Plant Vs. Animal: Bodybuilding Menus Compared
Can it be done? Can you, a vegan with bodybuilding aspirations, eat the same kind of super high protein diet recommended in magazines like Muscle & Fitness, MuscleMag, and Iron Man? The answer, as I'm about to demonstrate, is yep — you can! Once we've gotten that demonstration out of the way we'll address the more important question: should you eat that kind of diet to gain muscle? The answer is a resounding...nope! You shouldn't, nor do you have to — in fact, one of the benefits of being a vegan athlete is freedom from the layers of fat that typically come with an animal-based bulking diet.
In a recent article, Derek discussed calorie cycling as a means to gain lean mass and he gave the example of his own diet, as a 185-pound man, that cycles between 4000 and 6500-calorie days. By comparison, a recent Muscle & Fitness article included a calorie cycling meal plan that ranged, for a 200-pound man, between four 1800-calorie "low" days, one 2300-calorie "moderate" day, and one 2600-calorie "high" day. Ouch! The low days are really low for someone that big, but with a bulking diet based on animal foods it's a sad necessity to keep from blowing up like the Michelin Man.
Using our diet planning tool, I analyzed the M&F diet, came up with the vegan equivalent, and then created an example of a healthy bulking menu!
That right there is the classic, All-American bodybuilding diet, folks! A massive 55% of total calories from protein, just 13% from carbohydrates, a large dose of sodium, and 403 milligrams of cholesterol — well above the recommended 300 mg/day limit (of course, we know the real limit is more like 0 mg). In a culture that worships protein and shuns "carbs", this diet is a true masterpiece of food manufacturing that can only be achieved with lots and lots of low-fat and processed animal products, right?
As you can see, there's still enough protein, 50%, to silence anyone wondering how a vegan gets any at all. It's certainly far healthier than the previous example, being entirely free of cholesterol, but there is still an excess of sodium and the nutrient balance is unnaturally skewed toward protein — the result of including a lot of processed foods like protein powder and meat substitutes.
While this shows that it's possible to eat the classic bodybuilding diet, it isn't necessary for a healthy vegan bodybuilder to keep calories or carbohydrate consumption so low. A plant-based diet results in a faster metabolism, so as athletic vegans we need to eat more. Another reason to bump up the calories is that plant foods are less anabolic than animal foods, meaning that they don't promote growth as aggressively. The growth-promoting properties of animal foods are both a blessing and a terrible curse for meat eating bodybuilders, though, because all growth is stimulated: muscle tissue, yes, but also fat, and abnormal cell growth (cancer). So in addition to the inconvenience of a diet severely restricted to keep fat down they have a greater-than-average chance of getting cancer down the road.
A scoop of protein and a protein bar are concessions to convenience, but otherwise this menu is minimally processed and therefore low in sodium and healthier all around! You can find Derek's Whole Food Vegan Gainer recipe here and many more menu examples on this website as well as in Robert's book.
Marcella Torres Tresize
Vegan Bodybuilder and Former Corporate Actuary:
Now Using Math for the Forces of Good