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Can you build muscle on a plant-based diet?

The meat versus no meat question comes up frequently on a health journey, especially when trying to put on muscle or lose weight. However, as always, there is a middle ground

There are plenty of good-quality protein powders available if you find eating the required amount of protein each day challenging.
There are plenty of good-quality protein powders available if you find eating the required amount of protein each day challenging. (Pexels)

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Nothing is more polarising than landing a bombshell like "I'm thinking of going vegan" amongst a crowd of ravenous carnivores. Or, experiencing pin-drop silence after announcing that after years of being a vegetarian, you want to reintroduce meat again. "But why?" they gasp.

Your eating style can define you and become a large part of your identity, and people can get passionate about discussing their food beliefs with others. Besides sugar or maybe even carbohydrates, there seems to be no other hotly debated divide than the meat versus no meat divide, especially when trying to put on muscle or lose weight. Is one healthier or better than the other? And, is it possible to gain muscle and not eat meat?

Also read: When you gain weight after working out

The former CEO of Precision Nutrition, Dr John Berardi, challenged himself to eat according to a vegetarian diet (which included eggs). He, a die-hard meat-eating gym buff, wanted to personally experience and test the hypothesis that you can successfully put on lean muscle without meat in your diet. Not surprisingly, many fitness magazines interviewed him in disbelief - how could he possibly give up meat and still put on muscle? And, was he successful in doing so?

First, let's tackle the meat debate regarding health. Then, we will discuss muscle outcomes.

No matter what and how we eat, we all need protein in our diet, as protein has various essential jobs in our bodies. However, unless you're a bodybuilder or looking for "mad gains" in the gym, not everyone is diligent in ensuring they get enough protein in their diets. The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) tells us that the recommended daily allowance is approximately 0.8g of protein per kilogram. That means for a 60 kg person, that equates to 48 g of protein per day (about two chicken breasts/~4 eggs or 1 1/4 cups of chickpeas). However, this amount is the baseline you need to survive. If you're an active person lifting weights in the gym, you need more protein to thrive. According to Examine, the optimal amount of protein per day is around 1.2-1.8g per kg of bodyweight if you're sedentary. It can increase to 3.3g/kg depending on your activity level. These recommendations don't tell us to eat meat specifically; they tell us how much protein we need. Luckily, plenty of good-quality protein powders are available if you find eating the required amount of protein each day challenging.

Also read: Want to age gracefully? Include more legumes in your diet

We start to start to split hairs when we talk about our protein sources. Some protein sources offer our bodies complete proteins, while others only provide a few. According to the article Biochemistry, Essential Amino Acids, protein is broken down into substances that our body needs, called "amino acids." Some of these amino acids body can produce, while others you must get from food. A protein is considered complete when it contains all amino acids your body cannot produce, which meat does. When someone eats meat as a regular part of their diet, they don't have to overthink whether they are consuming the right amino acids to support their health and muscle growth.

Vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and dairy also have a mix of amino acids. However, only a handful are considered complete. Each food contains a different blend of amino acids, meaning you must be more aware of the plant-based foods on your plate to ensure you get all the amino acids you need. It's perhaps more challenging, but not impossible, to do.

Besides having a complete complement of amino acids, meat also contains heme iron. According to Iron Absorption in Science Direct, heme iron (found in the blood) is easily absorbed into our body compared to non-heme iron, found in plants. According to this article, non-heme iron absorption can also be inhibited by more factors than heme iron, making it more challenging for those who don't eat meat to get enough.

And finally, meat and meat products (such as dairy) contain vitamin B12, compared to very few plant-based foods.

You may think eating meat is winning this debate, but let's look at the health implications associated with meat. Meat, particularly red meat, has been the subject of numerous cancer and cardiovascular disease studies. Although red meat may not deserve the bad reputation it has been given over the years, other meat products, such as processed deli meats, can't say the same. Heavily processed meats have high sodium content, while chargrilling meat has also been linked to cancer. 

As Dr John Berardi says, "deli meats are to meat what cornflakes are to corn" – there is a vast difference in nutrients between what they are and what they are masquerading as. And, as you can see, if you're eating meat such as chicken dipped in batter, cooked in oil, and served in a bucket, you're eating meat on a mere technicality – the adverse health outcomes associated with high sodium and trans-fat content far outweigh the good. And finally, how we raise animals and seafood matters. Our oceans are full of heavy metals, which can absorb into our fish stocks, and our meats can be full of medicines, hormones, and environmental stress that impact our bodies.

Is it the same for vegans and vegetarians? I recently saw a great meme that said this. "Don't forget, Oreos are also considered vegan." Vegetarians and vegans are not immune to packaged and processed convenience foods that impact their health. Research says that almost 60% of calories in an American diet are from convenience, processed, and junk foods – a lot of which wouldn't fall under "non-vegetarian." So while it may feel safe to assume that because you are practising a vegan lifestyle or vegetarian diet, your body is, by default, healthier, that may not be the case.

As you may notice, you can end up in the weeds when trying to have this debate on which way of eating is healthier for your body.

As Berardi says,"It's sometimes possible for two intelligent people to look at the same information and come up with different conclusions."

However, is it possible to gain muscle and not eat meat? Take it directly from Berardi: "In just over a month of hard training and overfeeding, I gained about seven pounds of body weight with five coming from lean mass gain and two from fat mass." It's possible, so long as you have a plan and stay mindful of your protein sources, where ever they come from.

But, we can all learn something from this discussion, and we all have something more to learn. Both sides of the debate can learn to "It'snever say never," be open to exploring new foods and be more mindful about what we put in our mouths. Choosing products that have endured less processing and have more natural nutrients is your first step to making a dietary change that makes a big difference to your health. Plant-based eaters may branch out into plant-based protein powders, eat a better variety of high-protein foods such as legumes, and meat-eaters can balance their plates with more delicious fruits and vegetables.

Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach

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