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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:

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