When you picture muscular men (you know, like the Spartans in the movie 300, with bulging Superman chests, and Schwarzenegger biceps) sitting down to eat dinner, what’s on their plate? Steak, or seitan? And why do we call men “beefcakes” instead of “tofucakes”?
Needless to say, in American society meat and muscularity are two peas in a pod. This stretches back all the way to our stereotype of hunter gatherer societies, where strong manly men are typecast as hunting animals and consuming their meat. In popular culture, the word “carnivore” summons images of mighty t-rexes and lions, while “herbivore” conjures thoughts of docile deer. Sure, there are buff herbivores like gorillas, elephants, and buffalo, but generally we think of herbivores as the weak prey of the stronger carnivores.
This, in combination with decades of misinformation, and advertising campaigns that broadcast meat as manly, have perpetuated the “more meat=more muscle” myth, and created a stereotype that vegans and vegetarians are weak, frail, and effeminate. Even though there are a large number of world-class veg athletes, such as runner Carl Lewis, the winner of 9 Olympic gold medals, social pressure for athletes to eat meat remains dominant.
My Journey to Meat-Free Muscle
When people learn I’m vegan, a common response is, “Really? But you’re muscular!” One person said it with such surprise that you would’ve thought I’d announced I was a velociraptor.
Like most boys, my childhood idols were figures of uber muscularity. You know, Batman and the badass warriors in martial arts films. As a teenager my interest in combat sports got serious, and I began boxing and grappling, and developed a love for strength training. I weighed just 120 lbs at the age of 14, but within two years had put on 30 lbs of muscle. All without meat. Although I wasn’t even vegetarian at the time, my body just felt cleaner eating healthy plant-based foods, so I consumed little meat or dairy.
Because of the macho culture of sports, my coach and peers always gave me crap for it, though. They said that consuming tofu would make me grow breasts, that my bones would break if I didn’t drink milk, and plenty of other nonsense. Even though I was gaining more muscle, and becoming stronger than those eating chicken and milk for every meal, they would pass it off with, “Oh, well, you just have good genes and work ethic…but if you ate meat you would be even stronger.”
When I went vegan at 20, I experienced the sharpest strength increase in my life. In just a couple years I gained 20 more lbs of lean muscle, and with new found energy and faster recovery times made rapid progress in gymnastics strength training, and rock climbing. Most striking was the drop in body fat: it was suddenly much easier to stay lean. Not surprising since my body was now fueled 100% by nutrient dense plant foods. I’m certainly not the only one to notice a big boost in strength and energy, either; the number of vegetarian and vegan athletes is constantly growing, with famous players from the NBA, NFL, boxing, and mixed martial arts scenes challenging the stereotype that you need meat to be strong and muscular.
Where Do You Get Your Protein?
One of the infamous questions vegans get is, “Where do you get your protein?” While it’s true that meat, dairy, and eggs are high quality sources of protein, they aren’t the only ones. Whether you’re an athlete, bodybuilder, or just walk to and from work everyday, you can get enough protein to fit your lifestyle on a vegan diet just as easily as you can with meat.
But before we talk about the tons of high-protein plant foods out there, let’s take a step back and talk about protein itself. You probably know that proteins are the building blocks of the body, but what exactly does it mean when a nutrition label says a food has 10 grams of protein? Is 10 grams from peanut butter the same as 10 grams from rice?
Simply put, proteins are chains of amino acids, and there are two major types: essential, and non-essential. Your body can make non-essential amino acids on its own, but essential amino acids such as lysine, tryptophan, and valine come from your diet. There is nothing magical about the protein in meat; every single amino acid that is in animal products can also be found in abundance in plant-based foods. So it stands to reason that vegetarians and vegans would gain muscle mass just the same as those on a high meat diet.
But How Do Plant Foods Stand Up Against Meat?
One common argument is that meats are complete proteins (meaning they have all the essential amino acids), whereas many vegetarian foods are not, and that meat is therefore better for building muscle. But not only are there numerous complete vegetarian proteins, such as quinoa, buckwheat, soy, hemp seeds, amaranth, chia, and spirulina, when it comes down to it it doesn’t really matter if you’re eating a complete protein or not. Different foods have varying amounts of the amino acids, and just by eating a balanced diet you’ll get every amino acid you need. There is a longstanding myth that you need to combine proteins in the same meal (such as eating rice and beans for lunch), and so many people think that vegetarians and vegans have to carefully plan their protein consumption. Which seems like a serious pain in the butt. But this idea has long been debunked in the field of nutritional science; you don’t need to fret over combining protein every time you eat. Just by eating a balanced diet of plant foods you’ll get every amino acid your body needs. Its effortless.
How Much Protein Do You Need, Anyway?
The truth is, for a lot of people worrying about protein is as unnecessary as worrying about the sky falling. On average we consume a lot more protein than we need. Unless you’re a strength athlete, or a bodybuilder, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDI) for protein is pretty small. Men 19-70+ years old need just 56g a day, and women need 46g. To put that in perspective, my recipe for tempeh kebabs is 58g, more than most men need in an entire day, all in one meal!
If you’re a bodybuilder or strength athlete consuming twice or even triple that amount, then it takes some more effort and planning, but this is true of omnivores just as much as vegans. Drinking a protein shake with plant-based protein in it isn’t any more difficult than drinking one with whey. Great choices for vegan protein powders include brown rice and pea protein, spirulina, and hemp. These can easily be found at most grocery stores, or online. Soy protein isolate is definitely the cheapest, but there is always controversy around it, so its up to you. My protein powder of choice is brown rice + pea protein isolate, but I have also used soy for years with no issues.
For solid foods, there are protein powerhouses like tofu, seitan, and tempeh, as well as thousands of recipes you can make with grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and veggies. Not only will you get more than enough protein, you’ll get way more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy phytochemicals than you would with meat and dairy. People eat meat, thinking they’ll become as strong as the bull…but bulls are vegan.