Staying Strong on a Vegan Diet: Protein and Muscles

We all know that it’s easy to meet the protein RDA on a vegan diet. But what constitutes “enough protein” remains a topic of some debate among experts.

Among its other functions, protein protects bone health which may in part be due to its effects on muscle mass. Unfortunately, a decline in muscle mass over the years is more common than not. It’s driven to some extent by hormones, but diet and lifestyle clearly have an impact on this, too.

Although weight-training is the most important way to build and preserve muscle, it gets a little bit harder to bulk up as the years pass–probably because protein is used less efficiently to rebuild muscle after exercise when you’re older. A new report from the International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF) suggests that older adults may need as much as 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, compared to the 0.8 grams that the RDAs specify. (For us non-metric-ly inclined Americans, 1.0 to 1.2 per kilogram translates to 0.45 to 0.54 grams per pound of body weight.)

Vegans may need to aim for the upper end of this range since protein digestion can be slightly lower from grains and legumes. It’s not especially difficult to meet those needs, but for some vegans it might require a little bit of a shift in food choices.

On the other hand, we vegans may have a distinct advantage, because protein is just one part of the muscle-preserving picture. The IOF report noted that acid-producing diets—those that are high in meat (and also grains)—can stimulate muscle breakdown. Because vegans typically replace meat with protein-rich legumes, our diets are likely to be less acid-producing. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables, especially those high in potassium, also prevents blood from becoming too acidic. And, it’s possible that the antioxidants in all plant foods—fruits and veggies especially, but also legumes—help reduce muscle loss according to the IOF.

This is kind of similar to the situation with calcium. Vegans may need to put a little more effort toward meeting calcium needs, but there is a decent tradeoff regarding nutrition. The plant foods that provide calcium also happen to provide many other compounds that are good for bones and that are not found in milk.

The issues that become important in later years—muscle and bone loss—can be avoided by good lifestyle choices in your younger years. Maintaining muscle mass is way easier than rebuilding it after it’s been lost. So, to keep muscles strong:

  • Do regular weight training. It’s the single most important thing you can do to build and hang on to muscle.
  • Emphasize legumes in your diet—beans, soyfoods and peanuts. In Vegan for Life, we encouraged at least 3 servings per day. I typically eat 4 to 5 servings. I know it sounds like a lot, but for me it translates to one cup of soyfoods (some combo of tofu, soymilk, and tempeh usually), one cup of beans, and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter.  I tend to favor legumes over grains.
  • The IOF suggested that vitamin D and possibly vitamin B12 are important for muscle health. Make sure you take at least 600 IUs of vitamin D every day and around 25 micrograms of B12. (You do this anyway, right?)
  • Eats lots of fruits and vegetables. They keep blood alkaline, provide antioxidants, and are also good sources of folate which may be important for strong muscles.
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24 Responses to Staying Strong on a Vegan Diet: Protein and Muscles

  1. Lindsay Loves Veggies January 28, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

    Thanks for this great reminder to get plenty of protein! Weight training is hard for me to stick with, but I’ve been hearing for years how important it is for muscle and bone health, and that it can even help increase the amount of mitochondria in the body. I’m definitely going to try to put in more of an effort for eating protein and weight training.

  2. Dreena Burton January 28, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    This is so informative, and more than the usual “eat these plant foods that are high I protein”. The acid connection is really interesting. I too eat lots of beans, we don’t go a day without them, and they can be used in so many ways they are one of the most versatile plant foods! Thanks for this post, Ginny, will be sharing!

  3. Dreena Burton January 28, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

    *in protein… Typing from iPad! ;)

  4. Alexis Rheinwald-Jones, NP January 28, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    Thank you so much for this post, Ginny. This is something I come across from time to time in my practice, and have also dealt with quite a lot in my own life as an athletic vegan. It’s nice to see something other than the tired old vegan fallback argument that “you don’t really need that much protein.” It’s true that, in the US, our concept of our protein “needs” is skewed thanks to the influence of the food industry on the government agencies that set nutritional guidelines. But it’s also true that we still need to pay attention to our protein needs. I’ve always needed to be on the higher end of the protein spectrum to feel good, and have encouraged my vegan patients to listen to their bodies’ needs on this issue as well. Thanks for propagating good, sound info about veganism–I refer people to your blog all the time!

  5. Christy Morgan January 28, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    Thank you SO much for addressing this. So many vegan/plant-based advocates quickly tout you can get enough protein on a plant-based diet, but what about athletes, growing kids and older adults? I know that once I started working out and upping my protein my body began to build muscle like it never has before and I’m stronger than ever. I make sure and have a protein shake everyday to up the protein.

