This article focuses on the extra nutritional considerations for vegan readers looking to minimize any performance and muscle gain compromises. There are three key areas: protein quality and quantity, fat intake, and the supplementation that may be necessary.
In late 2019 I wrote an article titled “Debunking ‘The Game Changers’ Netflix Documentary.”
I’m not usually one to write debunk pieces, preferring instead to focus on giving recommendations on what people should be doing. Still, this documentary gained such widespread attention, and I was receiving so many questions from curious readers, that I deemed it necessary to put out a public stance on it.
The documentary made several outrageous health and performance claims that simply aren’t backed by science. The purpose of my article was to point a few of these out because I don’t think anybody should be scared into following a vegan diet for health or performance reasons. — Plants are good, but it’s not necessarily the exclusion of animal products that makes a diet better.
There are plenty of non-performance, non-health reasons someone may choose to follow a vegan diet (religious, environmental, moral) and I’m sure a fair few people feel conflicted with their desire to get jacked and lean.
Fortunately, though it does require considerably more effort and thought, you should still be able to do that. This article will focus on those special nutrition considerations that fall outside of my general nutrition setup recommendations.
Protein Intake Considerations For Vegans
Is protein quality is an issue for vegan diets that we should consider compensating for?
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. One of the key determinants of protein quality is the essential amino acid content (EAAs). (Essential nutrients we have to get from the diet; non-essential nutrients we can get from biochemical conversions in our body.)
Many plant-based sources of protein don’t have all nine EAAs in enough abundance to call them complete. For this reason, you may have heard it said that you should consume a meal containing mixed protein sources. However, given how slow the rate of digestion is, in practice, as long as you have a diet drawing from mixed sources of protein, you’re probably ok.
So, how much protein should a physique-conscious vegan consume?
Well, we know from the latest research that somewhere between 0.7–1.0 g per pound (1.5–2.2 g/kg) of body weight is the range that is most likely to maximally support strength and hypertrophy, in people who lift weights, if they are not dieting.
We also know that protein needs are higher in those who are dieting, with 1.0–1.2 g per pound (2.2–2.6 g/kg) of body weight recommended.
As these numbers are not derived from vegan diet research, it might be smarter to shoot for the higher end of the range, so that the quantity of the protein can potentially make up for any shortfall in EAAs. (Especially given that protein from plants is generally less well absorbed so less ends up in the blood.)
But protein quality is not just about the completeness of the EAA profile. We know from research that a subset of the EAAs called the branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs), particularly leucine, is important for muscle repair, maintenance, and growth.
A protein source can be ‘complete’ without it being ‘high quality’ for muscle building.
Plant-based sources of protein tend to have fewer BCAAs and leucine. So, it is a good idea to augment your diet with a ‘high quality’ and ‘complete’ protein powder like pea or pea/rice blends. These powders are close to the amino acid profile of whey protein (the highest quality protein source we have, but a milk-derived one).
Note: I would not recommend soy powder. While it has a complete EAA profile, the BCAA content is low, making it not very high quality for our purposes. A 70:30 mix of pea and rice protein closely mimics the amino acid profile of whey. You can order custom blends from a number of stores, I’ve heard good things about True Nutrition.
So in summary, my daily protein intake recommendations for vegan readers are:
- Aim to eat 1.0 g of protein per pound (2.2 g protein/kg) of body weight when not dieting.
- Aim to eat 1.2 g of protein per pound (2.6 g protein/kg) of body weight when dieting.
- Take a 40 g serving of protein powder 30–60 minutes prior to your workout if training fasted. If you have access to the 70:30 mix of pea and rice protein, ~30 g will be sufficient.
- Try to have a varied diet so that you don’t run into any ‘completeness’ issues.
Fat Intake Considerations For Vegans
Vegan diets tend to be lower in fat. Low fat intake levels are linked with low testosterone levels, which can impact health and performance. So, make sure to eat enough oils, nuts, and seeds. (Half an avocado a day could be your friend also.)
I’d recommend 15-25% of your daily caloric intake come from fats, with an absolute minimum of 0.25 g/lb (0.5 g/kg).
Supplement Considerations For Vegans
Due to lack of bioavailability, or a lack of the nutrient in the diet, there are several things that may be low and worth supplementing. Below is a summary.
For a more detailed look each of these considerations, check out this excellent article on my friend’s site: Plant Gains? Advice to the Vegetarian and Vegan Athlete.
Also, before going out and supplementing with everything here I would recommend getting some bloodwork done prior so you can see what is needed.
Vitamin B12, because roughly 50% of vegans are deficient, and over time this can lead to anemia and even irreversible degeneration of the nervous system (source). Recommended daily dose: 2.4 up to 6 μg.
Iron, due to a lack of red meat. Recommended daily dose: 14 mg for men, 33 mg for women.
Zinc, due to poor absorption from plants. Recommended daily dose: 16.5 mg for men, 12 mg for women.
Calcium, due to poorer absorption. Recommended supplement dose 500-1000 mg daily.
(^ Many of those above will be covered in vegan multivitamin products.)
Omega-3, due to a lack of fish consumption, through an algae-based supplement. Recommended daily dose: 1–2 g of EPA and DHA in total.
Vitamin D3, which is not exclusively a vegan issue, but I wanted to point out that lichen-based sources of D3 are now available. Recommended supplement dose 1000–3000 IUs depending on body mass and sun exposure.
Creatine, due to a lack of red meat, fish, and poultry. Performance enhancement benefits aside, it plays a critical role in cognitive function and is worth supplementing. It’s created in a lab and is not from animals. Recommended daily dose: 5 g.
I hope this was useful. – Andy