Scott Shelter is an NSCA certified coach, the owner of Extreme Performance Training Systems and follows a plant-based diet. He is based in Norcross, Georgia.
We all know that protein is the most important macronutrient when wanting to build muscle. And when most people think of protein they think of steak, or chicken breasts, or tins of tuna. But there are a growing number of athletes competing at the highest level on an entirely plant-based diet, including seven-times Grand Slam winner Venus Williams, former UFC fighter Mac Danzig, and Chicago Bears 300lb (136kg) defensive lineman David Carter.
Around two per cent of Brits and Americans follow a strict vegan diet – void of meat, fish, eggs and dairy products – and a paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that vegan diets are typically higher in dietary fibre, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, iron, and phytochemicals, but tend to be lower in total calories, saturated fat and cholesterol, essential omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins D and B12, and essential trace elements, such as calcium and zinc.
Whether you are considering eating less meat and dairy, for whatever reason, or just interested in knowing how the body adapts to a vegan diet from a personal or professional personal trainer viewpoint, here are the key points.
What is a strict vegan diet?
It’s following a nutritional plan that is entirely plant-based, so doesn’t include red or white meat, fish, eggs, dairy, or any product that contains any ingredient, compound or substance that has an animal origin or uses such a product in the manufacturing process. A strict vegetarian diet excludes meat and fish, but can allow eggs and dairy; an ovo-vegetarian diet allows eggs, but not dairy; while a lacto-vegetarian diet includes dairy but not eggs.
What are the disadvantages of following a vegan diet when muscle gain and fat loss are the primary training aims?
The major disadvantage is that eating a whole food, vegan diet means a lot of the food choices are incredibly nutritionally dense, they tend to be very low in calories. This can make eating a calorie surplus and therefore gaining weight difficult – unless of course you like to eat a lot very often! Eating out can also be difficult, especially if you can’t find a restaurant that provides vegan food options.
What are the advantages of following a vegan diet when working towards body composition improvements?
Because of the high-fibre content in plant-based foods, meals tend to be quite satisfying and you often don’t have to deal with serious feelings of hunger. These foods are typically very nutritionally dense, containing many of the essential vitamins and minerals absent in heavily processed foods, which is great from an overall health standpoint.
What are the key dietary considerations vegans or trainers with vegan clients need to understand?
The big issue is to make sure there are enough calorically dense foods to fuel training and performance. Replacing a steak and potato dinner with a spinach salad won’t cut it. Also, now more than ever, there are tons of great-tasting plant-based meat alternatives. While these foods are great for adding variety to the diet, I feel that relying on these processed meat alternatives is not a good idea. The bulk of the diet should consist of whole, plant-based foods like raw fruits and vegetables, lightly cooked or steamed vegetables, healthy grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and nut butters. As long as the bulk of the nutrition intake is healthy whole plant-based foods, there is nothing wrong with adding in some of the meat alternatives for taste or texture.
How can you guarantee you get all the essential amino acids and fatty acids on a vegan diet?
It is important to eat a wide variety of plant-based foods, and many vegan bodybuilders and athletes tend to supplement with plant-based protein powders and plant-sourced BCAAs just like omnivorous athletes do. A ‘complete protein’ really is a myth and assumes that we eat only one source of protein. No one eats like this! We eat a variety of foods, most of which contain protein. According to my friend, registered dietitian Matt Ruscigno, the idea of incomplete protein is misleading. It is not necessary to combine proteins, our bodies pool amino acids and use them as needed, regardless of the perceived completeness of the source.
What’s they key to getting enough protein on a vegan diet?
If you eat a wide variety of whole, plant-based foods to get enough calories to fuel your training and activity level, you will get all the protein you need to build muscle. All plant foods contain some protein, so it does help to stop looking at the foods as protein, carbs, and fats. Plant-based foods that are more protein dense are tempeh, tofu, seitan, beans, legumes, nuts, nut butters, and seeds. One cup of quinoa contains around 24g of protein and a cup of beans can contain up to 30g. Don’t overlook protein in grains like oatmeal which is 6g per cup cooked. I make a green smoothie with berries, banana, lots of greens like spinach, kale and dandelion greens, and some flax meal and hemp seeds. If you still want to ensure your bases are covered use a high quality plant-based protein supplement.
What’s the key to getting enough high-quality fat, especially saturated fat, on a vegan diet?
I know vegan athletes who think it’s important to consume a lot of fat, and some who think they need very little, and both do well. I won’t get into the argument of how much fat we need, whether saturated fat is healthy or unhealthy (I’ve heard compelling arguments on both sides there, and I tend to be wary of studies since many are funded by special interest groups), but great sources of fat for vegans are nuts, avocados, flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flax oil, coconut oil (especially for those who feel saturated fat is important), and I feel there is some compelling evidence to suggest vegans consider supplementing with a vegan-sourced EPA/DHA supplement – aside from these algae-based vegan EPA/DHA supplements you can only find this omega 3 in fish oil.
Which essential vitamins or minerals are most lacking from a vegan diet, and do levels need to be monitored closely to ensure optimal health and performance?
Very few. Eating a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds will give you loads of these important micronutrients as well as other healthy phytonutrients and very importantly fibre. The biggest worry is vitamin B12 which is very inexpensive and easy to supplement with. B12 can be a concern for omnivores too, so while it certainly is important for vegans, it is a vitamin that anyone can be deficient in. I hear all the time that vegans are at risk for iron deficiency but I don’t know that it’s worse for them then people who eat animal products. Again, iron deficiency is not something exclusive to vegans, there are plenty of omnivores who are at risk as well. I did read somewhere that the amino acid lysine may be tough to get for vegans who are restricting calories, so if you are vegan and trying to lose weight by restricting calories it might be a good idea to supplement, or make sure your protein drink of choice contains it.
Which supplements, if any, are needed when following a vegan diet to fill any potential gaps in dietary nutritional intake?
Vitamin B12 is probably the most important. Behind that I feel people should consider a vegan-sourced EPA/DHA supplement. Outside of those two things I don’t know that any other supplements are ‘needed’, providing you are consuming adequate calories to sustain your training and activity level, and that those calories come from a wide variety of whole, plant-based foods. Now, if we are talking performance enhancement, the question comes down to the athlete. I know many vegan bodybuilders who use supplements no different than omnivorous athletes. Supplements such as creatine, beta-alanine, zinc, magnesium and BCAAs are useful, but vegans just have to be careful to make sure their supplements are sourced from plants. For the average person who is just training for health, supplements shouldn’t be an issue. For those looking for a performance enhancement effect, supplements should be researched and chosen at the discretion of the athlete.