Since most of us hitting it hard in the gym aren’t dying of a disease, I can say that most vegan bodybuilding supplements are a waste of money.
In fact, sports supplements in general don’t work at all, and the ones that do are more for people with acute deficiencies and/or serious health problems.
Despite the extremely effective marketing engine of sports supplement companies, vegan bodybuilding supplements do not produce dramatic gains in strength* or size. Diet pills can be somewhat effective, but they’re toxic and especially hard on your central nervous system. The good news is that vegan bodybuilding and plant-based fitness require virtually zero supplements in order to achieve great results.
*Creatine monohydrate is one of the only supplements that consistently demonstrate some effectiveness.
Bodybuilding supplements can indeed have results, but it’s not what you think.
It’s primarily the placebo effect (a positive influence based solely on the power of suggestion). This effect is essentially why anyone would use them on an ongoing basis.
I’m not judging anyone here who uses them; I was that guy who looked at the magazine ads for over two decades and figured I too could look like Arnold if I took the supplements being advertised.
One day, I read a compelling article that claimed supplements were basically a scam, so I decided I would try a little experiment to get at the truth. I removed all supplementation from my diet for 30 days (extended to 60 days) and carefully observed as I kept everything else the same (diet, training, sleep, etc.).
After this experiment, it became clear to me that I’ve wasted a ridiculous amount of money over the years. Here’s a modest estimate, since there have been months I spent $300-$400 easy: $200 x 12 months x 20 years = $48,000.
The “supplements” I take now are primarily food-based (e.g. mct oil powder, krill oil, plant-based protein powder, etc.), and they’re for health benefits and not performance enhancement.
Something else to consider is that new research suggests consuming too many vitamins and supplements can potentially increase the risk of cancer:
Study co-author Tim Byers, MD, MPH explained his research at the American Association for Cancer Research’s Annual Meeting at the university. He presented evidence that over-the-counter supplements increase cancer risk if taken in excess.
Something Else to Consider: We do not know who is in charge.
The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, passed by Congress in 1994, keeps the Food and Drug Administration at arm’s length from the supplement industry. A supplement manufacturer need only provide the FDA with a “reasonable expectation of safety” and no proof whatsoever of efficacy.
To make things worse, if you do a little research, you will find that, time after time, tests show that supplements are fake or misleading to begin with.
Bodybuilding supplements that have intrinsic beneficial value tend to be the “food” supplements that are derived from actual food, versus being synthetically produced in a laboratory. Protein powders can fall into this beneficial category if they are derived from food products (e.g. plant-based, egg-based, whey, etc.), rather than the result of chemical production.
A well-planned, whole food, plant-based diet should supply you with virtually everything you need to actualize thriving health and the optimal conditions to build muscle. When done right, there’s virtually no need for supplements, and after over 20 years of personal application and research, I have come to believe that they are generally a waste of money.
Why don’t we see more people telling the truth about supplements?
The problem is, you have fitness websites giving you “well-informed” advice when they also happen to sell supplements, or they’re affiliates of supplement companies, in which they receive commissions via tracking codes embedded in the links.
The nutritional supplement industry pulls in billions of dollars each year, and the Nutritional Business Journal expects it to top $60 billion by 2021. Manufacturing and marketing supplements is an enormous business, so there are ulterior motives at play in the fitness media across the board.
To be clear, we don’t sell vegan bodybuilding supplements on this website, nor are we affiliated with any supplement company. The only thing I would consider offering in the future is plant-based protein powder.
That being said, vegetarian bodybuilders should consider the importance of supplements that provide nutrients vegans tend to have deficiencies of. Not supplying your body with essential nutrients can hinder your gym performance and also put your body at risk of developing long-term health conditions.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: The scientific literature is complicated and often with contradictory results based on usage, dosage, population, and context. Please take this into consideration when reading information on any website that addresses the topics of health and fitness, and especially our Guide to Vegan Bodybuilding Supplements.
Most Common Vegan Deficiencies
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
Essential Vitamins and Nutrients for Vegetarians
The American Dietetic Association identified the key nutrients for vegetarians as protein, n-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, and vitamins D and B12. According to the ADA’s 2009 published study, supplements or fortified foods can provide useful amounts of important nutrients.