    As women we get trapped into this notion that if we weight train we are going to get big and bulky. It’s not true unless you work toward that goal. Lifting weights is so important for bone health and higher metabolism; all woman should lift :)

  6. Bertrand Russell January 29, 2013 at 7:53 am #

    Once again, thanks so much for being honest and above-board, Ginny, rather than giving the general vegan spin of “don’t worry about protein … broccoli has enough protein … protein causes osteoporosis …” etc.

    One thing Jack Norris mentions is that humans evolved to find high-protein foods especially satisfying, and thus when people go veg, they often find themselves not as satisfied in meals. Stressing high-protein vegan foods is the wise way to go, rather than bashing protein itself.

    Thanks again.

  7. Matt Ruscigno January 29, 2013 at 1:15 pm #

    Awesome, Ginny!
    And people can always watch our videos to see vegan athletes at work: http://truelovehealth.com/dayinthelife/

  8. Karen January 30, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    When they refer to “older adults” what age are they speaking of?

    • Ginny Messina February 4, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

      They didn’t say in this particular article. Generally, RDAs start to rise at age 51 and then, for some nutrients, again at age 70.

      • Karen February 6, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

        Okay,I’m not there yet!

  9. Dawud Khuluq February 3, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    I tend to favor “resistance training” over “weight training” as “weight” tends to conjure the notion of lifting heavy objects, dumbbells and barbells, in people’s minds. Which causes them to think this is the only way to do strength training. Bodyweight is perfectly good for this, and pretty easy to do in a busy schedule. Find a good progressive calisthenics program and do your push ups, pull ups, squats and leg raises and get strong and stay strong. And have fun.

    • Barbarayoga March 16, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

      I disagree with Khuluq. I work with 50 plus, seniors, and women, many of whom are facing bone and muscle loss. Few women have the upper body strength for pull-ups or push-ups. Beginning with light hand and leg weights and slowly moving up in weight is the only realistic way to begin. Yoga squats ( chair pose) and other yoga poses ( up down dogs) are the gentlest form of resistance training but also pose some problems. A combination of the two makes far more sense, with strength training as the single most common form of exercise for seniors and the safest. This is why it is commonly encouraged by physical therapists.

  10. JimPhD February 6, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

    With all due respect, there is not enough information here for anyone to feel confident about what is being proposed. It is not true that it is “easy to get the protein needed from a vegan diet” for example. It isn’t as simple as you put it here. It is about the essential amino acids (and fatty acids) which are not commonly present in plant material. This is not new knowledge. So, when considering vegan, please be sure to get the correct amounts of the essentials since your body cannot make them. Fatty acids, such as linoleic in the correct absorbable form are not generally found much in plants. Research has proven that the type of linoleic acid found in flax and hemp are not readily absorbed or used by our bodies. This is just one of the many examples of things that you need to look at to understand what you propose to explain here. I just wanted to chime in because it is something that makes me wonder why you would choose to avoid anything that has animal based protein, especially when there are many lean choices. It is cliche, but also true, that animal based proteins are “complete” and much more iron-rich. By the way, another important scientific fact that you should consider is that in every way in our anatomy and physiology, we are omnivores. This is not difficult to figure out, so I do not understand why many people seem to think it is better to be vegan or vegetarian.

    • Ginny Messina February 7, 2013 at 8:10 am #

      Wow, Jim–lots of confusion here about nutrients! All of the essential amino acids are found in all grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and vegetables. It’s important to eat a variety of these foods and to make sure you are consuming legumes. But it is indeed pretty easy to meet essential amino acid needs on a vegan diet.

      And I think you’re confusing linoleic acid (an omega-6 fat) with alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fat) –the two essential fatty acids. Linoleic acid–the one you think is lacking in vegan diets–is actually abundant in plant foods and most vegans get more than enough. In fact, getting too much of this fat is the problem, not a lack of it. Alpha-linolenic acid, on the other hand, is found in only a few plant foods like hempseed, flaxseed, and walnuts. So vegans need to be sure to eat a good source of this fat. But it is well absorbed and utilized from plant foods. You may be have heard that it’s not always efficiently converted to the long chain omega-3 fats and that’s true. Whether or not it matters isn’t really known, but vegans can easily take a supplement of DHA and EPA from algae–which is where fish get their omegas.

