While a vegan or vegetarian diet can be a healthy choice for some, it may also present certain limitations, which can make it difficult to truly optimize your physique if you are training hard.
Often times when individuals switch from a regular omnivorous diet to a plant-based one, finding ways to ensure optimal intake of the vital nutrients, particularly protein, can be confusing and even difficult at times.
Of course, the most obvious nutritient-rich foods missing are meat, dairy, eggs and fish.
All of these make up the key protein sources that boost fat loss, physique enhancement and athletic performance, while providing other key nutrients such as Iron, Vitamins and Creatine.
While I’m certainly not opposed to vegan or vegetarian diets, extreme precision, and often supplementation, is required in order to optimize fat loss, muscle growth or to support athletic performance when following these diets.
In this article, I’ll break down the science and key points you need to be applying if you are considering following, or already use a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Focus On Protein First (It’s Key For Fat Loss)
Not eating enough protein is the number one issue that most people struggle with, when on a plant-based diet and trying to lose weight or enhance their physique.
Research shows that, especially for active individuals looking to optimize physique, a protein intake of roughly 1 gram per pound of body weight is probably acceptable and recommended (1).
Protein provides amino acids, which allow for the synthesis of new proteins helping you add lean muscle tone.
However what many people don’t realize is protein also helps boost your metabolism, reduces hunger, optimizes hormones and, in short, helps you lose more body fat!
As a follower of a plant-based diet, you’ll need to pay close attention to the total amount of complete protein you are consuming.
Remember, the research proven intake is around 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. That means you probably need 150g per day or thereabouts.
Sadly, this is extremely hard to achieve for most people, even when eating meat. Here’s how you can do your best to optimize your protein intake as vegan / vegetarian.
How To Optimize Your Diet & Fix Possible Deficiencies
When following a plant-based diet, you’ll need to ensure that you consume a sufficient variety of protein sources to receive all of the necessary amino acids.
In the world of protein, there are complete and incomplete protein sources.
Complete protein sources are the most important as they provide all of the necessary essential (meaning you need to consume them from your diet) amino acids that can be used to make new proteins.
As a vegetarian, things are actually fairly simple as you can consume complete protein sources with ease by eating foods such as eggs, milk, cheeses and yogurt. As a vegan however, these sources are not available to you, making things a bit more difficult (2, 3).
When adhering to a vegan diet, ensuring proper intake of complete proteins will be essential for progress. Some sources you can consume are as follows:
- Various types of beans and rice
- Chickpeas or hummus
- Sprouted grains
- Wide range of vegetables
While you don’t necessarily need to have a complete amino acid profile at each meal, you’ll want to ensure that you have a wide variety of protein sources each day to ensure that you are consuming enough of each essential amino acid, every day.
In addition to these sources, you will undoubtedly need vegan protein supplements to boost your daily intake if you want to optimize fat loss, muscle growth or your physique.
Consume Healthy Fats
With the elimination of animal sources, ensuring proper healthy fat intake will be essential for health and for both hormone and physique optimization (5, 6, 7).
For meat eaters, animal sources naturally provide ample fat throughout the day.
As a vegetarian, you can consume enough fat by using whole fat dairy, regularly consuming cheeses, cooking with olive oil, eating nuts/seeds, butter and consuming whole eggs.
When following a vegan diet, you can ensure proper fat intake by regularly consuming olive oils, flaxseed oil and increasing your nut and seed intake as they often provide higher amounts of fat.
Track Your Daily Food Intake
In addition to ensuring the proper types of food sources, you’ll need to ensure that you are consuming enough, or restricting enough, based on your primary goal.
In other words, regardless of the diet you use, the laws of energy balance and calorie intake still apply. If you want to lose fat, you will still need to cut down and keep calories below your calorie expenditure. Contrastingly, if you want to gain weight, you’ll need to slightly over eat compared to what you burn.
Keep in mind that just because you aren’t consuming meat doesn’t mean you can’t gain weight. In fact, it may be quite easy to do so when a large portion of your dietary intake comes from carbohydrate sources combined with a lower protein intake.
I strongly suggest that you track your intake to ensure that you are ingesting enough of all three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate and fat) throughout the day in order to reach your body composition goals.
Exercise Like Everyone Else
There should be no reason for you to exercise differently to anyone else, just because you are on a plant-based diet, as long as you are consuming enough protein and total calories, .
If you focus on optimizing protein intake then you can still build a good physique; however, it takes careful planning.
In some ways, exercise will be even more important if you are vegan/vegetarian as you may naturally lose more muscle due to an habitually lower protein intake.
Recommended Supplements For Vegetarians And Vegans
While some people are scared of supplements, they actually play an important role to optimize inadequacies in one’s diet.
For vegetarians and vegans, these become even more important due to the fact that they are eliminating multiple food groups and therefore, also nutrients.
To maximize health, performance and fat loss, these vegetarian or vegan specific supplements can help.
- Iron supplements
- Protein powder (whey for vegetarians or vegan alternatives such as pea)
- BCAA or EAA to provide key amino acids when you exercise
- Omega 3
How to Optimize Your Physique As A Vegan Or Vegetarian
Abstaining from meat or animal products altogether can present some challenges when it comes to optimizing one’s physique.
However, it can be achieved, by using the tips in this guide and a laser focus on daily protein intake, with protein supplements along the way to support your intake.
In summary, as a vegan or vegetarian, ensure that you are consuming adequate amounts of protein and fat, while keeping track of your total calories. This way you can be certain that you are consuming the appropriate amount of calories and macronutrients which will be essential for you to reach your ultimate goal.
You can download our 7 Day Carb Cycling Vegan and Vegetarian Meal plans here.
- Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 20.
- Craig, W. J., & Mangels, A. R. (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(7), 1266-1282.
- Piccoli, G. B., Clari, R., Vigotti, F. N., Leone, F., Attini, R., Cabiddu, G., … & Pani, A. (2015). Vegan–vegetarian diets in pregnancy: danger or panacea? A systematic narrative review. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 122(5), 623-633.
- Messina, V., & Mangels, A. R. (2001). Considerations in planning vegan diets: Children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 101(6), 661-669.
- Wu, A. H., Pike, M. C., & Stram, D. O. (1999). Meta-analysis: dietary fat intake, serum estrogen levels, and the risk of breast cancer. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 91(6), 529-534.
- Nagata, C., Nagao, Y., Shibuya, C., Kashiki, Y., & Shimizu, H. (2005). Fat intake is associated with serum estrogen and androgen concentrations in postmenopausal Japanese women. The Journal of nutrition, 135(12), 2862-2865.
- Reed, M. J., Cheng, R. W., Simmonds, M., Richmond, W., & James, V. H. T. (1987). Dietary lipids: an additional regulator of plasma levels of sex hormone binding globulin. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 64(5), 1083-1085.