It is astonishing how much vegans and meat eaters agree. Seriously.
When the word "vegan" drops in almost any conversation, tempers flare on both sides of the debate, and neither side is perfect. When it comes to whether or not you support animal slaughter, moral judgments start flowing thick and fast: You're either a brainless hippie who is ignorant of science and facts, or you're a heartless killer who is ignorant of science and facts.
The only people who seem to think that health isn't dependent on your meat intake are the scientists.
"There are principles at stake that are higher than your choice of eating meat or not," says John Berardi, an omnivorous nutrition scientist and the founder of Precision Nutrition. But the cornerstones of building muscle, shredding your abs, and maintaining overall health are practically identical whether or not you're a vegan. It barely matters.
The principles of getting ripped, he explains, are to focus on minimally processed foods, limit refined sugars, eat foods that are high in nutrients for their calorie value, and make sure you're getting protein and omega-3 fats.
"If you put someone in front of me who wants to know how to get ripped as a vegan, well, you do it the same as you would with a meat eater," he says. "It's just a particular, single choice in this whole constellation of choices you're making. It's small! There's way more important stuff here."
Culture Versus Science
There are a ton of reasons why somebody might decide to ditch meat: they might be concerned about animals (valid!), they worry about red meat and health (understandable!), they want to better steward the environment (makes sense!).
A vegan conversion is not always a result of a detailed understanding of nutrition science, and it's human nature to believe information that supports your preconceived beliefs. In the case of veganism, that often takes the form of believing that humans can't digest meat, that all meat is unhealthy, and that you can build a lot of muscle with a low protein intake.
None of that is true. But omnivores are just as guilty when they dismiss vegans who believe it's possible to be ripped, muscular, and healthy without eating meat.
It's fair to say that many, though not all, meat eaters have some unresolved emotions about the way a living animal makes its way to their plate. (Name one person who is comfortable watching footage of the slaughterhouses that produce their food.) Again, we're speaking in generalizations, but folks who aren't totally at peace with the choices they've made tend to lash out when those choices are scrutinized by others, which could be a reason why omnivores are so quick to demonize vegan diets.
One of their popular misconceptions is the idea that vegan proteins are inferior because of they tend to be "incomplete," which means they don't contain quite as many essential amino acids as animal protein. That's not always true—soy and quinoa, for instance, contain the full spectrum—and even when it is, it's easy to combine vegan proteins to form a complete protein. It's as simple as combining rice and beans, hummus and pita, or peanut butter and bread. But you don't even need all amino acids in one meal, you just need them spread out over your day, and it'll happen on its own if you just eat a varied diet.
"As long as you eat a mix of different protein sources, you'll get all the amino acids you need," Berardi says. "No need for mealtime protein algebra to make sure you're getting all your amino acids."
That a vegan diet is usually pretty high in carbs when compared to their nemesis, the Paleo diet, also earns it plenty of scorn. But while a lot of carbs could be detrimental to the average, sedentary American, there's not a shadow of a doubt that they're very important for active people and bodybuilders, who are typically advised to eat at least twice as much carbohydrate as protein when trying to build muscle.
The notion that we're "designed" to eat meat is another common fallacy that doesn't hold much water when you realize that there are countless vegans who live long, healthy lives. "None of us really have the opportunity to ask 'the designer' about this," adds Berardi, and those kinds of questions are loaded and unscientific anyway. For our purposes, the question we should be asking is, what evidence is there that removing animal products from a diet will negatively affect a person's ability to gain muscle and lose fat?
Photo: Derek Tresize
The Tree-Sized Man
This is Derek Tresize. (Yes, that's his real name.) He's a vegan.
A pro bodybuilder and the owner of Root Force Personal Training, Tresize has won three bodybuilding contests, most notably in men's physique in the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation. When his 5'11" figure walks on stage, he weighs 186 pounds and runs at three percent body fat. That's veins-on-your-abs lean.
You might think that to get that ripped without meat, you'd need a completely unconventional amount of calories, carbs, protein, and fat, or a topsy-turvy workout schedule designed especially for vegans. He doesn't. In fact, he sounds exactly like Berardi.