- Vitamin B12 – According to Dr. Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, bacteria are responsible for producing vitamin B12, and plants and animals only get their vitamin B12 when contaminated by this strand of bacteria. A study entitled, “How Prevalent Is Vitamin B(12) Deficiency Among Vegetarians?” found that B12 deficiency rates were indeed high in vegetarians, with the severity of the deficiency being dependent on the length of time a person had adhered to their diet, as well as the type of vegetarian diet they followed.The study concluded that vegetarians develop B12 deficiency regardless of their demographics, age, or type of vegetarianism or veganism, and stated that all vegetarians should take preventative measures to ensure their B12 intake is adequate.
Basically, plant-eaters need to supplement B12*.
*Contrary to the hype of supplement ads, spirulina is not considered to be a reliable source of Vitamin B12. Spirulina supplements contain predominantly pseudovitamin B12, which is biologically inactive in humans. The American Dietetic Association has declared that spirulina cannot be counted on as a reliable source of active vitamin B12.
Vegetarian athletes in particular need vitamin B12 to boost physical energy, adrenal hormone production, mental clarity, and immune system functioning. Those who spend a great deal of time in the gym may notice a decrease in energy and motivation when their B12 levels are low. Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf, MD, who practices in Iowa, refers to vitamin B12 as “the energy vitamin” because it is critical for so many bodily functions, including energy production, DNA synthesis, nerve communication, and blood formation.
- Iodine – A study was conducted by J Clin Endocrinol Metab on 78 vegetarians and 63 vegans in the Boston area to determine the frequency of iodine deficiencies. It also asked if vegetarians were at greater risk of developing an iodine deficiency. After conducting their experiment, the researchers found that vegetarians in the United States do receive enough iodine in their diets, but vegans usually do not.Iodine helps boost the metabolism and thyroid hormone output, so it is important to ensure levels are adequate. Marine vegetables, like seaweed and nori, are excellent sources of natural plant-based iodine. Interestingly enough, a major contributor to iodine deficiency in vegans is the exclusion of processed foods, and ironically, it is those with healthy, non-processed diets who are at greater risk. Fortunately, table salt is an acceptable vegan source of iodine. Regular consumption of sea weed can lead to dangerously high levels of iodine.
- Zinc – Although zinc is prevalent in plant-based diets, it is not easily absorbed from plant foods in the body. Zinc is essential for immune system functioning and DNA stabilization. A 2009 medical study involving vegetarians indicated a high risk of zinc deficiency and suggested that supplementation may be necessary. Another study found that zinc supplements were actually more effective at reducing zinc deficiencies than zinc and micronutrient rich foods.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Omega-3s come in two main types: EPA/DHA and ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). The former are the most potent but naturally occur in many animal foods like fish, so vegetarians sometimes struggle to get enough of these high-quality Omega 3s in their diet. Although nuts and seeds are a common meatless source of ALA Omega-3s, vegetarian bodybuilders and athletes can take krill oil or algae-based nutritional supplements in order to get their sufficient supply.
Support for this advice can be found by reviewing a study entitled “Bioavailability and Potential Uses of Vegetarian Sources of Omega-3 Fatty Acids: A Review of the Literature.” The study found that algae supplements can lead to a significant increase in DHA, while nut and seed oils were not converted at all.
Therefore, vegetarians who only obtain Omega-3s from nut and seed oils should take the algae supplement. Nut and seed oils contain high amounts of ALA Omega-3s, and the body can convert ALA to EPA and DHA, but the conversion doesn’t happen readily or efficiently. To ensure high amounts of EPA and DHA, daily supplementation is ideal.
Essential Vitamins and Nutrients for Bodybuilders
Not surprisingly, the necessary nutrients for bodybuilders and hardcore athletes differ from the needs of the average sedentary adult. Veggie or not, these are the nutrients most important for bodybuilding:
- Healthy fats
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- B vitamins
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Alpha Lipoic Acid
Vegan Bodybuilding Supplements for Greater Performance
- Branched Chain Amino Acid – Vegan BCAA can help protect your muscles from the catabolic effects from expressing a low-calorie diet and can help you gain mass. According to a 2010 study published in Med Science Sports Exercise, BCAA reduces muscle soreness after sessions of intense exercise. Try taking five to 10 grams of BCAA with breakfast, five to 10 grams during and after training, and five to 10 grams before bed.
