Building Muscle and the Vegan Diet

Composition with variety of raw vegetablesSam sent this article my way the other day, “Raw Deal: Can a Guy Build Muscle on a Vegan Diet?” I’m not sure what she had in mind exactly in terms of blog fodder. But what it did do for me was remind me that of the many obstacles to following a plant-based diet that people encounter, the worry that it might compromise their ability to gain muscle stops some men and (despite the article’s focus on men) women cold.

I’ve blogged about vegan protein before. And frankly, following the one gram of protein per pound of body weight guideline I have a real difficulty getting enough of it. But I don’t do terribly. And in fact I have gained some good quality muscle over the past year or so.

According to the article, it’s a common misconception that you have to eat meat to build muscle.  It comes from the idea that we need protein to build muscle and that protein comes only from meat (and eggs). So how in the heck does a vegan (and in this case, not just a vegan but a raw vegan) expect to gain any muscle.

Well, here’s the scoop on this guy, Matthew Kenney, raw vegan chef and bodybuilder:

Thirty years ago, Matthew Kenney was an aspiring teenage bodybuilder. Now, he’s one of the most accomplished raw food chefs in the country, having opened Matthew Kenney OKC in 2009, a raw vegan restaurant in Oklahoma City that Forbes magazine called one of “America’s Best Restaurants” the following year.

You would think, then, that Kenney, himself a vegan, abandoned his bodybuilding roots around the same time he stopped eating meat. You’d be wrong. Kenney hits the weights just as hard now at age 48 as he did 10 years ago, before he started eating raw, and he has several bodybuilder friends who also eat raw exclusively.

“The raw food diet as we speak about it refers to a plant-based diet of raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sprouted greens that are not heated above 105–110°,” says Kenney, author of the cookbooks Everyday Raw and Raw Food Real World.

“The enzymes and nutrients are still alive, so the foods are very healing because they’re more digestible.” Among the tangible benefits of eating raw, according to Kenney are that it can reverse such ailments as diabetes, arthritis, and joint pain as well as provide ample energy throughout the day. Kenney also considers a raw diet to be extremely physique-friendly, in terms of both adding size and losing body fat.

It’s not just “physique-friendly.” Kenney goes further:

“You can actually train more intensely on a plant-based diet than when following a standard diet because your recovery time is faster, you have fewer injuries, and you have more energy,” he says. “You may not be able to bulk up to 265 pounds, but developing lean muscle mass is fully attainable.”

It’s not just possible, he says, it’s better.

Here’s where I need to hit pause. I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from being vegan, or even raw vegan. And I totally agree that you can be a body-builder or a runner or a triathlete or all sorts of other things on a plant-based diet.

But do I really think it’s better?  I’m not entirely sure. People often ask me if I feel better now than I did when I was just a vegetarian.  They’re disappointed and bewildered when I say, “not really.”  I feel about the same, actually.  Good when I eat well and in reasonable portions that don’t make me feel over-stuffed. Not too good when I eat food with little to no nutritional value or when I eat too much of anything (even the healthiest choices).

There are enough different ways of eating out there, and enough people pursuing their chosen activities while eating that way, that I think it’s safe to say that there’s not one way that is right or best for every single person. it depends on all sorts of things.

So, yay that you can be a raw vegan and a body-builder.  But it doesn’t have to be the single best way to fuel your training in order for there to be good reasons, for those who wish, to give it a try and see if it appeals to you.

If you are interested, here are a couple of cute twins, The Light Twins, who are raw vegan body-builders, and their video about what they eat:

4 thoughts on “Building Muscle and the Vegan Diet

  1. I agree completely. I know a a raw vegan and he bodybuilds. He puts on muscle very easily, and he did so when he ate a tremendous amount of meat, when he was vegetarian, when he was vegan, and even now as a raw vegan – although as a raw vegan he doesn’t seem to be bulking up as much as before. In other words, he’s been able to bodybuild on any diet, although his metabolism is so fast he needs to consume 6000 calories a day. When it’s time for him to eat, it’s time to back up the truck! But like many people out there these days, he’s convinced himself that whatever he’s doing now, is the best thing there is to do from both an ethical and a performance perspective.
    Some people make their choices into quasi-religions. They want to believe that there is a perfect way of living which ties everything on all levels and for all purposes together into a perfect package. They defend their choices and their theories in the same way that religious fundamentalists defend their religious beliefs, because these people have unknowingly transformed their choices and beliefs into a religion of sorts. It has become what they place all of their faith in and they detest the simple idea that the world does not offer perfect consistent solutions to all problems and issues, likely because that would mean that they can never approach perfection. It seems to me that here is some irrational desperation in them – some conceits being used to hide from deep insecurities – that makes them want to think of themselves as being capable of approaching perfection, or at least, as appearing to others (and perhaps themselves) as being capable of doing so.
    I agree with you, Tracy, that we should take everything these people say with more than a grain of salt, although we also have to resist the temptation to throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak.

    1. For sure. Finding the balance is the tricky part. There is definitely some legitimate information out there about foods that are better or worse for you. But for the most part, especially where whole foods are concerned, most things are perfectly fine if consumed in moderate amounts. My reasons for being vegan have nothing to do with health. In fact, if I were to take it from a straight health perspective, it might make sense to eat some animal products at least some of the time.

  2. I teach about protein sources in personal training workshops all of the time. We talk about how proteins in the body are amino acids and that there are essential ones that our body makes on its own and ones that we need to ingest and all of the places that those come from. I like to use the analogy that we are mammals, therefore we make a lot of the same proteins as other mammals which means they’re not supplying us with a whole lot of what we don’t already have. I am by no means a vegan nor a vegetarian, so I don’t promote nor dissuade anyone from being whatever it is that they choose. I just ask them to think about it logically instead of commercially.

    And, in regards to “one best way” I’d like to say…we didn’t all come from the same place, so we aren’t all meant to eat the same things. IF you look back at “our ancestors” we came from all different parts of this globe in which all different animals and plants are native. Therefore, people ate a lot of different diets before us and they’ll eat different things after us and still people survived. Choosing what fuels your body is the key.

    1. There are just so many divergent opinions even amongst the so-called experts out there regarding optimal diets and protein requirements for different types of athletes. Add to the mix that different races might have different requirements and concerns, and then that individuals have different requirements and concerns, and the entire subject soon becomes very murky. No one wonder some poeple choose “one way” and then stick to it; the problem is when they transform their “one way” into a dogma and then attempt to build a cult around it.

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