While it is a myth that vegans don’t get the proper nutrition they need from a plant-based diet, bodybuilding is an extraordinarily athletic activity that requires extraordinary nutrition.
Just as the average meat eater’s diet isn’t enough to sustain a meat-eating bodybuilder, the average vegan diet is likely not enough to sustain a vegan bodybuilder.
Many vegan bodybuilders embrace supplements as a way of ensuring their muscles, brains, and vital organs are getting the nutrition, vitamins, and minerals they need to function properly and healthfully under the strain of regular bodybuilding workouts.
Supplements and muscle building go hand in hand. In this context, when we talk about supplements we talk about legal building blocks of nutrition such as protein, vitamins, creatine and other naturally occurring elements of the human diet. These supplemental nutritional elements may be synthetic or they can be sourced naturally. Often, naturally-sourced supplements are not vegan. For example, omega-3 fatty acid supplements often include—or are made entirely of—fish oil. As with any vegan products you shop for, you’ll need to be sure that your vegan bodybuilding supplements don’t include gelatin and other non-vegan additives. Always read your labels and be vigilant.
So why go through this rigmarole to take supplements in the first place? Well, when you’re working out at the level required of a bodybuilder, your body needs a lot of nutrition to survive. You’ll need to both fuel your body for workouts and provide recovery nutrition after workouts so your muscles can actually grow and your vital organs can recover from the strain you just put them through. Many bodybuilders find that supplements are necessary for their balance of calorie intake restriction and nutritional needs. If you’re having trouble staying nourished without blowing your calorie allowance, supplements may be the answer you’ve been looking for.
Should You Go Supplement Free?
While supplements can be useful, they aren’t a magic bullet and they’re also somewhat controversial. There’s a growing trend among vegans to swear off supplements and focus only on consuming foods that provide complete nutrition on their own. Because so many vegans are focused on health, ethical lifestyles, and avoiding harmful substances like GMOs and synthetic chemicals, it’s somewhat natural that at least some of the members of the vegan bodybuilding community would want to avoid supplements.
Much of the criticism against supplements focuses on the highly-processed nature of these substances and the fact that they’re not very well regulated for safety. If you aren’t careful about where you source your vegan bodybuilding supplements, you could end up ingesting something you don’t want to be ingesting. Many vegan bodybuilders find supplements to be too sketchy and risky to trifle with, but if you can find a reputable, trustworthy source you may still find them worthwhile.
Whether or not you take supplements should be your decision alone. There are good arguments to be made on both sides. If you’re trying to train as a bodybuilder without supplements and you’re just not getting the results you want, it may be time to see whether taking some supplements would help. Ultimately, it’s the results you see and the way you feel about how you got there that matters.
Another important thing to keep in mind is your budget. The fact is that supplements can be expensive and there is a commercialized element to the sale and marketing of supplements that rightfully causes many vegans to get suspicious. Again, the choice of whether or not to take any or all of these supplements is yours alone. If you think the expense is worthwhile and are happy with the results you get with supplements (or are unhappy with your results WITHOUT supplements), you can try out a supplement regimen and see how it works for you.
Supplements for Vegan Athletes
So, now that you’ve got the basic facts, it’s time to dig in and find out what kind of supplements are available to vegans so you can decide whether you want to take them and which ones might be best for you.
Protein supplements are one of the most common among bodybuilders of any kind, whether they’re meat eaters, vegetarians, or vegans. While it is possible to focus on high-quality, nutrient-dense vegan proteins, many vegan bodybuilders find vegan protein powders to be a more convenient solution than balancing and optimizing each and every meal. You can consume protein powder supplements in a variety of different ways and they’re an easy way to make sure you stick to a plant-based diet while getting the fuel your body needs.
Protein is important not only for fueling your body to power through a workout but also for muscle recovery and mass building after the workout is over. Inadequate protein can not only hamper your ability to build muscle, it can also leave you feeling hungry, which can lead to bad dietary choices made in the heat of the moment. If you’re fighting constant hunger and associated food cravings, feeling sluggish, and not seeing results after serious workouts, try adding some protein supplements to your routine and see if that helps.
Amino acids are chemical compounds that form the building blocks of protein. Taking amino acid supplements can be helpful in ensuring you get enough protein and that your body can actually use the protein you do consume to repair your muscles and give you energy. Individual amino acids include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamine, glutamic acid, glycine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, proline, serine, threonine, tryptophan, tyrosine, and valine. This is a complex category of chemistry and biology, but as far as supplements are concerned, there are a few amino acids you need to know about.
