Reading time: 10-12 min
There’s a lot going on right now in regards to Plant Based eating.
There’s misinformation everywhere you look telling you to eat one way or another. People are fear mongering others into eating practices, and even displacing their own (often unexamined) codes-of-ethics on those not compliant with their views.
Many people have a genuine desire to pursue a more plant-based diet for health reasons ranging from mild intolerances, inflammation, and even food quality concerns, and others for ethical, and sustainability reasons. Many of them have had their virtuous desires thwarted, or even ignited by prejudiced depictions of this lifestyle. (I’m looking at you, Netflix documentaries.)
There are also those who worry of the potential negative impacts there may be on their physique, performance, and health markers. From those who haven’t begun a regimen, and are timid to for fear of negative results linked to this way of eating; to those who have already achieved an impressive physique, routine, and level of health. Not to mention, the unclear precision needed when supplementing on a plant based diet can make or break your diet’s efficacy.
Let’s talk about it.
These remain the same.
When it comes down to it, if you’re embarking down this way of eating for weight management, fat loss, or any physique improvement, this eating lifestyle choice is still a method of which you can use as a tool to get your desired results.
If the principles are accounted for, there’s only room for minutiae.
This is applicable to vegans, vegetarians, keto, paleo, mediterranean, IIFYM dieters, zone dieters, carnivores, and anyone who doesn’t identify with a ‘diet’ – you must adhere to these laws.
If you’re debating on whether or not you can lose fat or gain muscle while eating a dieting that abstains from any animal products whatsoever, you must take into account the science of what will illicit either of those responses.
This applies specifically to those who see plant based athletes promoting the plant based lifestyle, and assume that will work for them, just because. Athletes are not ‘weekend warriors.’ Athletes are atop the list of adherence, discipline, and structure; their results are a culmination of numerous successful procedures, not solely their chosen eating practices.
It doesn’t matter if you’re eating quinoa, brussels, vegan cheese, and pears all day, if you’re over-consuming, you will gain weight.
Just like those veiny, top-tier plant based bodybuilders and athletes, if you cant create a calorie surplus with this style of eating, with ample protein, and sustain it all – you won’t get jacked. Those athletes just happen to have a lifestyle, and resources that revolve nearly entirely around said goals.
Like any diet, training program, or endeavor of any sort, in order to achieve a desired result, efforts must be consistent.
I often see those who begin to embark down this lifestyle go ‘all in’ and get frustrated in the ‘first act.’
This is a new way of eating, there are new barriers to success, and there are numerous preferential biases you need to experience to properly understand how to structure your new diet.
Give yourself a ‘grace period’ and get familiar with your foundation of foods to help establish your base for eating, and supplementing.
Many hardcore vegan/vegetarian sites, blogs, and zealots have said it’s only necessary to have 10% of your calorie intake be protein, which has its validity…in some cases.
If your focus is just on easing into plant based eating, and you’re currently not diligently eating sufficient protein, training isn’t a major component of your lifestyle, and body composition isn’t as important as the nutritional change just yet, you can likely get away with 10% intake being protein. Is it optimal? No, but we gain adherence before we optimize.
Now, if you’re bullheadedly focused on body composition, and gaining or maintaining muscle; you’ll need to take ample protein intake into account right off the bat.
It comes down to goals.
Do you want to still gain muscle? Eat 0.8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of your bodyweight. 1g/lb is the sweet spot.
Are you not trying to sacrifice your hard-earned physique of leanness, and impressive hypertrophy? Eat 0.8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of your bodyweight.
It’s even been recommended to consume extra protein (an increase of 20%, or 1.2-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight) for those dead-set on their physique goals, especially if they’d already been consuming adequate animal-based protein sources. The plant based sources aren’t as well utilized, and increasing the intake has been shown to help mitigate the potential loss in protein synthesis.
Carb and fat content in the diet should be first based upon individual preferences, and secondly on energy demands of that individual.
Generally speaking, many plant based diets tend to be a bit more carb dominant, because the majority of your plant based protein sources are also carb sources. Beans, quinoa, tofu, seeds, wheat, chickpeas, edamame – are all carbs sources as well as protein. Allotting more carb content in the diet, can open up the doors for protein as well.
That being said, your carb sources should be mostly coming from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. In order to fulfill the “higher vitamin and mineral intake associated with plant based eating” emphasis should be placed on foods closest to their natural state, from the Earth, and refinery should be limited. (A reputable practice with any diet.)
With the need for protein, and emphasis on carb intake, fats generally are kept a bit lower; often no more than 35% of total calorie intake. Keeping fat intake no less than .3g per pound of bodyweight is recommended for hormonal function, as is variety of fat sources.
With protein being the most difficult to find adequate sources, we’ll start here.
Tofu, Tempeh, Beans, Lentils, Chickpeas, Edamame (& other Soy foods), Quinoa, Plant Based-Protein Powder, Hempseed, Peas, Oats, Amaranth, Teff, & Vegan ‘Meats.‘
Just because plant based eating can be considered healthy, don’t assume packaged vegan products are healthy. Continue to diligently check labels for excess additives and fillers, just as if you were eating consciously, but not ‘vegan.’ Finding products you enjoy may take some time; some will taste like chewy, deflated, meat-flavored balloons, and some may taste like you’ll have no desire to ever consume any animal products again.
