Can You Go Vegan & Achieve Fitness Goals?
I’m going to start out here and remind you that diet’s aren’t magic. There are basic principals of nutrition that you’re at the mercy of no matter what dietary choices you make and these don’t care whether you have or have not watched the most recent vegan propaganda movie on Netflix, The Game Changers.
It seems everyone interested in health and fitness is setting aside time to watch this “ground breaking” film. Many have been affected by it and decided to make a change. Kai Green, an elite level bodybuilder and Mr Olympia runner up has even decided to change his ways and go plant based.
But as I have mentioned before, there is a difference between a documentary and a propaganda film and you need to go into these films with that in mind and be aware if you’re looking for unbiased information, films like this aren’t the place to look for it.
If you are someone who’s looking to make a change and switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, how do you make the switch successfully? Is it actually possible to go meat free and perform better than you were before?
I did some actual research (yeah that’s a stab at the research they did in that movie) and found there’s more to consider than just eating lettuce and beans.
Be Realistic to Begin With
If today you decided to switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet, does that then mean that tomorrow or even 2 weeks from now you’ll in any better position health and fitness wise because this movie you watched on Netflix showed you how well some plant based athletes perform?
Sorry, but no. Not unless you have a horrible diet to begin with.
An elite athlete will go through a period of adjustment changing their diet whether it’s to vegan, keto, low carb, carnivore or whatever else. The same goes for you, except you don’t necessarily have the same tools, knowledge, experience and coaches as they have at their disposal which makes it all the more important to understand what you need to focus on.
What’s more likely to happen is you’ll go through a rather large learning curve where you need to rethink pretty much everything you put in to your body. This is because the body relies on many systems that are intricately dependent on each other and when one of those falls over there are many, many knock on effects.
Morals are Important, But Calories are Still King
Whether the end goal is health, performance, body composition or saving animals, the most important thing you need to worry about is your total calorie consumption. This is often referred to as “energy balance” within the body.
In case you’re not familiar with calories, a “calorie” is a unit of measurement for the energy contained within a food. There are other terms as well like Kilojoules but they’re talking about the same thing, which is the energy density of the food you’re eating. They just measure it in a different way, kind of like temperature can be measured in Farenheit and Celcius (sure, and Kelvin too…).
We all feel when it’s hot or cold, but the weatherman tells us what it was measured at and if it gets too hot or cold outside we have trouble surviving. There’s a sweet spot we want to maintain in order to live comfortably and do the things we want to do and this is the same with calories. The sweet spot allows us to achieve specific goals.
When transitioning from one diet to another, an understanding of the impact the calories you need to consume each day and the calories contained in the food you’ll be eating is quite important. This is because total calorie intake and the calories you burn each day govern whether you’ll be moving towards or away from your end goal.
Track, Track, Track
If you don’t currently track your meals do you even know if you’re currently eating more or less than you need? Changing your diet may not necessarily be the missing link in achieving your goal, it may be that you’re actually overeating every day which is why you’ve gotten fat despite your seven-day workout routine and hitting your step goals.
When you switch from an omnivorous diet to a plant based diet you will probably feel fuller because the food you’re eating is more fibrous than what you’d previously eaten. That doesn’t mean you now magically require less calories than you did before.
You need to track what’s going in to make sure you’re still getting the right amounts of protein, fibre and overall food or you’ll end up deficient in something, somewhere.
If you do already track your food, you’ll probably find that you actually need to eat more actual food in general because plant foods are less energy dense than foods containing animal products, therefore the amount you need to consume in a day to maintain a specific caloric goal is most likely going to be much higher.
Knowing how much you need to eat plays a major role in your goals, so find out how many calories you need to eat and track your food if you aren’t already.
A major issue for people who switch to a plant based diet is not getting enough protein. This is especially true when you’re talking about doing it for body composition and athletic performance reasons. Muscle is one of the hardest things to gain (fat being the easiest for pretty much everyone right??).
Plant based protein sources aren’t very high in protein when you compare them with animal based alternatives and when you look at the highest sources of protein in a plant based diet you’re probably looking at things like whole grains, beans, legumes, seeds & nuts which are typically processed into other foods like Tofu, protein powders and used in meat or dairy alternatives. Check out the spread above – that’s not very protein dense, so you need a lot of it to meet your requirements.
One form of protein you aren’t getting as much of is collagen which is vital. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the body, this is the same in animal bodies too, so cutting out a whole source of this can lead to less recovery from workouts and injuries can occur more frequently. The ATP Science Vegan EAA is a great supplement to include which can help boost your levels.
The CSIRO recommends the general population consume at least .84g per kilo of body weight and obtain about 25g of protein per meal. For a 100kg person that equates to 84g of protein in a day which is pretty easy to get eating plant based.
