It was once thought that eating a meat-based diet was the only way to add some meat to the bones. However, many health and fitness experts are now touting the benefits of a plant-based diet to bulk up, build muscle and improve athletic performance. Learn how proteins work, the difference between proteins derived from meat and plants, and what plants pack a powerful punch for playing sports and growing muscle.
Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily mean that men can’t build muscle or perform at a high level for training and workouts. Tony Horton, a fitness trainer and lifestyle expert based in Los Angeles, says plenty of athletes have switched to a plant-based diet and have been successful.
“With any diet, it’s about getting optimized nutrition,” says Horton, 62, who is the creator of the home exercise workout regimen P90X, and has had clients including Billy Idol, Annie Lennox, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Usher. “A plant-based diet can be useful as an athlete if you know how to get the proper nutrients.”
Proteins are essential for building muscle. The more proteins that the body stores — a process called protein synthesis — the larger the muscles will grow.
“Protein is made up of amino acids,” says Heidi Skolnik, a certified dietitian nutritionist in New York City who advocates for healthy plant proteins and has worked with various sports teams, Olympic competitors, professional cyclists, marathoners and college athletes. “Whether you eat steak or soy, the food is digested, and the amino acids are put to use for all sorts of functions in our body, including muscle building. It does not matter where the amino acids come from if you have enough of them.”
But according to Skolnik, a challenge some muscle builders may face is that many plant foods don’t provide all the amino acids that may be needed to start bulking up.
“There are some complete plant proteins — like soy, hemp and quinoa — but you would need a lot of quinoa to reach protein needs; and seitan, a wheat gluten,” she says. “But in general, by eating complementary plant protein foods, all amino acids will be present. A grain with a nut/legume is generally the way to ensure all proteins are provided.”
Skolnik adds that leucine is one of the essential amino acids that stimulates muscle protein synthesis. She says it has to be eaten for muscle growth and cannot be made.
“It is not as abundant in plant-based foods,” she says. “Leucine is not the only amino acid needed but is necessary to help push that protein synthesis to its max.”
Amino Acids are Essential
In addition to leucine, many plants have some, but not all, of the essential amino acids, according to Skolnik.
“Grains and cereals tend to be low in lysine and high in methionine, while legumes — peanuts, peas, dried beans, lentils — are high in lysine and low in methionine and cystine, while nuts and seeds are high in methionine and cystine,” she says. “So by eating a grain and a legume and a nut and seeds together, they complement each other. Think hummus on a whole grain pita with tahini, beans and rice, etc.”
Horton says for men who want to start building muscle while adhering to a plant-based diet, the best choices include hemp, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, nuts, beans, legumes, kale and spinach.
“Pressure cook them for better digestion,” he says. “You need to have foods that offer a wide array of amino acids.”
For playing sports, Horton says plant diets don’t hold back men from participating in them, and animal protein isn’t a requirement for athletes who want more muscle mass to play.
“Plant-based athletes can participate in all sports,” he says. “It’s pretty clear that different sports require different workloads, calorie intake and calorie utilization, so a plant-based bodybuilder or college running back needs more plant-based macros — proteins, carbs and fats — than an Olympic badminton player.”
He adds that any male athlete who switches to a plant-based diet has to figure out how much and how often to eat. The plant-based athlete might also have to drastically change his eating habits.
“A lot of this has to do with the type of sport you’re playing,” Horton says. “I think both older and younger men can benefit from a mostly plant-based diet. I, however, am not all plant-based. I think if you find the highest amount of vitamins and minerals, and find the food with the purest quality protein sources you’re good to go.”