- Creatine – Creatine supplementation is very well studied and probably the most consistently useful/efficacious supplement for bodybuilding and athletic performance. It is also particularly important for vegetarians/vegans, as the only dietary source is meat. We can make some ourselves, but supplementation clearly helps with increasing lean body mass and performance gains.According to a 2008 study published in the International Study of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, researchers found that baseline muscle creatine stores are lower in vegetarian athletes (lacto-ovo and vegan) than in non-vegetarian athletes. They suggest that supplementing creatine monohydrate can augment athletes’ adaptations to resistance training by facilitating changes in lean muscle mass and increasing muscle fiber area, muscle strength, and resistance to fatigue.
Vegan Health offers the following dosing advice: “It is not recommended to take 20 g of creatine past an initial loading phase, which is typically one week or less. After that, 5 g per day or less is recommended.” I’m going to chime in and say that for larger bodybuilders, you can increase that amount to 10-15 grams per day. If your stomach starts to get upset, you should scale it back until it is no longer an issue.
Bodybuilding.com recommends “5 grams taken daily for at least 28 days to maximize creatine stores.”
- Rhodiola Rosea – In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, researchers found that healthy young adults who consumed rhodiola rosea an hour before exercise significantly increased their endurance capacity. The supplement is most commonly found in a standardized extract that contains rosavins and salidrosides in a 3:1 ratio.Research subjects have reported feeling less fatigued after taking only 50 mg of rhodiola rosea each day, though the average dose is between 200 mg and 400 mg. That said, I personally prefer coffee over Rhodiola Rosea because I can sleep better on it, and organic coffee has a great safety profile and is loaded with healthy stuff.
- Flax Seed Powder (Omega-3 Fatty Acids) – Most vegan bodybuilders can maintain adequate levels of omega-3s by consuming plants, but some people don’t self-produce optimal levels of omega-3 fatty acids because of genetic differences. Athletes need omega-3s to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.In their publication, “Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete,” Dr. Joel Fuhrman and Deana M. Ferreri suggest taking an algae-based vegan supplement. Ground flax has fantastic fiber profile, and can be easier on the digestive system. ALA can come from other things, too, like walnuts and chia seeds. Extraction of oils from seeds can be done well (expeller-pressed) or not so well (solvent-based extraction that leaves trace quantities of solvents in the oil). You can also take Omega-3 Fatty Acids when you wake up, after training, and before bed.
- Curcumin – According to a 2013 medical study published in the Journal of Pain Research, 400 mg of curcumin was comparable to taking 2,000 grams of Tylenol. Curcumin has proven effective for the type of pain, soreness, and muscle strains you feel after starting or ramping up a new fitness routine. Another potentially positive feature to look at is curcumin improves tendon healing in rats. Because curcumin is poorly absorbed on its own, you’ll need to take a supplement with black pepper extract, phytosomes with soy lecithin, or a curcumin nanoparticle product to reap the full benefits of this nutrient. More importantly, it is fat-soluble so you will have much better absorption if taken with a fatty meal.
- Nori – A survey of naturally occurring and high Vitamin B12-containing plant-derived food sources showed that nori is the most suitable Vitamin B12 source for vegetarians presently available.
- Vitamin D – Most Americans get vitamin D through sunshine, fortified milk, and fortified margarine. The only significant, natural sources of vitamin D in foods are fatty fish (e.g. cod liver oil, mackerel, salmon, sardines), eggs (if chickens have been fed vitamin D), and mushrooms (if treated with UV rays). The vegan diet contains little, if any, vitamin D without fortified foods or supplements. Sun exposure may not be the best way to get it either, based on the obvious risks of increasing chances of skin cancer and people’s inability to expose themselves to consistent exposure to the sun (unless you live in Southern California!).
Athletes need vitamin D to build and repair strong bones, and to support intense levels of exercise. Those with a vitamin D deficiency often experience bone pain and muscle weakness. The best way to measure if you have this deficiency is by taking a 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test. Healthy people have levels of 30 ng/mL to 74 ng/ML, and levels below this range indicate a deficiency.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the average person needs between 1,000 and 2,000 IU of vitamin D per day from the sun and diet. I’m on the fence about supplementation here because there is sufficient conflicting research about this topic. For instance, according to John McDougall, MD, if you’re taking Vitamin D it can cause more harm:
“There is no level of vitamin D discovered by a blood test that would cause me as a medical doctor to prescribe vitamin D supplements to one of my patients.”
