foods you have to avoid, challenge yourself to create a mindset of abundance. Focus on all the new foods you can eat more of, including foods you haven't tried yet. I had no idea what tempeh, wakame, amaranth, or farro were before I went vegan.
3. Neglecting to optimize your food environment
Your food environment is the habits that you've built and your surroundings that determine what and how you eat. Try scheduling some time each week to prepare a large batch of a healthy vegan entrée and some snacks, to reduce the amount of cooking required during the week.
Your food environment also includes your social life -- the food choices you make when you go out -- other people with whom you share a household and/or cooking duties, and the ingredients you have available in your kitchen.
An example of creating a food environment that supports (rather than detracts from) my goals: Here at the Inkster household, our rule is no treats in the house. So if I want a treat, which I have a couple of times a week, I have to go out of my way to get it. It's not hanging out in the pantry yelling at me to eat it.
Anything you can do to optimize your food environment is going to help you nail your health goals and also stay vegan long-term.
Strength training basics
Along with a whole foods, plant-based diet, regular resistance training is an absolute must for optimal health, fitness, and disease prevention. Resistance workouts often involve strength training at a gym, but you don't have to go to a gym; you could complete bodyweight, resistance band, or suspension trainer workouts at home.
The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology and the US Government recommend for all adults a minimum of two strength training sessions per week, working all your major muscle groups. In addition, we need to be doing a total of 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic activity in chunks of 10 minutes or more.
Adults aged 64 and older with poor mobility should perform additional physical activities to enhance balance and prevent falls. So based on government recommendations, we should be strength training a minimum of twice a week, working all of our major muscle groups each time.
My recommendations for strength training, if you're just starting out: aim for three 30-minute strength training sessions per week just to make sure you're covering your bases. You'll be increasing bone density, adding muscle mass, gaining strength, ramping up your metabolism, and more.
To ensure you're using correct form, not injuring yourself, and getting the most out of each exercise, I would recommend working with a coach until you're confident you can perform each lift effectively on your own.
About the author
Vegan since 2003, Karina Inkster is a fitness and nutrition coach, author of four books, and magazine writer. She holds a Masters degree in Gerontology, specializing in health and aging. Karina hosts the No-Bullsh!t Vegan podcast, busting myths and providing evidence-based advice to kick butt with your health and fitness – on a vegan diet. Her award-winning online coaching programs help vegans worldwide live their healthiest, most plant-strong lives.
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