Make a constant effort to consume protein at each meal, and you won’t have to worry about combining proteins, or eating larger portions, and you’ll have fewer possibilities for digestive upset if your intake is evenly spread. This will also make certain that protein synthesis is taking place, ensuring your training sessions are worthwhile.
Soy based protein-marketed products will be ubiquitous, so opt for organic as often as possible. Soy products (like others) have become notorious for being genetically modified (GMO), and laden with pesticides.
It’s recommended to keep soy intake no higher than 2-3 servings daily, to ensure you’re getting variety with your plant based intake, and also because soy can shift the balance of estrogen metabolites, which can impact hormonal balance.
Potatoes, Rice, Quinoa, Oats, Grains, Breads, Fruits, Vegetables, and snack options in moderation as desired. (Remember, 80/20, or 90/10 rule!)
Plant based eating can be a carb-lover’s dream. I personally get as giddy as a schoolgirl thinking I can eat açaí bowls and black-bean burgers all day long and still be within the parameters of my chosen diet.
Moderate intake, of course. Whole, nutritious, closest to their natural state, and from the Earth sources should take the principal focus. (Can’t be stressed enough!) This often can happen naturally because the allure to plant based eating often resonates with those who prefer this type of eating.
Avocado, Nuts, Seeds, Nut Butters, Cacao, Tahini, Coconut, Olives, Oils (Coconut, Avocado, Olive), Vegan ‘Cheeses‘
The key here is also variety. Just because you can make an amazing Vegan grilled cheese, that doesn’t mean it’s such a great idea to eat all your daily fats from a manufactured “cheese-like” product.
Mono and Polyunsaturated fats will come naturally through oils, avocado, and nuts and seeds, but don’t forget about coconut for your source of saturated fat, as it’s going to be your premier saturated fat option on a plant based diet. Lean on flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and macadamias to emphasize eating more omega 3’s.
This is where many people can make or break their plant based diet. Since you’re abstaining from a nutritious panoply of potential foods, there will obviously be some deficiencies. BUT, we can make up for this with proper supplementation.
Protein: (am I annoying you yet?)
There are tons of plant based protein supplements out there. The first thing you may find is a majority of them taste like a concoction of grass, manure, and ovaltine. There are some delicious options out there, but follow the recommendations below for which “type.”
The coined “vegan whey” is a 70/30 blend of pea protein and rice protein, which many dedicated lifters and bodybuilders will mix on their own. (This is what the serious lifters, and performers should opt for.) This allows for a very similar amino acid profile to whey protein. Whey is known for having a much superior amino acid profile for building, and maintaining muscle by way of higher leucine (essential amino acid) potency.
You may also find some quality protein supplements deriving their protein and aminos from peas, pumpkin, sunflower, and watermelon seed.
Here’s a compilation of some of my approved plant proteins: (all of which are approved on labdoor, or have been researched and approved by myself)
- Peak Performance Complete Plant Protein
- Onnit Plant Based Protein
- Garden of Life Raw Protein
- Sunwarrior Warrior Blend
- Vega Sport Performance Protein
Omega 3’s: Many people completely forget about Omega 3’s when they move into a vegan diet because of, well, fish. Omega 3’s are vital to everyone, and the likelihood of eating a necessary amount of omega 3’s with some flaxseeds and walnuts in your cereal, or a tablespoon of flax oil daily is not likely. Not only that, those seeds, nuts, and oils contain only 1 type of omega 3 – ALA (alpha linolenic acid). The other 2 types of omega 3 are EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and they’re responsible for the majority of the boasted health benefits of fish oil. (Improved mental state, anti-inflammation, disease prevention, heart health, reduced all cause mortality rate, lowered cancer risk, joint health.)
Algae oil, and other algal supplements will be your go-to for your EPA and DHA. Since your diet is likely going to be lower in omega 3’s due to lack of more potent fish omega 3’s, it’s recommended to intake a combination of around 750-1000mg of EPA and DHA, daily.
Creatine: Yes, creatine.
Creatine is found in meat and fish, specifically red meat. Vegans, and other variants of plant based dieters will likely suffer from low levels of creatine, which can hinder muscle growth, training performance, and even cognitive function.
Creatine has been studied extensively, with results yielding resounding positives.
Of course, this will be a no-brainer for the serious lifters and trainees, but what about the weekend-warriors?
Everyone wants improved brain function, right? Supplementing with creatine monohydrate has shown consistently positive effects on cognitive functioning efficiency, and has been well documented. Benefits include a decrease in overall cognitive decline with age, increased memory retention, decreasing neurodegeneration with age, and increased total IQ.
Creatine is found in animal tissue, so eating an exclusively plant based diet will yield a creatine insufficiency at best. Supplementing with a proven brain supplement can keep your cognition in check, and improve brain-gains.