It’s been well established that for body composition and people who exercise that the range for optimal protein consumption is actually more around 2g per kilo of bodyweight and for athletes up to 3g per kilo of bodyweight is quite optimal.
That target is a bit more challenging when you’re going plant based and you’ll probably find you need to supplement with protein powder to get the right amount. In fact many vegans who are pursuing athletic goals or compete in bodybuilding/physique sports find they need to consume multiple shakes a day.
If that same 100kg person were to start weight lifting, bodybuilding or start playing sport they would begin to waste away. 84g of protein is way under what they would need for repair and recovery in a day.
Why is that?
When you don’t get enough protein you start to lose something called Lean Body Mass. LBM is a key component of body composition and a large portion of what makes up LBM is your muscle. Muscle also stores a heap of nutrients in it as well, so the less muscle we have, the less storage we have.
When we talk about performance and body composition it’s important to at least maintain your LBM and that’s the thing we want to increase as time goes on.
Lower Leucine Lowers Everything
One of the biggest reasons we want to maintain and even increase our LBM over time is that it’s the highest consumer of calories in the body which means it actually helps us use more energy in a day.
The higher need for energy means you have a greater potential to burn excess body fat and higher consumption of protein fuels a process called Muscle Protein Synthesis. MPS drives absorption of protein in the body and occurs when a metabolic pathway called the Mammalian Target Of Rapamycin (MTOR) is stimulated by the release of an Amino Acid called Leucine is detected.
This is one of the reasons why many vegan athletes and physique competitors will slam multiple protein shakes per day – this process stimulates muscle growth and repair. One drawback of plant based protein sources outside of a shake is that they don’t contain a lot of Leucine so this process is likely to be hampered.
It’s important to diversify the protein sources you have to ensure an adequate amount of leucine is present and this process can be stimulated. The more muscle you have, the more water and nutrients you store in them. This compliments your athletic performance by providing you with an abundance of nutrients which are at the muscle’s disposal when required.
To summarise, if you under-consume protein you’re going to lose LBM which will affect how you look and perform. You’ll also need to consume a range of protein sources instead of relying too heavily on just one to make sure you stimulate the repair and recovery process.
Master your Micro’s
Plant foods have a great level of micronutrients in them and are known for being great sources of fibre which makes our insides happy. Good gut bacteria also feed off the plant matter which can actually change how you feel on a daily basis.
Two of the major micro-nutrients that will vastly effect you is Iron and creatine. Understanding these and ensuring you get enough is important as it is needed for oxygen transport around the body and the burning of fuel in cells when we work out.
Oxygen transport is vital to athletic performance and integral to your everyday vitality. Deficiencies in not only Iron, but Ferritin (iron stored in muscle) leaves you lethargic and sore.
There are two kinds of Iron you can get through your diet which are Heme Iron (HI) and NonHeme Iron (NHI). HI is bound with heme from the blood of an animal, NHI isn’t. The Heme component makes all the difference here because HI is more readily absorbed through the gut and NHI is a little more difficult, which means you’ll need to be super aware of how much Iron you get through your diet.
Check out the list of top Iron sources from Nutrition Australia:
|Food||Serving size||Iron content|
|All Bran TM||30g||3.2mg|
|Kidney beans||1 cup||3.1mg|
|Green lentils||1 cup||3.0mg|
|Cooked wholemeal pasta||140g (1 cup)||2.3mg|
|Cashew nuts||30g (20 nuts)||1.5mg|
|Raw spinach||1 cup||1.2mg|
|Dried apricot||30g (5 dried apricots)||0.93mg|
|Cooked brown rice||140g (1 cup)||0.7mg|
|Wholegrain bread||1 slice||0.4mg|
Cooking iron rich plants improves the availability of the iron as well and vitamin C improves the absorption.
One other thing that a vegan diet can suffer from is a lack of creatine. Creatine is vital for cognitive function, gut function and energy production via the ATP system. The ATP system is primarily used for bursts of energy and is stored in your muscle cells.
A lack of creatine means a lack of performance and brain fog so you’ll need to be on top of this. One of the best ways to ensure levels are topped up is to supplement with creatine. This will help keep athletic performance at a higher level and also help to increase Lean Body Mass which I wrote about the importance of earlier.
Check out the True Creatine we stock and see if it benefits you.
It’s OK to get off the Bandwagon
I love trying new things to see what their effect is but in my experience cutting out a large part of your diet doesn’t help, it hinders. It’s not something that should be done lightly but it’s also not impossible if you take into consideration the resources your body needs to achieve a goal.
Are there better ways of achieving a goal than doing the latest thing you saw on Netflix? Sure.
There’s also no harm in trying something and seeing what aspects of it you liked either. Just be smart about it and remember to get off the bandwagon when the time comes.