      And yes, our anatomy suggests that we can do well on a wide range of diets. Fortunately, that includes a vegan diet. And the reason it is “better” to be a vegan is because, as long as we don’t need animal foods–and we don’t–then it’s wrong to raise animals for food.

    • Margaret February 10, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

      Jim, the reason I am looking to cut animal proteins out of my diet is due to the science behind animal proteins and cancer growth. Look at the China Study and the documentary “Forks over Knives.” Very good information. Also, I have a family member who completely reversed his diabetes by going on a plant based diet. He was insulin dependent. Figuring out how to get some extra protein is worth it to me if I can avoid the top two causes of death in the US (heart disease and cancer). Hopefully I can figure out a good balance so I can go completely plant based at some point. Wish me luck :)

    • AnotherPhD February 22, 2013 at 10:58 am #

      It is not clear that “in every way” we are omnivores. In fact, there are at least four important aspects of our anatomy that suggest we are not.
      First, we have a very long digestive tract. Although it is not as long as cows or horses, it is much closer to the length of herbivores than to that of carnivores. The short intestinal tract of a carnivore allows for food to move quickly through their systems to avoid rotting and the resulting diseases (like colon cancer).
      Second, we have small flat teeth. We don’t have long sharp canines that can tear flesh. We often find it difficult and tiresome to chew meat. It is common for kids who are first introduced to meat to chew and chew then just spit out what feels like it can’t be chewed. Adults have been socialized to swallow the material that won’t break down, which leads to the third point.
      Third, we have a mouth full of alkaline-based saliva and the enzyme ptyalin, both of which carnivores lack. It is what allows us to break down the complex carbohydrates found in plant foods.
      Fourth, we have stomach acid that is approximately 20 times weaker than that of carnivores, which makes it very difficult for our stomachs to digest non-plant based foods with ease.

      • Suzanne February 23, 2013 at 8:49 am #

        The science does show that we are omnivores, and it shows that we humans are CULTURAL omnivores. We use our intelligence and our tools to preprocess our food and to catch our prey, which more than makes up for the weakness of our jaws and teeth. So we can crack coconuts and mongongos (can’t do that with our teeth!), or pound fibrous tubers into a pulp and sieve out the starch to make cassava bread, or cut meat into little pieces with a knife and fork. We can even make soy milk and soy burgers, which will never ever be found growing wild in some tropical jungle and never make any part of the diet of any other mammal whether before or after weaning. We can make green smoothies with highpowered blenders and cups of ice!

        However, without our fantastic suite of omnivore adaptations that allow us to digest carbohydrates, proteins,and fats with astounding ease – the thing we have trouble digesting is fibre, which is the mainstay of the true herbivore – culture wouldn’t be of all that much use prior to high technology. Other great apes, notably our closest relative the chimpanzee, also use tools and cooperation. Male chimpanzees band together to hunt, but lacking the teeth of a lion, resort to literally ripping their (usually still living) prey apart with their hands. Female chimpanzees make spears to skewer sleeping bushbabies. Chimpanzees fish for termites with grass stems, crack nuts, make digging sticks to extract tubers, and soak wads of leaves in water sitting in tree hollows, which is then squeezed into their mouths. We humans are the outliers in tool and culture use as we are in terms of primate morphology and brain size.

        Carnivores have a short digestive tract and very small colon not to prevent rotting, but because their food is so highly digestible and nutrient dense that it can be efficiently processed in a short space of time. The colon is the place where fibre and other resistant carbohydrates are fermented (some people think of this as rotting) and where water and minerals are absorbed. Given that true obligate carnivores don’t eat resistant carbohydrates, they don’t need any space for rotting them down, and the colon is small. The stomach acid not only breaks down the meat but dissolves much of the bone eaten by carnivores. Smaller prey can be eaten whole or nearly so, as those of us with cats know only too well from watching and hearing our cats crunch a mouse, skull and all. Lions and wolves end up eating chunks of bone too, while the liking of dogs for bones is legendary. These need to be dissolved or at least heavily reduced in size if they are not to rip holes in the gut.

        True herbivores, on the other hand, always have a huge fermentation chamber. Sheep have a rumen, colobine monkeys have a forestomach that acts like a rumen, horses have an enormous caecum. Humans have none of these.

