Friday, January 20, 2012

Can Plants Build Muscle?

There's a huge debate out there, one I constantly read about and observe in order to hopefully be better educated about the subject.  We as humans are quite happy with choosing certain diet plans, sticking to one or another based on our needs, desires, and beliefs.  Probably the biggest, broadest categories of different eating styles are as follows:  Vegetarian, vegan, and a more common, omnivorous diet.  Everybody who chooses to live and eat a certain way has usually thought pretty hard about it, and if "done right" any of the above schemes of consumption can be extremely healthy and beneficial to the human body.

...But enough of all the silly "everybody wins" attitude.  For as long as I can remember every meathead I see at the gym has always wondered one thing:  Can you build muscle on a vegetarian/vegan diet, or should those pesky vegetables be avoided as muscle building tools?

Well, in all honesty, this question is probably one of the hardest to answer in the entire muscle-building world.  Let me first say this:  There have been successful bodybuilders, strength athletes, and all sorts of other world champion athletes that have followed any one of those three diets, so theoretically, you can have world class strength, endurance, and agility by eating just about anything.  If you do it right, that is.

We all know how to get protein from cows, pigs, birds and fish, so let's discuss plant protein for a minute.  That's right, plants have protein!  Some have a whole bunch!  Beans tend to be very rich in protein, like Garbanzo beans, red beans, black beans, etc.  However rarely will you see a vegetarian/vegan with too much muscle on their frame. Why is this?  Plants have potential to be pretty substantial protein sources, if you eat enough of them, so why is the vegan bodybuilder such a rare occurrence?

Because MOST PLANT PROTEINS ARE INCOMPLETE!!!  And what does that mean, exactly?  Well, it's a funny thing really.  An incomplete protein is one that's missing certain essential amino-acids required by the body to be fully metabolized.  All that protein you just consumed from those veggies won't be used for muscle repair until their incomplete components are completed via combination with OTHER incomplete proteins.  Depending on the plant that's consumed, you may get a certain mixture of proteins that when combined with the consumption of a different plant will finally match themselves together and become a complete, USABLE protein.  Here are a few examples of different plant combinations that will yield complete protein when combined sometime throughout the day (combining one food from every list will yield a complete protein):

List One
(foods low in sulfur)
Green beans
List Two
(foods low in tryptophan)
Green peas
Garbanzo beans
Brown rice
List Three
(foods low in lysine)
Pumpkin seeds
Brown rice

On a side note, until recently it was thought that to complete the incompletes, one must consume the required parts within the same meal.  This has been disproved, and as long as the two parts are consumed within relative rapidity of each other the body can still complete and use the protein.

Some plant proteins are even complete right out of the box!  For example: soy protein.  It contains all essential amino acids, and has anti-carcinogenic effects on the body (a double win.)  Don't expect to bulk up on this stuff though, because while the jury's still out on the overall effect of large amounts of soy on the male gender, it's been rumored countless times that soy will increase the hormone estrogen, which is a female hormone and will hamper muscle building attempts.  Small amounts are completely healthy though, and I still have a little tofu in my salad every day.

So it's very possible to get a decent amount of protein from plant based sources, you just need to know your stuff, do some research, and be ready to restructure your meals.  And there have been many extremely successful people who have already done this.  I mean come on, just head over to and read a few of the success stories, clearly there are some smart cookies over there (egg free cookies too.)

But now on to the fun part.  MY OPINION!!!  And what do I say?  I believe that if you're like me, a guy who works out frequently and has decent knowledge regarding food, who ALSO has big muscle/strength goals in mind, skip out on trying to get a lot of protein from plant based sources.  In the end it's going to cause you a lot of trouble for not much gain.  Think about it:  Would you rather balance an entire day packed full of various incomplete proteins in a desperate attempt to consume more than 100 grams of protein, or eat a chicken breast, a can of tuna, and a protein shake, and be done with it?  All three of those are complete proteins, and will build muscle MUCH FASTER than any plant combo ever could.
Vegan Bodybuilders

NATURAL omnivorous Bodybuilders

Notice the difference in mass between natural omnivorous bodybuilders (Chad Shaw and Jim Wilet) and a couple of famous Vegan bodybuilders (Ed Bauer and Alexander Dargatz)

In fact, that's the case with most animal/dairy proteins.  THEY'RE COMPLETE.  No mixing and matching is necessary.  They can be readily consumed and absorbed in mass quantities.  And if you look around on the web, sure you'll find the occassional no-neck vegan posing in a ripped "most-muscular," but for every one of those guys I'd be willing to bet that there are thousands of meat eaters who are just as big, strong, and shredded.  That's the problem with vegetarian muscle building for the masses:  Unless you completely devote yourself to the craziest, most fanatical plant diet in existence, you're going to have a very hard time putting even fractions of the mass on that the the average omnivorous person can.

Am I saying to forget the plants?  HELL NO!  I eat so many veggies I might turn into a brocolli spear.  But I don't eat them for protein, I eat them for their complex carbs, fiber, and LOADS OF NUTRIENTS!  I let the meat and whey take over my needs for protein.  I'll aim for around 150-200 grams of protein per day, and I can't even imagine doing that with all plant based sources.  If I was vegetarian, I might be able to pull it off with a whole bunch of protein shakes.  If I was vegan, I'm not sure what I'd do.  I mean I've got a few ideas, but wow would it be an adventure.  Don't get me wrong, the vegans have got some great ideas and I love incorporating certain vegan recipes into my diet every now and then.  But for muscle building, it's not in the realm of what I need.  Again though, I'm sure I'll get shot for saying that, or called lazy, uneducated, or similar things.  But hey, it's still an opinion that I believe in, and a lot of people would agree with me.

So, here's the bottom line:  Is it possible to gain muscle off of vegetarian/vegan diets?  Yes, definitely.  Is it a feasible muscle gaining diet for the masses, one ready and waiting in the wings to replace our carnivorous and omnivorous habits?  NO.  I've said it before and I'll say it again.  If you want muscle, eat meat.  Don't rely on veggies, nuts, soy burgers and salad to do it for you.  Eat some chicken.  Eat some beef.  Chomp that turkey, and pack it on.



1 comment:

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