When you hear or see the words “plant-based,” you probably immediately think of vegetarian or vegan foods that are completely void of animal products, which is true if you’re seeing it on a particular food item. But what about in the context of diets? If you think the same thing translates over, think again.
This misconception is common, says Kaylee Jacks, a sports nutritionist at Texas Health Sports Medicine, but eating plant-based is more about rethinking your priorities when it comes to foods and your health versus solely staying away from meat for various reasons.
“Generally, vegetarian diets do not include meat, poultry or fish, and while there are various types of vegetarians, these diets are typically done for environmental, religious, cultural or ethical reasons,” she explains. “However, vegetarian diets do allow for processed and refined foods which are less nutritious than whole foods and whole-grain products.
“Plant-based diets emphasize fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and grains, similar to a vegetarian diet, but unlike a vegetarian diet, they often include lean animal proteins and dairy products. Because they also limit less-nutritious foods that a vegetarian diet allows, plant-based diets are typically done to improve one’s overall health.”
But if you’re a weekend warrior or fitness buff, you might be concerned about how a plant-based diet may affect your ability to build and maintain muscle, especially if you’re a male over the age of 40 — the age at which men begin to lose muscle mass. Kaylee says while it may seem contradictory, you can eat less meat and have your muscle too. It’s all about shifting how you view food.
Where to Begin
While after doing some research, you may think counting macronutrients is the first step in understanding what your body needs before tailoring your new diet, Jacks says she feels it’s more valuable to team up with a registered dietitian as well as gaining a good understanding of all of the available plant-based protein options as well as the fact that you can have lean animal protein is more valuable.
“It is important for someone deciding to follow any diet to be knowledgeable of the diet and its pros and cons,” she explains. “Consulting a registered dietitian to ensure you understand the diet and the changes of nutrients you are providing your body is essential. With less emphasis on animal proteins, that could lead to a higher carbohydrate intake from fruits and vegetables and a lesser protein intake. Same with fats. While avocados, nuts and seeds are all good sources of healthy fats, they may be overconsumed without the appropriate understanding of a balanced plant-based diet.”
Understanding What Your Body Needs
To build muscle, Jacks says first things first, you need to be eating enough calories. Skimping on calories, or what’s called a caloric-deficit, can be detrimental to gaining or maintaining muscle, even if you’re prioritizing high-protein foods.
“Next, you need protein,” she adds. “Protein is made up of 20 amino acids. Nine of those amino acids are ‘essential amino acids,’ meaning our body cannot produce them on its own and we need to get them through food. Animal proteins and some plant proteins such as quinoa and soy are considering ‘complete proteins,’ meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids.”
While plant proteins are typically “incomplete proteins,” meaning they lack one or more of the essential amino acids, if you consume enough incomplete proteins from a variety of sources to obtain appropriate essential amino acids, you will not suffer any muscle mass loss.
“Plant-based diets that emphasize legumes, nuts, seeds, etc., and include appropriate lean animal proteins, likely will not experience any muscle mass loss or trouble building muscle from a nutrition standpoint,” Jacks adds.
If you’re partnering with a dietitian, they can work with you to calculate your overall calorie needs. If you’d like to give it a go by yourself, you can also do a rough calculation at home.
In order to determine your overall calorie needs, you can either use a simple online calculator or the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation:
- Men: calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) + 5
- Women: calories/day = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (y) – 161
Then, multiply your result by the number represented below for your particular amount of daily activity:
- Sedentary: x 1.2 (limited exercise)
- Lightly active: x 1.375 (light exercise less than three days per week)
- Moderately active: x 1.55 (moderate exercise most days of the week)
- Very active: x 1.725 (hard exercise every day)
- Extra active: x 1.9 (strenuous exercise two or more times per day)
The end result gives you your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
For example, a 175 lb. (79.38 kg.) 45-year-old man who is 5’ 11” (180.34 cm.) and leads a lightly active life would have a TDEE of 2338 calories. That is the number of calories he must consume in one day to maintain his current weight and muscle mass. If he wanted to increase muscle, he can add calories to his TDEE. This is where partnering with a registered dietitian could be very valuable, because just increasing your overall calories may not give you the desired results that you want.
Building Your Meal Around Plants
That being said, eating plant-based does not mean eating only plants; it’s about prioritizing plants first and animal proteins second. Think of meat as more of a condiment of sorts instead of the main act.
For example, instead of having a big pork chop for dinner with a side salad, make a big salad with mixed greens, one cup of protein-rich chickpeas (seasoned however you prefer), and two ounces of thinly sliced pork tenderloin on top. You’ll hit the 30 grams of protein you need to build muscle while still enjoying the flavors of the pork.
Some high protein plant-based sources include:
- Black beans
“If you’re thinking about what an entire day’s meals may look like, try whole-grain toast and a veggie omelet for breakfast, followed by an apple with peanut butter as a snack,” Jacks says. “For lunch, try a meatless burrito bowl with whole-grain rice, black beans, taco-seasoned edamame and chickpeas, sweet potato, and then a side of fruit. A great midday snack would be trail mix consisting of whole-grain cereal, nuts and unsweetened dried fruit. Finally, for dinner, you could bake or grill up any lean protein of your choice (salmon, chicken, sirloin, etc.), steam some vegetables, then add a portion of whole-grain rice and some mixed fruit for a sweet end.”
If you’re looking for a great pre or post-workout snack, Jacks suggests focusing on good carbs before a workout and then good carbs plus protein for after the workout.
Pre-workout snacks could be:
- A piece of fruit
- Fruit snacks
- A granola bar
“Soy protein is a good plant-based post-workout option with all the nine essential amino acids,” Jacks adds. “NSF Certified for sport Soy protein powder in a fruit smoothie or oatmeal are good examples.”
Be Careful of Less-Than-Healthy Plant-Based Options
All plant-based items are not created equal, and the plant-based movement and industry are becoming largely lucrative, so some companies are jumping aboard the plant-based train with very little regard to the actual health profile of their product just so they can tout that it’s plant-based.
“I would look out for supplements or products that may be marketed to look healthy or almost scream ‘hey, I’m plant-based!’ because some can be extremely high in sugar and/or saturated fats,” Jacks explains.
When in doubt, prioritize whole foods and grains, then prioritize products that have short ingredient lists with ingredients you can easily identify. This means they’re most likely to be minimally processed.
Eating more plant-based does not mean eliminating animal proteins from your diet, and it doesn’t have to mean sacrificing any fitness goals you have.
“I want to reiterate that plant-based diets do not eliminate lean animal proteins. Instead, they emphasize whole foods, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds,” Jacks says. “While it is great to increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, it is important to understand which plant-based foods are high in protein and ensure you are consuming adequate amounts.”
If you’re considering taking your game to the next level and want to learn more nutrition and how to eat a plant-based diet, click here to set up an appointment with a sports dietitian at Texas Health Sports Medicine.