"Your muscle cells don't know they're vegan," he says. "I mean, they know what kind of nutrients they're getting, but they're gonna respond to the exact same kind of stimuli as a meat eater. No matter what, we're all still human, we're all still working with human bodies here, so you need to train the big compound exercises, train all the muscle groups, and then recover adequately."
Tresize does add that he and his clients have found that their recovery between workouts improves after the vegan conversion, which he attributes to the enormous amount of nutritious, inflammation-fighting vegetables and legumes that he prescribes, but he doesn't follow a different training regime from the average bodybuilder. The trick is nailing the diet.
The Really Obvious Protein Question
Both Berardi and Tresize agree: Whether you're working out to gain muscle or lose fat, the best results will follow if you consume one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight and make up the rest of your calories with carbohydrates and fat. (Both also feel better when their carbs are on the higher side and fats are under a hundred grams per day, but this varies individually and requires some self-experimentation.)
"People will read this and call me an idiot," Berardi says, speaking from his experience in the vegan community. "No, you don't need that much to stay alive or avoid deficiency. But if you want to have a muscular body that's also lean, you want more protein than the average person. And whether you're vegan or not, it's easy to get that nowadays through vegan sources."
Building the Vegan Plate
"If you become a vegan just by exclusion, by taking meat out of your diet, now there's this big hole on your plate," says Berardi. "What are you filling it with?"
Tresize has his answer. When bulking up, he consumes about 4,500 calories per day, which isn't an unusual amount of food for someone chasing a physique like his. With protein at 180 grams and fat at around 100 grams, that means about 800 grams of carbs. That's not difficult to hit if you're consuming plenty of beans and greens. Legumes, for instance, are about two parts protein to five parts carbs, and practically all foods contain some amount of protein—even broccoli has about a 1:2 ratio of protein to carbs.
The exercise gets tough when he's dieting down. The typical bodybuilder "bulks" for a few months to gain as much muscle as possible, then spends a couple of months cutting weight to lose the extra fat he or she probably gained along the way. At the end of his contest prep, Tresize consumes about 500 calories below his maintenance level each day—any more and he risks losing muscle. That means he devours about 2500 calories per day. That's roughly 160 to 180 grams of protein, 300 grams of carbs, and 50 to 60 grams of fat. Here's what his day looks like. Your individual calorie requirements may vary, but if you've managed to put on a few pounds of muscle, this is a pretty typical, if rough, outline of what a 2,500 calorie per day cut would look like for you, too.
A small bowl of oatmeal.
A scoop of plant-based protein powder and soy milk.
A mixing bowl-sized salad with leafy greens, tomatoes, cucumber, onion, a block of seared and spiced tofu and some low-fat vinaigrette.
For dessert, banana ice cream: That's frozen banana puréed with a little cinnamon and peanut butter.
A bean shake, one of his trademarks. Tresize mixes about two cups of mild-tasting beans, like cannellini or navy, with soy milk, flax meal, frozen greens, one or two scoops of protein powder, and plenty of berries. ("Berries have almost no calories and they're packed with antioxidants," he adds.)
Legumes with rice or sweet potatoes. "In pre-contest mode, it'll be heavy on greens and beans and very light on the rice and sweet potato, and the portions are a lot smaller," he adds.
For supplements, he only takes a daily dose of Vitamin D and B12, which he correctly notes is a good practice for anybody, regardless of their meat intake.
Naturally, Berardi prescribes the exact same thing for vegan fat loss: greens, beans, grains, protein, and fruit, in that order. And for the record, neither of the two are concerned about the ballyhooed link between soy and estrogen.
"I would say to avoid eating it as your only protein source or eating it every single day in really high amounts," Berardi says. "But you shouldn't do that with anything."
The Final Piece of the Puzzle
If you're a vegan and you're thinking about getting ripped, these instructions might seem simple enough, but it's worth remembering there are practical skills that are involved as well.
How will you sustain your effort over time? How will you eat so that in six weeks you're not sick of the same foods every day? Are you going to put the time into preparing your food? Do you know how to constructively deal with hunger?
Berardi's advicee: Buy a cookbook.
Tresize's advice: Fit the occasional treat into your calories.
Shredding fat is a numbers game. In the end, it has nothing to do with meat.