Other relevant supplements for general health/bodybuilding:
- cocoa powder/ chocolate (good for blood pressure and skin)
- l-citruline (vasodilator, slight performance increases)
- sour cherry (much like turmeric but tastier)
- blueberries / other anthocyanin rich foods (awesome for zillions of reason)
- nitrates (from leafy greens and beets – improved performance)
- melatonin (importance of sleep – strong effect on body composition).
- caffeine /coffee (body composition, appetite suppression)
- ephedrine (part of the ECA stack – very well studied and has a clear synergy with caffeine for body composition).
- sunscreen (skin elasticity makes muscles look better – look at recent pictures of Arnold, and you will see the consequence of long-term sun exposure).
“Super Supplements” You Probably Never Need
- Arginine – Arginine is claimed to be a nitric-oxide booster that promotes muscle growth. However, several studies prove that is not the case. Researchers who published their study in Nutrition & Metabolism found that acute L-arginine supplementation does not increase nitric oxide in healthy subjects.According to the findings, “early evidence suggests that L-arginine supplementation may help treat individuals with atherosclerosis risk factors, such as hypercholesterolemia, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, kidney failure, hyperhomocysteinemia, smoking, and aging – all of which are conditions that are associated with reduced NO biosynthesis.” Unless you’re an athlete who suffers from one of these conditions, you may not gain much from arginine supplementation.These results are an echo to a previous study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, which made the following conclusion about arginine: “There is currently little scientific evidence available to support such claims promoting an increase in the functional capacity of healthy, athletic participants. Further proof of Arginine’s lack of efficacy was found in a study published in IJSNEM, in which seven days of supplementation with Arginine AAKG failed to change the blood pressure or heart flow rate in a group of physically active men. It also failed to influence nitric oxide levels in the blood or ADMA.”Yet another study from the Journal of Nutrition and Biochemistry revealed that nitric oxide biomarkers were unaffected in judo athletes who took L-Arginine supplements for three days. They did find an increase in arginine levels in the blood, but this did not affect the nitric oxide levels or athletic performance. Overall, L-Arginine may be one of the most overrated supplements that bodybuilders can take.
- Glutamine – Glutamine has been promoted as a muscle-building agent, claimed to be useful if you have difficulty getting enough plant-based protein in your diet to fuel your workouts. However, research has shown that the liver and intestines consume a significant portion of glutamine you take, letting only some through to your muscle tissues. A 2005 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that, although glutamine may stimulate muscle glycogen synthesis, there is no advantage over the ingestion of adequate carbohydrates alone.Moreover, recent studies about glutamine and weightlifting indicate that neither short-term nor long-term glutamine supplementation has an ergogenic effect on muscle mass or strength performance. Researchers observed that glutamine supplementation one hour prior to testing had no effect on resistance exercise to fatigue, nor did six weeks of glutamine supplementation during resistance training increase lean muscle mass or strength.In addition, a 2007 study in the “Current Sports Medicine Report” found glutamine to be a non-essential amino acid for improving strength or power.The “Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism” found that glutamine supplementation with an increase in carbohydrate intake did not enhance anabolism in young, healthy adult males. Overall, this is considered to be another highly overrated supplement for bodybuilders, not any more beneficial for muscle building than regularly ingesting carbohydrates. While glutamine is an essential amino acid, most people get enough of it through their diet, and supplementing will not affect overall fitness or power.
- Ribose – Ribose is a pentose carbohydrate that has been played up by the fitness industry to be the next big thing. According to many fitness websites, ribose is the next creatine. Supposedly, the supplement replenishes ATP, enhances anaerobic training, and aids in both muscle recovery and growth. Unfortunately, according to many studies conducted by numerous sources, ribose has repeatedly failed at improving any type of training performance.Specifically, the study entitled “Effects of Ribose as an Ergogenic Aid” in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found absolutely no difference in performance when ribose was taken orally versus when it was not taken at all.Another study published at Bioenergy found that ribose supplementation in athletes did not yield a statistically significant increase in the mean or peak power in men who had extensive training in anaerobic cycling. This study was conducted to prove that ribose does have an effect on an athlete’s strength and power, with the actual result that it has no effect.Yet another Bioenergy study examined the effects of ribose supplementation and resistance changes in muscular strength and endurance. This study found no significant changes between groups that took ribose and those that did not take the supplements. Overall, ribose is considered an unreliable supplement that isn’t necessary for vegetarian or omnivore athletes to take. No matter how much the fitness industry touts its benefits, there is no scientific evidence that it can affect a person’s overall athletic performance.
