Vegetarians bodybuilders have many more advantages than you may think.
Much of the nutritional advice that you read about for gaining muscle mass and trying to look more aesthetically sculpted is based around a staple diet of meat and animal-based proteins. This is simply an outdated approach, and the role of the vegetarian diet for building muscle in a healthier manner can no longer be ignored.
To get “ripped” or “shredded,” you need a percentage body fat between 6-8%, and it is common dialogue that an excellent physique is created mostly in the kitchen, rather than the gym.
For argument’s sake, let’s just say both are extremely important. McArdle, et al. (2010) reported that a staple healthy diet of low glycaemic carbs, such as vegetables, nuts, and some fruits, supported an anabolic fat loss state and reduced percentage body fat and obesity related diseases within vegetarians.
This was supported by Kim (2012), who compared the impact of a long term vegetarian diet to an omnivore diet. The results were quite encouraging in terms of health parameters for the vegetarian cohort, as there was a reduction in percentage body fat, oxidative stress, blood cholesterol levels, and insulin resistance.
These factors are hugely important to sustaining general health, staving off many chronic life-threatening illnesses, as well as building muscle.
Now the question is, why are these processes so important to the vegetarian bodybuilder’s physique and overall health?
The Role of Insulin
One of the key hormones within the body for weight management and building muscle mass is insulin.
Insulin’s main function is to reduce the amount of glucose circulating in the blood, and its levels are highest after consuming sugary snacks and/or foods with a high glycemic index. It is important to highlight that insulin is sensitive to the amount of both carbohydrate and protein consumed, but not fat.
This “mopping up” action of insulin inhibits muscle growth, because it starves the muscle of glucose and redirects it to the liver to be stored as fat. As such, your cells need to be as insulin-sensitive as possible in order to increase the anabolic effect of food and training.
Too much insulin in the body increases percentage body fat. Wilmore & Costill (2010) reported that insulin resistance is actually increased when your percentage body fat and bodyweight are raised.
Kim (2012) stated that vegetarians have a lower percentage body fat and insulin resistance than omnivores, backing up the statement by Wilmore & Costill. Eating low energy density vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, and nuts—which are all major sources of nutrition within the vegetarian bodybuilder’s diet—is a key factor in better control of blood sugars and insulin sensitivity.
This improved blood sugar control has a positive connection with the fact that vegetarians have a lower incidence rate of type 2 diabetes and its associated complications when compared to omnivores. A strict vegan diet has the added bonus of being cholesterol-free, low in saturated fat, and high in soluble fiber. This sets the stage to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
Sharon (2013) also reported that vegetarians consumed less calories than omnivores, and since excess calories consumed are stored as fat, that causes fat cells to increase in size. Consequently, a growing fat cell itself becomes insulin resistant, and the resulting free fatty acids will cause the body to favor the use of fat for energy at the expense of glucose.
This becomes a vicious cycle, with the overweight condition leading to insulin resistance, which in turn leads to impaired glucose use. As such, blood sugar, insulin, cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure all raise.
To make matters worse, the impaired ability of glucose to enter muscle cells keeps the glycogen stores lower than normal, which increases the person’s appetite and their motivation to eat more, thereby increasing fat stores and reducing lean muscle mass.
However, a plant-based diet that is rich in fats from nuts (e.g. almonds) is also high in unsaturated fats, which increase good cholesterol in the blood and reduce cardiovascular disease. These “good fats” are essential for digestive processes, cell membrane structure and function, and satiety, and act as carriers of vitamins A and D. These vitamins essentially reduce oxidative stress and certain forms of cancer.
Omnivores tend to eat more saturated and trans-fatty acids, which are energy-rich at nine calories per gram; these bad fats are associated with heart disease because they raise the low density lipoproteins in the blood.
Some experts are now stating that high-protein diets are a big scam.
I have read compelling research on both sides of the debate about how much protein we need. I lean more on the side of more protein is better if you are training hard in the gym. We simply have different needs than the average person who doesn’t participate in regular exercise. And it appears that high-protein diets are safe for the kidneys, after all.
One interesting scenario that necessitates more research is how prisoners can get so muscular on a seemingly deficient diet. They survive on fairly small amounts of low-quality protein you wouldn’t feed your dog.
What is clear to me is that you need a calorie surplus to build muscle, and a plant-based diet high in good fats (e.g. nuts, oils, and avocados) and proteins, with calorie cycling of starchy carbs, is an optimal formula to build muscle.
- The role of insulin in muscle growth is extremely important for muscle building.
- Insulin is important for promoting uptake of amino acids and enhancing synthesis of protein.
- Vegetarians are more insulin-sensitive, which is an advantage in building muscle, and also have reduced associated chronic health risks and lower BMI, percentage body fat, oxidative stress, and blood cholesterol levels.
Kim, M.I., et al (2012). Long-term vegetarians have low oxidative stress, body fat, and cholesterol levels. Nutr Res Pract 6(2): 155–161.
McArdle, et al (2009). Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Sharon A. Plowman, Denise L. Smith (2013). Exercise Physiology for Health Fitness and Performance. Wolters Kluwer Health.
Wilmore. J.H., Costill D.J. (2009). Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Human Kinetics. Champagne.