Can an Ethical Vegan Gain Muscle? Yes!

Image description: Tracy with short blond hair, tattooed arm and a red tank is looking through the viewfinder of a camera, facing into a mirror, with an infinity affect. “Definitions” is in a green banner on the mirror. Let’s say the ethical / environmental arguments for adopting a vegan lifestyle (including a plant-based diet) convince you. You’re sure that’s the way to go if you care about animals enough not to want to contribute to their suffering, which consuming factory farmed animal products most certainly will. And you’re sure it’s the way to go if you care about the planet — we’ve all heard the one about the vegan who drives a Hummer having a smaller carbon footprint than an omnivore who drives a hybrid. It outdoes local and organic. If you care about the environment then plant-based is the way to go.

But a lot of people think that you can’t get stronger on a vegan diet. They think it’s inevitable that the quality of your muscles will suffer. When Sam and I embarked on our fittest by fifty challenge five years ago on our 48th birthdays, I had a young personal trainer who kept blaming my weight plateau on my vegan food choices. It was discouraging and I ended up having to let him go.

For the past two years I’ve eaten a largely vegan diet with only minor wandering off the path very occasionally (the wandering are for entirely unprincipled reasons but hey I’m not perfect). I’ve also been working out with a new personal trainer. He has never once called my vegan diet into question. Nor has he ever expressed any skepticism about my potential to get stronger and leaner.

And guess what? I am stronger and leaner than I was two years ago. My muscles are harder and I can do all sorts of things (pull-ups! Push-ups! Vinyasa flows without having to modify on my knees) I couldn’t do it struggled with a lot two years ago. This is despite frequent travel and no structured food plan beyond sticking to a plant based diet.

I am an intuitive eater who doesn’t deprive myself of foods I want. I hit the weights twice a week unless travelling. I run three to four times a week unless traveling somewhere where I can’t. And I go to one yoga class a week when I’m in town. I’m 53 and I’m the strongest, leanest and most Fit I’ve ever been in my life (even counting my mid-twenties when I worked out for three hours a day, four to five days a week).

This isn’t to boast (though I do feel good about it because well, it feels good!!). Rather it is to say “rubbish!” to the naysayers who challenge the vegan diet for its purported inability to support strength, lean mass, and fitness.

There are quite a few vegan endurance athletes (like Rich Roll and Scott Jurek) and even a new trend in vegan body builders (again, mostly men). So it’s not as if it can’t be done. You don’t hear a lot about women, but my case shows it’s possible to engage in a moderate routine combining resistance training with cardio and balance/flexibility training on a plant-based diet and get stronger. That’s without supplements either (other than occasionally B12 and a bit of pumpkin seed protein in my smoothies).

The main thing where some give is possible is on the protein front. Athletes can get by on more carbs than is sometimes recommended. A vegan body builder gave a talk at the London Veg Fest a couple of weeks ago and he said when he backed off of protein and focused more on whole foods and carbs he broke through a plateau that had frustrated him for quite a period of time. And in any case most of us aren’t trying to be body builders. We just want to support our activities and feel strong and energetic (I’m assuming).

Here’s an article that offers some tips for women vegan athletes opting for different protein percentages (they offer a range of three choices).

Are you a vegan athlete and do you have to spend a lot of time answering questions from skeptics?

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