Plant based diets have been met with a lot of criticism lately from meat-eaters like myself. I’ve personally written about the inaccuracies in the plant based diet pushing movie “The Game Changers” and in a recent article discussed the superiority of animal protein to plant protein in terms of nitrogen balance. With that being said, there’s two sides to every story and my primary objective is to tell the truth about nutrition. The truth is, a plant based diet has a lot of good to offer and certain aspects of it can benefit anyone. In fact, it’s even entirely possible to lose weight, gain weight, or build muscle and perform well on one. There, I said it…
Plant Based Diets and Weight Loss
As I’ve discussed before, weight loss occurs when you consume less calories than you burn. While the type of food you eat will absolutely impact the way you feel, a caloric deficit by any means is really all you need to burn fat. Plant based diets are typically lower in fat than diets containing meat and therefore for some, may make it easier to reach a caloric deficit by inherently reducing fat calories. Since 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, while 1 gram of protein and 1 gram of carbohydrates each contain only 4 calories, reducing fat intake is a pretty solid way for most people to lower their calorie consumption.
Plant Based Diets and Weight Gain
Just as weight loss occurs in a caloric deficit, weight gain happens in a caloric surplus. As mentioned before, plant based diets are typically lower in fat than a traditional omnivore diet and therefore may help cutting calories easier by lowering the macronutrient with the highest calorie content. That’s not always the case though as a plant based diet allows high fat containing foods such as nuts and seeds which are very low volume foods with high fat calories. For people who have a hard time gaining weight it’s my personal opinion that a plant based diet would be a hard way to achieve it, but is entirely possible by making an extra effort to eat higher fat, higher calorie foods.
Plant Based Diets and Muscle Building
Although I feel that a diet high in animal protein is optimal for muscle growth that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to gain muscle on a plant based diet. If you’re working out you’re going to want protein in your diet to help repair and build muscle tissue. Items such as buckwheat, seitan, tofu, chickpeas, and nuts are all items relatively high in protein and perfectly acceptable on a plant based diet. While I would argue that it takes large quantities of these items which come with a higher caloric total to hit the same protein as a single piece of meat, it’s still entirely possible to hit your protein needs. It’s also important to realize that much of what you may have read in popular bodybuilding magazines pertaining to protein requirements is likely exaggerated. While some claim you need anywhere from 2 to 3 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, literature suggests that 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight will suffice for anabolism.
Plant Based Diets and Performance
You can absolutely perform at a high level following a plant based diet. In fact, if you pick any diet with a name there’s likely to be at least one high level athlete that swears by it. Will an already high level athlete see performance improvements by switching to a plant based diet? It’s very possible. In fact, I would even argue that many high level athletes following a standard American diet would see a great improvement for many reasons.
Working with athletes, I’m always surprised at how many of them are eating way too few carbs to support their training. Whether they’re focusing too much on aesthetics or they’ve been misled by low carb fanatics, many high intensity athletes are following diets high in protein and low in carbohydrates. The vast majority of athletes know they need perform, but don’t realize that if they’re short on carbohydrates, their body will break down protein to make carbs through a process known as gluconeogenesis. In other words, if your carbs aren’t where they need to be not only are you cheating your muscles of their most efficient energy source, but you’re literally robbing your body of vital protein too. A plant based diet is inherently high in carbohydrates. It only makes sense that an athlete that may have been following a diet low in carbohydrates will notice a legitimate increase in performance and energy after switching to a plant based diet.
It’s not just the carbohydrates. A plant based diet is inherently a quality food diet. While you can find highly processed plant based foods, the vast majority of positive research has been conducted on a whole-foods, plant based diet. A diet high in fruits, veggies, legumes, whole-grains and tubers, doesn’t leave much room for highly processed, low quality junk. By switching to a plant based diet it’s extremely likely that athletes are also benefiting from switching out their bad quality, highly processed food for food that’s both high quality and micronutrient dense.
Should You Go Plant Based?
If you want to go plant based due to a moral belief that killing animals is bad, by all means do so. I’m an avid hunter but I’m also a huge proponent of people living a life that exemplifies their beliefs. Don’t agree with the killing of animals? Then don’t eat them. I can totally respect that. If you’re following a standard American diet and think a plant based diet will greatly improve your health then you’re probably right and if for some reason you feel that it’s a diet you can maintain and commit to, then you probably should.
It’s in my personal opinion that the greatest benefits of a plant based diet are not simply in the avoidance of meat, but rather in the attention to carbohydrates and quality. I would argue that following a whole-foods, plant based diet with the addition of quality, lean animal protein sources is the ultimate way to go. I would also make the argument that no one has ever been on their deathbed suffering from a preventable disease, looked back on a diet of lean meat, fruits, veggies, legumes, whole-grains and tubers and found that animal protein was the single factor to put them there. I think it’s safe to say that the enemy is never “too much lean meat” or “too many plant based foods”. Wouldn’t you?