By Adam Bisek
Now that Arnold joined in on the vegan hysteria, bringing the Netflix plant-based documentary tally up another notch, I think we can safely say we have our next dietary fad in full swing. I don’t want to spend two-thousand words qualifying myself and my statements so I will do so briefly at the get-go; I have no dog in the fight when it comes to dietary choices, no allegiances, no biases, only the intent to give out factual, pragmatic, and implementable dietary and exercise information for those who read my material to better their health, aesthetic, and performance. Please rinse and repeat on that last sentence one time before moving on, I want to wipe clean the lens of confirmation bias that some may have.
Choosing to switch to a vegan diet can serve one to be healthier, perform better, and even improve their body composition. Again, a similar rinse and repeat process here with the last sentence before continuing. THE WORDS TO COME ARE MASSIVELY IMPORTANT: The reality is that achieving success in the areas of health, performance, and aesthetics is extremely relative to the dietary and lifestyle choices the individual partook in before changing their diet to a solely plant-based one. More often than not switching to a more restrictive dietary practice such as veganism and others like a ketogenic or carnivore (animal only) diet, will make achieving sustained success towards the improvement of those qualities more difficult. To briefly summarize, you can make it happen, it’s all relative, but comparatively speaking more difficult than employing other inclusive dietary practices like an omnivorous diet (plants and animals included). For those trying to “optimize” the aforementioned physical qualities, there are a handful of nutritional considerations to go over if choosing to go 100% plant-based, let’s dive in.
At the risk of not being overly descript, I want to make this article shorter, and easier to consume. The reality is that you can get all of the essential nutrients you need from plants, but there are a handful of those nutrients that you simply cannot get an adequate quantity and/or quality of through a 100% plant-based diet alone. And if we are talking about optimizing human form and function through one’s diet, we need to ensure dietary quantity and quality, no questions asked. Some of the nutrients on this list are more important to supplement or be conscientious of, some not as much, I will try and keep the former to the top:
Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin): A critical, water-soluble vitamin needed for red blood cell synthesis and health amongst other things. The main food sources of B12 are beef, eggs, tuna, and even some dairy, with no real plant-based sources. B12 can be orally supplemented or consumed in some fortified foods, but otherwise quite effectively administered via injection if needed. If choosing an orally consumed supplemental form to choose the Methylcobalamin form as some have issues with the methylation process, it’s better to just play it safe here.
Iron: A vital mineral in oxygen transport and energy metabolism. The most readily absorbed form of iron is Heme Iron, which is found in meat, poultry, and even fish. Other forms of iron can be found in various plant and animal products but simply are not as well absorbed as Heme Iron. Vitamin C will increase the absorption of Iron, so the addition of Vitamin C supplementation or foods containing Vitamin C can help in this instance.
Essential Amino Acids (EAA’s): The EAA’s are the 8-10 amino acids found in protein that cannot be synthesized in the human body, but rather need to be consumed: hence, “essential.” 100% plant-based diets not only have a propensity to fall much shorter in total protein consumption than their omnivorous counterparts but typically fall short in their sources being “complete:” which denotes a single-source of food containing all EAA’s.
“Incomplete” protein food sources would then be defined as ones that don’t have all EAA’s but can be combined with other incomplete food sources of complementary amino acid profiles to acquire all EAA’s in a sitting. As you could imagine these are called “complementary” protein sources, and common plant-based combinations are nuts/legumes paired with grains. While this can solve the EAA problem, it often brings along more carbohydrates, fat, and total calories which makes managing overall caloric intake a bit tougher when consuming the appropriate amount of protein.
The quantity, quality, and timing of your dietary protein intake matter quite a bit when speaking to physique development. However, if one is simply trying to manage health and, to a degree, athletic performance getting in adequate, not necessarily optimal protein and EAA’s within a day while managing calories is probably enough.
Essential Fatty Acids (Omega-3’s EPA/DHA): Essential Fatty Acids would be defined as the fatty acids needed to be consumed through the diet. Omega-3, essential fatty acids are integral for the health and integrity of all cells in the body. Alpha-linoleic Acid (ALA) is a plant-based Omega-3 fatty acid that can be converted to Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) in the body, but at a very low conversion rate, thus dietary consumption of DHA and EPA through quality seafood options (food and supplemental) is often advised. There are now vegan/vegetarian-friendly EPA/DHA supplemental sources made from algae, they may just be a bit more expensive and the research on them is limited at this time.