First up, are the nine classified as “essential” amino acids: Histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. These nine are essential because the body doesn’t generate them, so you have to consume them to get enough of them. In this context, essential doesn’t mean “important” per se, so don’t misinterpret what that terminology is all about. It just means that you may need to supplement them to be sure you’re getting all the amino acids you need to synthesize protein and be as healthy as possible as a bodybuilder. There are vegan dietary sources of each of these amino acids, but taking supplements can help too. You can find a variety of different capsule and powder options for supplementing essential amino acids and some of these products are even marketed as “athletic aminos” or similar.
Glutamine isn’t an essential amino acid; the body does make its own glutamine. However, the average human body isn’t calibrated to provide for the needs of a bodybuilder. If you’re really pushing your body to the limit, you may not be producing enough natural glutamine to keep up. For this reason, many bodybuilders choose to take glutamine supplements. Beans and raw veggies like broccoli are good natural sources of glutamine, but if you’re already eating lots of those foods and feeling like you aren’t recovering well from workouts, adding glutamine to your supplement regimen can help. We’ll cover glutamine in more detail in its own article.
BCAAs, also known as branched-chain amino acids, are another common amino acid supplement. Because they have to do with serotonin, a neurotransmitter related to mood and energy, BCAAs are seen as an important source of energy for workouts. In theory, they can help you workout harder and longer. We’ll cover BCAAs in more detail in their own article.
As a naturally occurring nitrogenous organic acid, creatine is actually an organic compound that seems to get marketed as some sort of miracle drug. The jury’s still out about whether creatine is safe for long-term use, but there is evidence to support that it does indeed help with the generation of high volumes of muscle mass. Creatine is said to help athletes run faster, build bigger muscles and even boost brain function. It is naturally occurring, but creatine’s most common dietary origin is in vertebrates, meaning vegans don’t really get much of it in their diets.
That, of course, means that supplementation may be in order. Vegan bodybuilders who are feeling less bulky than they’d like to be based on how much they work out often take it. Some vegans are cautious and take creatine supplements only when they’re gearing up for a competition since, as mentioned above, there haven’t been any longitudinal studies to assess whether taking creatine on a regular basis over a long period of time can do any harm to the body. There are specially formulated vegan creatine supplements available and given the scientific support for its efficacy in building muscle mass and generally making you an all-around better athlete, this may be one to try. We’ll go into more detail about creatine in a separate article.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are helpful for fat loss and inflammation response, which makes them excellent elements of a bodybuilder’s diet. Known as “good fats,” omega-3 fatty acids are readily available to vegans in avocados and nuts. However, if you are being particularly careful about your fat intake, you may want to avoid eating those foods in high enough quantities to actually get the omega-3s you need. Though most omega-3 supplements are sourced from animal products, there are vegan-friendly sources available. These typically source from seaweed and other plants to deliver the fatty acids you need.
Vitamins may be the easiest supplements for some vegan bodybuilders to swallow (pardon the pun) because they’re a common and widely studied nutritional building block. Taking a multivitamin can be helpful, but bodybuilders, in particular, may want to focus on two specific types of vitamins: D vitamins and those in the B complex.
Vitamin D is a fascinating little bit of nutritional science. This is a naturally occurring fat-soluble vitamin and researchers have credited it with everything from fighting depression to assisting the gut in processing calcium and other essential nutrients. It can also be an energizing part of your diet that helps you lose fat faster and build stronger bones to support your bodybuilding activities. Because dairy products are the most common dietary source of vitamin D, many vegans don’t get enough in their diets. However, you can absorb vitamin D naturally if you spend enough time in the sun, though darker skin tends to not benefit as much from this side effect of sun exposure. Plus, for all that vitamin D, you’re opening yourself up to the risk of skin cancer. To play it safe, you may want to just take a vitamin D supplement to gain all its benefits.
B-complex vitamins are commonly taken as a supplement by bodybuilders and they may have particular benefit for vegans. The B-complex vitamins are a group of vitamins classified under the B category. These are water-soluble vitamins, which means your body excretes them in your urine if you take more than the body can use at one time, so keep that in mind if you’re considering taking a mega dose. You could be wasting vitamins if you take more than you need. These vitamins facilitate metabolic functions in the body, which includes how your cells process the energy you take in as food. That’s an especially important job for a bodybuilder’s cells to perform, so taking these vitamins could be the key to making the most of your diet and getting as much energy and nutrition as possible from the calories you consume.
Vitamin B-12 is one of the B-complex vitamins that gets mentioned quite often for vegans and vegetarians of all kinds. Like several of the other nutrients on this list, B-12 is most commonly found in meat and other animal-sourced foods. This means that most vegans don’t get enough B-12 in their diets naturally, so taking a B-complex vitamin could be a good idea even if you do try to optimize your nutrition in every other way. The fact that these vitamins are water-soluble actually makes it safe to take on a regular basis too; vitamin toxicity isn’t a concern when your body is able to excrete what you don’t use.