While for some, the idea of consuming a vegan diet for the purpose of enhancing weightlifting ability might seem counter-intuitive, the research suggest that that might not be the case. Studies into this area of exercise are minimal at best, however research into a vegan lifestyle is far more readily available and so from that, one can glean information and expounded upon the many ways in which vegan diets are beneficial and how that affects the body during weightlifting exercises.
Weightlifting can be categorized under two headings:
- Bodybuilding – which works to achieve defined muscle tone
- Powerlifting – which works to achieve greater amounts of strength from muscles
First and foremost, what is crucial to achieving and maintaining a certain muscle mass, is to meet your caloric needs. Not consuming enough calories will lead to reduced muscle mass. A sufficient number of calories allows protein that might otherwise be used for energy, to be spared and saved for muscle mass. Caloric intake requirements will vary and this is due to several factors, including: gender, lifestyle, exercise habits and genetics. Some trial and error on the part of the weightlifter will be necessary in order to find out what their own energy requirements are, as long as they are meeting their nutritional needs and consuming a balanced diet, it’s a part experimentation, part knowledge-based diet tweaking.
While vegan diets at the moment are often in the spotlight thanks to social media influencers touting it’s benefit and swaying their massive followings to live a similar lifestyle, the reasons for the lifestyle being adopted is due to a combination of factors: the health benefits and a strong aversion to the use of or indulgence in animal consumerism. Adopting a vegan lifestyle, especially when building muscle is a large undertaking and a well-constructed vegan diet is crucial in ensuring that no macronutrient or micronutrient deficiencies occur, especially those that are lost when eliminating animal products.
Due to the lack of information discussing veganism in sports, much of the data out there has been extrapolated from many sources within the sports science world, as well as other health science disciplines. As such, recommendations are yet to be fully investigated and thus advice from a primary care manager is necessary to help a person taking on this lifestyle, make the best possible decisions for their health.
In order to achieve energy-balance a well-rounded diet is of utmost importance. Energy insufficiency can lead to a host of problems including compromised immunity, which could lead to illness and consequent necessary time off from training. The data suggests that vegan athletes consume less energy than their omnivore counterparts. Additionally, research also shows that an athlete’s protein requirements are greater than that of non-athletes and that protein intake should be customized in order to fit the specific needs of the sport an athlete is engaging in, as well as their goals. For athletes training for strength and power, recommendations are 1.6 – 1.7 g ∙ kg per day and 1.2 – 1.4 g ∙ kg per day for endurance.
The role of protein in an athlete’s diet and its importance, cannot be understated. It is the ‘backbone’ of exercise performance and thus ensuring a positive net protein balance (NPB), the difference between muscle protein breakdown (MPB) and muscle protein synthesis (MPS), should be achieved by elevated MPS. This promotes recovery, adaptation and anabolism – all important factors when weightlifting. Athletes partaking in weight-categorized sports, must always be aware of their protein intake in order to optimize their performance. By eating more protein than the average non-athlete (who should take in 0.8 g ∙ kg of body weight per day), athletes set themselves in good stead to make sure they meet their daily protein goals. This is important more so, for a vegan athlete. Particular attention must be paid to not only the quantity of protein being consumed, but the quality as well. Plant sources of lysine and leucine can be found in foods like legumes and beans, while branched chain amino acids comprise foods such as seeds, tree nuts and chick peas. Leucine is essential in aiding and triggering muscle protein synthesis and in recovery and adaptation; key components of weightlifting.
In order to improve and maintain metabolic homeostasis, the preservation of skeletal muscle is critical. Skeletal muscle will continuously adapt in order to maintain muscle mass, which means the rates of muscle protein synthesis and degradation are constantly changing dependent on the requirements of the body. Studies showing that high-quality, plant-based proteins have a positive effect on human health extending beyond reduction in certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
Since it can be tedious to obtain plant protein that’s high enough quality to ensure the body’s muscle building capabilities are at their peak, careful planning is required and ingestion of adequate macronutrients must occur. Filling up on vegan protein might be difficult but there are non-animal based protein powders on the market that will aid in meeting muscle gain goals.
The science is pretty straight forward and the gist of it seems to be: have a consistent workout regimen and take in larger amounts of food. If ‘loads of food’ is eaten, but workouts are inconsistent, no gains will be seen. Similarly, if workouts are consistent but not enough food is taken in, the same result as the previous scenario can be expected. For weightlifters that are new to the scene, increased food intake means consuming 10 to 20% more calories and for advanced lifters, 5 to 10% more. Plant foods contain fewer calories than animal-based foods, which means larger quantities can be taken in, making the athlete feel fuller for longer, without gaining unnecessary body fat. Less body fat means a more ‘shredded’ look, but there is a caveat to that. Essential fat and storage fat are two very different avenues to consider when planning your vegan diet for weightlifting.
Essential fat: plays a role in overall health and the cellular processes that go on in the body. This is the fat that is found, according to Exercise, Physiology: Nutrition, Energy and Human Performance, in the “heart, lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys, intestines, muscles and lipid-rich tissue of the central nervous system and bone marrow”. It is a key component of energy reserves, protects the internal organs as well as the joints, preventing injury from occurring by acting as an absorbent cushion of sorts. Additionally, essential fat is extremely important in ensuring bodily processes continue normally.
Storage fat: is the accumulated fat that is stored for energy reserves. This is the kind of fat that you notice on or in your body.
Reducing storage fat and maintaining essential fat is beneficial for a weightlifter in that, by decreasing the unnecessary fat in the body, you lower your risk of certain diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems, while maintaining the ability to keep critical metabolic processes going. Furthermore, by reducing storage fat, you allow your weightlifting to sculpt your physique and make this noticeable from the outside. Plant based diets are more optimal at reducing storage fat as they tend to be lower in calories than animal-based diets meaning more food can be taken in to keep a weightlifter feeling fuller, longer.
While specific studies pertaining to vegan diets and weightlifting are scant at best, the data relating to the overall potential health benefits of this lifestyle is significant. A plant-based diet is capable of providing the same nutritional benefits that a omnivorous diet does, with the added benefits of decreasing unnecessary body fat, skeletal stress, cardiovascular issues and increasing the body’s ability to more efficiently utilize the nutrients available to better aid in building, repairing and maintaining muscle.