Zinc: Is important for the production and function of many enzymes, hormones, and protein structures in the body. Zinc can actually be found in a wide variety of food however beef trumps all others by a landslide. If you choose to supplement zinc a chelated form or forms such as zinc picolinate may be best.
Iodine: The main mineral when we are talking about thyroid function and overall metabolism, it’s very important. While iodized salt was historically the solution for deficiency, food sources are fish, seafood, and seaweed, and even more so cranberries (cranberry juice). Because the latter can be off-putting from a palatability standpoint for many and the food sources are a bit short iodine is a mineral that everyone, regardless of diet, may need to be cognizant of. It’s noted here because restricting half of your choices for ones that are not as palate friendly may very well necessitate Iodine’s supplementation.
Vitamin D: Massively important for bone health and also helps regulate calcium and phosphorus in the body. Yes, sunshine may be the best form, but many people lack on getting enough. Fortified milk/dairy, and seafood are fantastic food sources, yet still many need to supplement. Supplemental vitamin D is important for most people, and increasingly important for those restricting their overall food groups, such as vegans.
Calcium: While calcium can be found in many food sources, I am listing it here because of its massive interrelationship with Vitamin D, and the fact that limiting half of the high calcium-containing forms of food in one’s diet will increase the propensity for deficiency. Calcium is quite integral when it comes to the health and integrity of teeth, bone, blood clotting, and of course muscle contraction.
As you can see this isn’t a long, drawn-out list of essential nutrients. I could have made it much longer, but these were the main considerations, and you can certainly supplement to support their optimization. There are numerous other vitamins and minerals that are contained in both plant and animal sources, and by default withdrawing one-half of the sources of said micronutrients will decrease the opportunity for one to meet their daily adequacy. The overarching theme is that you simply need to be much more conscientious and measured if you choose to restrict whole food groups that provide important nutrients for overall health, growth, and recovery. Some issues like consuming optimal protein quantity and quality while managing appropriate calories are tougher to overcome than say supplementing with Vitamin D and Calcium. To reiterate, you can make it happen, it’s just tougher to do so than if your diet was more inclusive.
If you are someone who is serious about making a change to or managing your best physique the choice to go vegan will be more detrimental to your goals than if you were strictly looking to improve or maintain health or athletic performance. Optimal protein quantity, quality, and even timing, along with caloric management become massively more important than the two latter physical qualities. You more than likely are hindering your ability to reach your fullest potential, but you can certainly still lose body fat and gain muscle on a vegan diet.
With an optimal physique in mind you will absolutely need to track your food and be very cognizant of your protein timing and complementary protein sources to employ a “Protein Pacing Strategy” (see my article “Making Your Around-the-Workout Nutrition Worth it”). This will maximize muscle protein synthesis throughout the day for maximal muscle development or maintenance during a dieting phase. Because many plant-based protein sources are much more carbohydrate- and/or fat-containing than their animal-based counterparts per their protein quantity, you will need to be very mindful of total caloric load per meal otherwise things will start adding up fast. You will also have to be aware of your complementary protein sources on a per meal basis, not simply throughout the day to employ the aforementioned protein pacing strategy. If you were to strictly be focused on health, this would not be as much of an issue, but to maintain the optimal physique muscle growth and maintenance is crucial.
For the physique-oriented transitioning vegan, supplementation is a must. The aforementioned vitamins and minerals are critical to supplement (i.e. B12, Iron, Zinc, EPA/DHA, Iodine, Zinc, Vit D3, Calcium). However, protein and EAAs are equally, if not more important. You can easily find good vegan-based protein powders (typically rice and pea combinations) as well as vegan-friendly fermented EAA powders. In my experience with Vegan clients, these two are lifesavers and can massively impact recovery from training. Getting back to the main sentiment, you can make a 100% plant-based approach work, you just have to be mindful of these considerations to best serve your training and aesthetic.
I do realize that the choice to become vegan can be one of altruism and/or environmental awareness. Those topics are out of the scope of this article and my professional area of expertise, I have spoken solely on how to best serve the health of you, the human. One might say a happier, healthier human is a better one for the planet, but I digress. If you choose to switch to a 100% plant-based diet or know someone making the choice, you just need to be informed on what things to be mindful of to ensure your health, performance, and body composition don’t take a hit. And if your physique is your number one priority, you may want to reconsider the transition altogether.