Don’t slam the door just yet. This isn’t a plant-based sales pitch. You can read this article double fisting Slim-Jims with your fur coat draped over your leather chair; no one’s dealing out metaphorical slaps on the wrist or judging you through your laptop camera (although, you should probably cover that thing up). This is just a fitness writer examining a dietary practice, not a meat-less missionary herding all the carnivores to the couch to watch Cowspiracy. We’ll leave that to Will.i.am. With that said, Let’s get it started.
There’s a fun new game played amongst gymgoers and, well, anyone with an opinion, where we count the number of deficiencies in the vegan diet: protein! calcium! B12! But what gives the game its ironic charm is that the most outgoing participant is the dude eating microwaved chicken breast and white rice out of plastic Tupperware five times a day—”All gather as the kid with an education from Bodybuilding.com forums takes the podium!”
On the other side of this, there’s a game of similar irrelevance and annoyance played by plant-based eaters, where they’ll restore the guillotine because you ordered a California Roll, as if coming down on you with a sharp blade of judgement will unclog your arteries. And here comes the familiar irony: when he’s done with his lecture on health (suspiciously similar to a Miley Cyrus Instagram caption), he’ll return with dignity to his Beyond Burger topped with Soy Bacon and Vegan Cheese, and he’ll drool over the taste of plants.
See, whatever diet you subscribe to, people will find it their business to intrude. They’ll want to take a peek at your blood tests. They’ll insist they write your next shopping list. They’ll be annoying in the name of health. But I understand it. Being on the outside of a diet, viewing someone else’s, is easy for us. We can dive into the details without feeling like we are critiquing ourselves (Yes, human! Protect that ego at all costs!) And this exploration can be valuable—but only if we then take what we’ve learned and apply it to ourselves. So, let’s rifle through the kitchen of a vegan bodybuilder and see what we discover, rather than what we can discredit.
There’s no meat in the fridge. Your first thought is gross or we’ve been robbed! But protein, we’ll learn, isn’t confined to animal products. You’ll find it in nuts, beans, grains, seeds, lentils, tempeh, tofu, and even some cruciferous vegetables. Protein is actually one of the lesser elusive nutrients in any diet, let alone a diet followed by someone serious about muscle gain. And keep in mind, bodybuilders write their own script of serving size, making foods we once thought irrelevant to muscle building actually quiet valuable. I’m not saying that cauliflower is a protein powerhouse, but adding a full head of it to your meal, opposed to the suggested serving size (seemingly written for your rabbit), will tack on 10-15 grams of protein. This is the mindset most vegans adopt. They find small ways to manipulate moderate protein meals into high protein meals, similar to how someone following a traditional American diet has to find ways to sprinkle in doses of fiber to hit their goals.
The real challenge with protein as a bodybuilding vegan isn’t that it’s hard to find, rather that it tags along with other macronutrients. With a meat-eating diet, you have the luxury of being able to eat a chicken breast and get 30 grams of protein with (essentially) no other calories. If at the end of the day you’ve hit all your other macronutrient goals but are short on protein, you can just rip into that rotisserie chicken for a few minutes and solve the problem. With a vegan diet, however, protein often parallels other macros. To get 10 grams of protein from almonds you’ll also be getting a good amount of fat. To get 10 grams of protein from quinoa you’ll also be getting a good amount of carbs. To get 10 grams of protein in beans you’ll also be getting a good amount of fiber. This isn’t a bad thing, and to the average person it would even be seen as a good thing. After all, it’s hard to be mad at foods for being rich and diverse in nutrients. But for those with specific macro goals, it can be a small hurdle, or rather, a puzzle. Protein intake takes planning and foresight. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation at the end of the day where you need just protein. Instead, it’s in a vegan’s best interest to have their protein intake steadily move alongside their other macros.
The next thing you’ll notice is that there’s no milk in the fridge. No, this isn’t a “Mom, we’re out of milk!” situation. Instead of calcium intake being a byproduct of Cheerios tasting better wet, calcium intake is diversified throughout the diet, found in smaller amounts throughout multiple meals. Collard greens, poppy seeds, figs, nuts, and bok choy are cheap and easy ways to sneak more than enough calcium into any diet.
Vitamin D is another concern many people have when approaching a plant-based diet. While the top sources of the vitamin come from the sea, the dirt of the earth is a close second. There are an endless variety of mushrooms—many of which being packed with vitamin D. And if you want to embrace your inner hippy even further, you can lay your mushrooms out in the sun for a few hours to soak up even more vitamin D (yes, there’s actually credible science to this).
The next thing you’ll notice, and possibly of the most serious concern, is the lack of B12. And no matter how hard you look, you won’t find it. However, supplementing this vitamin isn’t something to be ashamed of. In reaching for fortified foods or taking a pill each morning, plant-based eaters are getting their B12 from the same source as animals do—from micro-organisms. However, instead of eating the animal to retrieve it, they take the path of supplementation. So before you yell at a vegan for taking a B12 capsule, take a hard look at your GNC receipt.
The more we move through the vegan kitchen the sillier the question seems: “What do vegans eat?” Nutrient rich foods are everywhere. The meat department might be the bodybuilder’s comfort zone, but look around, there are twenty-something isles. Sure, half of the shelves are stacked with Oreo flavors no one asked for, but you get the point. No matter your diet, don’t be afraid to take a new route to your section of the market. Keep looking around, not even with the intention to buy anything new, but just to be a little more aware and accepting of the endless ways people can reach their health goals. There are infinite combinations of foods that all add up to the same nutrient breakdown; there is more than one way to eat right.
While we discussed the value in examining our diets and others’, the end goal should be to trust our food and our health, not run a red pen through it for a lifetime. No script you follow will create the perfect human. You can type in any food in the world and there will be an article telling you 13 reasons why you need to eat it. Heck, fucking celery has found a way to be crowned a superfood. The fact is, foods have nutrients. We can’t realistically chase them all. Our goal shouldn’t be to hoard all the vitamins and minerals we can get our hands on. Instead, learn as much you can, but in time find a diet that you can trust will be enough for your body—and tune out the health hecklers yelling from the sidelines.