Creapure is the gold standard for creatine supplements, and in recent years have entirely abstained from even testing on animals, making them a 100% vegan supplier.
‘Synthetic Creatine’ is what you’re looking for, as it’s derived from the necessary 3 amino acids, not actual animal tissue. TrueNutrition is a creapure vegan creatine, and is considered the top tier of the vegan creatine market.
Vitamin B12: This is common knowledge amongst anyone who’s ever done the slightest of research regarding plant based eating.
There’s a plethora of adverse health effects in relation to B12 deficiency, such as anemia, irreversible nervous system damage, weakness, and fatigue.
It’s commonplace to hear “eat foods fortified with b12, such as cereals, plant milks, and soy milks” as well as to take B12 supplements. Other plant based foods to increase B12 would be Seaweed, Fermented Soy, Spirulina, and Brewer’s/Nutritional Yeast.
Recent evidence notes that the dosing recommendation should be 100 times higher than the RDA, putting it around 250 micrograms daily. If you’re proven actually deficient, the dosing is increased, to somewhere around 500 micrograms.
My Recommendation: get blood work done regularly – meaning quarterly, at least!
Vitamin D: A significant portion of the population is Vitamin D deficient regardless of plant based eating. Known as the ‘sun vitamin,’ D helps absorption in the gut, and deficiencies can result in immune function, mood, sleep, muscle recovery, and memory declines.
It’s recommended to get your blood panels checked to verify if you’re deficient, as many factors and individuality can keep you safe.
RDA is 600-800 IU’s, and there are numerous vegan d3 supplements on the market.
Zinc: Adequate protein intake, and whole food focus should take care of zinc. (Whole grains, wheat germ, tofu, sprouted breads, legumes, nuts, seeds.) You may also consider supplementing with 8-12 mg daily if blood levels show zinc deficiency.
Iodine: Half a teaspoon (2.5 ml) of iodized salt is sufficient to meet your daily needs of iodine, as will regular consumption of seaweed. If those are not preferred, consider an iodine supplement meeting the RDA of 150 IU.
Iron: Non-heme iron is your plant based iron, vs heme-iron being animal based. Increasing iron intake 1.5-2x to account for the decreased absorption of non-heme iron. Eat a variety of cruciferous vegetables, peas, beans, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds. Iron-fortified foods, such as cereals, enriched breads, and plant milks, as well as cooking with cast iron cookware can further assist iron intake. It’s not recommended to take an iron supplement unless blood levels show full deficiency, and a doctor’s recommendation, since high levels of iron can cause numerous complications.
Calcium: The vegan community often claims their necessary intake of calcium is lower. Claiming “vegans have lower calcium needs than omnivores because they do not use this mineral to neutralize the acidity produced by a meat-rich diet.” Which is true to a degree, but it’s still recommended to hit the RDA of 1000-1200mg daily, because no one wants to be as brittle as a Christmas cookie. Include bok choy, kale, mustard greens, okra, turnip greens, watercress, broccoli, chickpeas, calcium-set tofu, fortified plant milks or juices, oat milks, seeds, and enriched breads.
Plant based eaters will generally consume a significant amount of prebiotics, which is a fiber that feeds probiotics, which is the ‘good’ bacteria that lives in your gut. (Prebiotics & Probiotics also suppress the ‘bad’ bacteria.)
Although, as mentioned, plant based eating can cause digestion upset, bloating, gassiness, malabsorption, irregularity, and general discomfort, so creating an optimal environment on your insides will only aid your dietary endeavors.
Eating probiotic foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, greek yogurt, kombucha, pickled vegetables, kefir, tempeh, sourdough, and miso can certainly make an impact. Supplementing with a probiotic and obtaining 10-15 billion CFU’s daily will ensure your gut health.
- Culturelle Probiotic (Vegetarian)
- Ora Organics (Vegan)
Ease Into This Lifestyle:
This will likely be a contrasting way of eating in comparison to a ‘normal’ way of eating with animal based products. Discomfort may be present at first, as there will likely be a large increase in fibre in the diet. Our digestive system will take some time to become more efficient with the demands being placed on it.
Pro Tip: Chew. Your. Food. Place emphasis on this, as this is where digestion begins and will assist greatly in stomach discomfort.
Slowly introduce more of the fibrous foods (whole grains, vegetables, legumes, plant based products) to begin the process, and after some weeks shift into full veganism if that’s the goal.
This is largely dependent on the individual, but I would certainly recommend more meals, and snacks overall to spread out your calorie and nutrient intake. Larger meals means more quantity of food to digest, and absorb, which can lead to discomfort. Spread your meals and snacks, and get a feel for how you’re processing them.
This can aid energy levels as well, as your body will be dispersing so much energy for digestion, it may leave you feeling lethargic. Use the aid of smoothies when desired as well; break out all the tools to assist you!
No diet is immune to the benefits of these practices.
Keep records, note how you feel, log your favorite recipes, keep an account of your intake. These will serve to better educate yourself, and aid your own success.
It’s one thing to choose to become a plant based eater, it’s another thing to do all that you can to make the diet work for you.
Thanks for reading!