Plant-Based Eating to Build Strength

I have always trained. When I was younger, I devoted my afternoons to gymnastics practice. When I hit high school, I began to run. Over the last few years, strength training has been my focus.

Growing up, my parents placed a huge emphasis on being active. They would drag us up to the Snowy Mountains every Easter for a multi-day hike, and family activities often included bush walks or bike rides. At the time, like most kids, I think I would have preferred to just go to the movies or out to dinner. But looking back, it is something I am so incredibly grateful for, as it instilled in me a love of moving my body, and a healthy addiction to endorphins. I never get over the incredible high from a workout, or the feeling of accomplishment for getting it done. If you’ve trained today, give yourself a pat on the back. If you haven’t, get up girl and get going – no one ever regretted a workout!

When I started my blog, several people hit me up wanting to hear more about my attitude to food whilst trying to build strength.  As a vegan, I completely understand that this is a topic of interest for many people, and the opinions are as varied as they are vast. The bottom line for me is that if you are eating enough calories, and enough variety, then your body will be getting the nutrients it needs to improve your strength and performance in the gym.

Of all the misconceptions surrounding plant-based diets, the notion that vegans are skinny and couldn’t possibly build any muscle because of their ‘lack of protein’ is amongst the most common. It’s a reason regularly cited to me for why athletes, in particular males, don’t want to go vegan – they are worried it could mean losing their gains. But look at Patrick Baboumian, the World’s Strongest Man, or at UFC fighters like Mac Danzig and Jake Shields. Look at tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, and ultra-athletes Scott Jurek, Rich Roll and Lucy Bartholemew. They each made the decision to cut out milk, eggs and steak, and they have all reaped the rewards of athletic performance at the pinnacle of their field. Trust me guys, you do not have to give up the six pack to live a more ethical lifestyle.

Research shows that the best way to build muscle is by lifting weights, and following a strength program that is varied – you cannot place enough emphasis on a program that incorporates a variety of exercises, pushes you to increase reps and work with different weight levels. It’s the key ingredient to building strength. As most of you know, I am huge proponent of leading a healthy lifestyle, and because of this, I am conscious of the way I eat to build strength. I have spent the last few years playing around with this – working with different coaches and testing out different ways of eating to see how I could maximise my performance.

If you were to ask me for my key advice on how to build strength on a vegan diet, I would tell you this: eat the rainbow, and eat lots of it. Fuel your body with an abundance of plant-based foods. Ensure you are eating enough food - this is imperative so that your body has enough fuel to grow stronger. Make sure you are getting enough carbohydrates, like potatoes, rice and pasta (I promise you they are a vital energy source for your workouts, and no, they won’t make you fat). Make sure you are consuming enough healthy fats, like avocados and nuts. You also need to be eating enough protein, but you do not need to be eating more. In fact, too much protein long term has been shown to have detrimental effects to your kidneys and liver.

Personally, I don’t count macros or calories, and if you’re eating enough volume and diversity then you will be fine. I understand if you’re competing in a bikini competition and you need to hit strict macros to look lean AF, then tracking your calories may be of benefit to you. I am, however, a big fan of intuitive eating and listening to our bodies as a guide for how we should eat.

I am regularly asked about my favourite way to refuel after a big workout. I am a self-confessed fan of a post workout smoothie to replenish your muscles – this is my go-to post workout meal. I normally throw in a frozen banana or two, berries, hemp seeds, almond butter, oat milk and greens, and voila – post workout gains.  Once or twice a week I will also add some Tropeaka protein into this smoothie - it helps me feel full for longer and I absolutely love the taste. Apart from that, I don’t focus on protein or consume any additional protein in my diet – instead, I just eat plenty of greens, beans and tofu.

I understand that there is a whole tonne of conflicting research out there. Many studies argue that large amounts of protein assist muscle gains; more still argue that as long as you’re getting enough, any additional won’t help. All I can do is weigh up the science and share my own personal experience. And my experience is that I am strongest when I am training hard, and fuelling with abundance.

To sum it up, my top tips for building strength on a plant-based diet are:

  1. Invest in a good strength training program – lifting weights is key to building muscle.

  2. Eat the rainbow, and eat until you are full. If you’re doing this, your body will have everything it needs to grow big and strong.

  3. Drop the protein obsession. No one has ever died of protein deficiency whilst consuming enough calories. Eat your tofu, eat your lentils, eat your broccoli – now go make some gains!

Dara HayesComment