- Taurine – True that vegetarians don’t get any in their diets, but humans can make taurine (unlike some other creatures, such as cats). I know there are hundreds of advertisements and articles that support taurine supplementation, but I side on the research that suggests it has very little effect for us.
Key Nutrients We Should Get From Food
- Iron – The average vegetarian diet actually contains more iron than a vegan diet. For vegetarians, the issue here lies in absorption. Plant foods, including grains and legumes, contain inhibitors and absorption-enhancing nutrients like vitamin C and carotenes. Some studies have found decreased iron stores in vegetarians, but none have shown increased rates of iron deficiency anemia or decreased hemoglobin concentrations. The best sources of iron are leafy greens like spinach, Swiss chard, broccoli rabe, bok choy, and asparagus.Iron supplementation should be considered by women with severe anemia or heavy menstrual bleeding. To learn more about getting enough iron on a vegetarian diet, check out the article by Matthew Ruscigno, MPH, RD on “No Meat Athlete.” If you are a vegan with low iron, see a physician, because they can use blood measurements and precisely dosed protocols for iron replenishment; supplements could be dangerous if overdosed.
- Vitamin E – Well-known for building a strong immune system, vitamin E has powerful antioxidant properties. It is also beneficial for healthy skin and eyes. The synthetic form you buy in stores not only doesn’t get absorbed well, but they also can lead to negative health consequences such as cancers. I’d never supplement it, but too much from dietary sources shouldn’t be an issue.
Vegan Bodybuilding Meal Plan Using Supplements
My intention is to give a sense of framework in which to integrate your meals with supplements. Please keep in mind that these quantities should be adjusted to suit your personal physical needs.
In other words, I didn’t calculate total calories, proteins, or other macros because a 250 lb. bodybuilder vs. a sedentary 180 lb. office worker vs. a 150 lb. distance cyclist will all have vastly different needs.
Also, I highly recommend that you talk with a physician and get blood work done to determine things like if you need B12, etc.
- Warm lemon water (fresh-squeezed)
- B12 (2.6 mcg)
- Fresh veggie juice
- Vegan BCAA
- tofu scramble
- 2 slices sprouted grain bread with natural peanut butter
- Vegan protein shake (20-30 grams)
- 1 cup green tea + turmeric + ginger
- 2 cups homemade organic granola
- Vegan protein shake (20-30 grams)
- Flax meal
- Water (16 oz.)
- Veggie burger
- 1 cup homemade hummus
- small salad with leafy greens
- Flax meal
- 1 cup mixed beans (not canned)
- 2 cups homemade organic granola
- Vegan protein shake (20-30 grams)
- Beta-alanine or cup of organic coffee
- Simple carbohydrates (25 g)
- Vegan BCAA
- Vegan protein shake (20-30 grams)
- Beans and quinoa
- 2 cups green veggies
- Flax meal
- Vegan BCAA
- Vegan protein shake with greens (20-30 grams)
- Flax meal
- 1 natural peanut butter on 1 slice sprouted grain bread
- Vegan BCAA
Vegan Supplements That I Take:
- Krill oil* (here’s the product I use)
- Vegan protein powder (here’s the product I use)
- Beta-alanine (here’s the product I use)
- Vegan BCAA (here’s the product I use)
- Organic maca root powder (here’s the product I use)
- Organic turmeric root powder (here’s the product I use)
*Krill oil is not animal-based, but it’s also not plant-based either. It’s up to you to decide if it’s vegan or not because the experts can’t seem to agree on this. I take it because it’s superior to fish oil and flax seed oil. If you’re a vegan and want to play it safe, go with organic flax oil that has algae-derived DHA (we recommend this).
- I don’t believe any of these supplements contribute in any “significant” way to my size or strength, but they help me heal faster and give me an edge.
- Beta-alanine gives me a mild burst of energy and increases my endurance (pre-workout).
- Some vegans need B-12, but we should all get blood work done to determine if we need to supplement.
- I have at least one fresh veggie green drink, 2 oz. shot of ginger, and 1 oz. shot of turmeric daily. This serves as my “multivitamin.”
Most nutritionists and doctors recommend a daily multivitamin. This only makes sense if you’re sick or not eating well. As I mentioned in the introduction, a whole food, plant-based diet can supply you with the nutrients required to actualize thriving health.
Ultimately, a meticulous food journal (and periodic blood work) over the course of at least three to six months will illuminate what vegan bodybuilding supplements make sense for you.