Traditionally, bodybuilding has existed in an aura of big men (and women) eating huge volumes of protein in the shape of large chicken breasts, whey milkshakes and a dozen egg whites.
But now, things are changing. Vegan bodybuilders are making themselves known, and having moderate success. Vegans do not eat any animal protein at all — no meat, no chicken, fish, eggs or dairy products. None at all. This distinguishes them from ‘vegetarians’ or lacto-vegetarians who may eat milk, cheese, eggs, yogurt etc.
Vegans choose to eat their way for reasons of health, or the ethics of killing animals, or even because they believe that eating vegan protects the environment in certain ways.
Whatever the reason, this is a challenging dietary regimen. Vegans need to ensure they get sufficient important nutrients such as vitamin B12, which is not widely available in vegetarian foods, except for supplemented foods. Other important nutrients that may be lacking in a vegan diet are the omega-3 fats, zinc and iron. Even so, with a little care, most vegans seem to have no trouble eating a healthy diet. Several world champion athletes have been vegans at the time of competition including Carl Lewis (sprinter) and Dave Scott (triathlon). Scott Jurek is an ultra-marathoner who follows a vegan diet — and even Mike Tyson, former world heavyweight boxing champion seems to be a vegan these days. The idea that you need lots of meat to be big, strong or powerful is clearly refuted.
Even so, it’s one thing to be a vegan athlete, but quite another to be a vegan bodybuilder.Robert Cheeke is one of the best known vegan bodybuilders, but there are plenty of others.
Getting sufficient high-quality protein is not an issue for vegan bodybuilders. Soy protein is of equal quality to animal protein and contains all the essential amino acids. However, creatine, a naturally occurring protein in animal meats may be lacking in a vegan diet, and supplementation may be useful for vegan bodybuilders. Creatine is a bulk and muscle builder, and although not an essential nutrient, may help build muscle when taken as a supplement by vegans and also non-vegans.
Strategies for Vegan Bodybuilders and Athletes
Eat plenty. Vegans have to ensure they eat sufficient total calories to fuel muscle growth and recovery from training. Because plant foods are high in fiber, which can be satiating (inhibit appetite), protein and carbohydrate powder supplements may be needed. Don’t do “raw” vegan. You will find it almost impossible to get the energy and anabolic effect from such a diet. The vegan diet should be somewhere above 20% fat by calories.
Monitor intake of B12, zinc, iron and omega-3.These nutrients are essential for health, and may be lacking in poorly constructed vegan diets. Make sure you get sufficient amounts. Check food labels, consider a supplement if necessary.
Consider a creatine supplement. Creatine is generally regarded as safe, and is not a banned supplement. Creatine might even produce better results in vegans than non-vegans.
In protein supplements, even though soy is a complete protein, try non-soy protein foods and supplements for variety. Although there is little evidence that soy foods have any adverse effects, getting protein variety is always a good idea. Look for rice or nut proteins or any other useful source.
Finally, you need to train well, and take note of strategies for eating and supplementing, and the timing of nutrient patterns for best effect.
*Mike Tyson image courtesy of billboard on Sunset Boulevard and Doheny Drive, West Hollywood, California