By Nanda Lakhwani, Claudia Chiu and Iain Salvador
Meat, not plants, builds muscle — or so the argument goes. Ask your friends what they think of vegan bodybuilders, and it’s likely they will bring up the same questions: where do they get their protein? What do they eat? Are they getting enough protein? The bottom line is that when faced with conflicting nutrition advice, most people stick to what they are familiar with; the healthy eating pyramid, for example.
Eating well is a struggle not because nutrition is rocket science, but because in this information-rich age, it’s hard to know which voices are worth listening to. And when your entire world revolves around mastering eating to achieve the perfect body, knowing where to turn to for reliable sources can be even more of a challenge.
Navigating the crowded world of nutrition is tricky enough for the average Joe, so just imagine how a vegan bodybuilder would fare, considering traditional notions of how to achieve the strongman stature or perfect athleticism for women.
Jarrad Davenport, a personal trainer operating at the Northern Beaches, engages in what he describes as ‘functional bodybuilding’, a form of strength training that focuses on wellness and health without sacrificing aesthetics. He previously held aspirations to compete in bodybuilding, but gradually shifted towards more health-oriented training after conducting his own research on veganism.
Jarrad said that adopting a vegan diet put him on the path of unlearning perceptions he had on nutrition and bodybuilding. For most of his young life, he was surrounded by popular culture and men’s magazines that advocated a very specific road to a rippling physique.
“The advertising is: if you wanna be a big man, you have a big steak. If you want strong bones, then you get milk into you” Jarrad said. “The champions of the sport have that aesthetic, have that size. So when I was young and impressionable, I thought that was the way to go.”
Some fitness professionals remain adamant that protein derived from a plant-based diet just doesn’t cut it for bodybuilders looking to make it big in competitions. There is more of an emphasis on the ability of a vegan diet to help you lose weight rather than keep it.
“People, especially back then, doubted if you could do it. And they still do now,” said Jarrad, who became a vegan 18 years ago. “But I actually think on the contrary it’s better to be vegan for bodybuilding”.
Nawaf Alghanem, a competitive vegan bodybuilder from Melbourne also disagrees with the idea that veganism is at odds with bodybuilding. He turned vegan a year ago after three years of extensive research.
“I don’t see why eating meat would give you an advantage. Bodybuilding is about eating the right number of calories, macros and timing of your meals.”
In some competitive bodybuilding circles, the idea of a vegan bodybuilder is tantamount to being a guaranteed steroid cheat.
For Chris Rowe, founder of Sydney Vegan Strength, his time on the strongman circuit was coloured by scepticism.
“People have actually asked me or hinted that they thought that I was taking performance-enhancing substances,” he explained. “That I couldn’t possibly be that big and be vegan…therefore I must cheat in some way.”
Both Chris and Nawaf strongly argue from experience that it is not only perfectly plausible to build muscle on a plant-based diet, but it also provides them with fitness benefits.
“When I’m working out, I’ll do a set and I’m almost ready to go into the next set straight away because the high water content of fruits and veggies,” said Jarrad. “It just assists in recovery.”
The anecdotal argument goes that bodybuilders can get the most nutrients out of their food and recover faster between periods of exercise because of the high fibre content in a plant-based diet. However, much of the research into diet and recovery has yet to be done.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell conducted research into dietary protein and muscle building by estimating total protein intake of nearly 3000 participants using a food-frequency questionnaire in 2002-2005. Published last year in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, findings revealed that both plant and animal protein build muscle equally well.
However, University of Sydney Research Fellow Lachlan Mitchell comments on the likelihood of individuals misunderstanding conclusions drawn from single study findings. He specifically cites how mainstream media can take a well-thought-out scientific study, taking findings out of context and conflating them to different agendas.
For all the momentum that vegan bodybuilding is gaining, there are still large gaps in scientific literature addressing how both veganism and bodybuilding intersect. One of the biggest problems with research into diet and muscle building is conducting it on a scale big enough to draw solid conclusions from.
“If you find someone who can recruit hundreds of bodybuilders to take part in a study, I’d shake their hand because it is a very difficult cohort to recruit from,” said Lachlan.
According to Lachlan, bodybuilders have been using fitness and training strategies for decades, which only in recent years has evidence come out to show that they actually work.
“One of the difficulties that scientists have is they can publish really impactful research at the forefront of science but you need to be able to translate research into recommendations that the layperson can understand and implement, and that’s not always done,” Lachlan said.
“Science will always be one step behind”.