        Among the great apes, chimpanzees and humans are demonstrably omnivorous, with chimpanzees ingesting small amounts of meat and large amounts of fruit and humans ingesting (from early in our evolution) large amounts of animal source foods, and our guts show amazing differences both in total proportion to body size, and in proportions within the gut. Humans have guts 1/3 smaller in proportion to body size than would be expected for a primate of our size, while the chimpanzee gut falls well within the range. Humans have a very much elongated small intestine, caecum reduced to a mere funnel opening into the colon, and greatly reduced colon with reduced sacculations, in comparison to the separate large caecum, large heavily sacculated colon, and much shorter small intestine of the chimpanzee. The gorilla and orangutan have guts much like that of the chimpanzee, which indicates that this is the ancestral condition, and that the human version is the derived state.

        Note also that the other great apes have A shaped torsos, which make room for that enormous large intestine and gut volume, while humans have H shaped torsos because our gut is much smaller overall and our large intestine much less bulky.

        The science shows humans evolved as omnivores whose diets were heavily based on plant material, but that fairly early on (we split from the human-chimpanzee common ancestor somewhere between 7 and 5 million years ago) we started concentrating on highly digestible and nutrient dense animal source foods while chimpanzees specialized in fruit. The meat-eating signals show up in fossil teeth and bones through isotopes. Bone beds of butchered animals with human made butchery tools show conclusively that hunting was a major part of our economy for at least 2 million years. Cave art too shows the importance of hunting.

        This doesn’t mean that somebody who wants, for whatever reason, to be vegan can’t be radiantly healthy, as long as
        1. s/he has appropriate biochemistry
        2. due attention is paid to getting the essential nutrients in optimal amounts and proportions
        3. s/he is sensitive and responsive to his/her body’s signals
        4. s/he is prepared to intelligently supplement his/her diet with essential minerals/vitamins in amounts optimal for his/her own physiology.
        5. s/he is willing to put in the time to learn something about nutrition
        6. s/he eschews junk food and eats a diet high in whole foods appropriately prepared, e.g. phytates are denatured.

        This is something that science really does support.

        • Carnap March 12, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

          The actual science supports very little of what you’re saying, to address a few of the claims you are making:

          1.) All animals can digests the fats and protein found in animal food, even cows. That is why factory farms are able to feed cows rendered animal protein products to increase the protein content of their grain based feed. So this isn’t any sort of unique adaptation, you have to look far beyond mere digestibility to see what what a particular animal is adapted towards. The unique adaptations of humans all center around plant foods, not animal foods. For example we are very efficient at digesting starches, far better than most other animals even other primates.

          2.) The science doesn’t show that our ancestors started to depend on animal foods “early on”, nor does it show that we ever became specialized meat eaters. Humans are very poorly adapted for the consumption of meat, we don’t have adaptations to catch it, eat it, nor even swallow it…and nor did our ancestors. In fact, our early hominid ancestors were considerably smaller than modern humans. It is only with fairly advanced technology, including the use of fire, that our ancestors could have consumed meat and those technologies weren’t available “early on”, instead somewhere between 1~2 million years.

          3.) The fossil evidence by no means shows that meat eating was a major part of human culture for the last 2 million years. There are just of handful of fossils that provide evidence that some hominid species was cutting at an animal carcass. Was it our ancestors? What exactly where they doing? How often did it occur? None of these questions are known.

          4.) The human digestive system is not a “derived state” in compared to other primates, instead its rather similar. The great ape with the most distinctive digestive system is the Gorilla, not humans. It makes no sense to focus on one metric (the size of the gut) to determine digestive morphology between species. The total size of the human gut is less, but this doesn’t uniquely point to meat eating. It can be explained by an increased reliance on predigested (e.g., cooked) foods.

          There is no question that human ancestors started to eat meat at some point, but that doesn’t mean humans are well adapted for meat consumption. To determine this, you’d have to look at our biology. Anybody that claims that humans are adapted towards meat consumption should be pointing to actual adaptations instead of stories how they think human ancestors ate.

          Your list, 1-6, applies to anybody.

  11. nero February 7, 2013 at 7:43 am #

    Excellent post! Thanks for the information and links! I just passed it to a friend inquiring about protein..

  12. hannah February 8, 2013 at 6:17 pm #

    Thanks for a fascinating post! I’d be really interested to hear more of your thoughts on an alkalising vs acid forming diets, when I looked into it, alkalising diets seem to demonise a lot of foods I thought were healthy (whole grains, mushrooms, peanuts, even pistachios and fermented foods like tempeh, miso, sauerkraut etc)
    I wonder if there’s any logic to it – I thought the body had it’s own systems to regulate pH without needing dietary changes?
    Maybe something you could consider for another post?
    Thanks again!
    hannah x

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