Bodybuilding and the Notion of Modern Veganism

The following text is a preview of a project that was conceived this past school semester. It is driven to explore the implications of having a vegan diet on bodybuilders and their overall health, focused on 20-year old novices. I will not be able to pursue this experimental design further as it would be too costly for an undergraduate thesis, but nevertheless, here are some of my data from current literature that can stir discussion on the subject matter on whether having a vegan diet is a feasible medium for muscle hypertrophy. A large number of bodybuilders have already claimed that they are supported only by plant diets, but I want to dig deeper into the inner workings of the human anatomy.

Vegan bodybuilder Robert Cheeke (photo from:

At the onset of the 21st century, ideologies circulating on animal welfare, overall health, and nutrition building started taking the mainstream scene, which became even easier at the birth of next-level social media (Pendergast 2016). As of April 2006, statistics have confirmed that at least 1.6% of the total American population has adopted a vegan diet (Stahler 2006). This percentage has been rising ever since, but on a global scale.

In a study that took place through an online database, respondents from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada conveyed that 70% of vegans were women, ranging from 14 to 53 years of age (Fox and Ward 2007). Although there have been studies on the societal implications of feminism through the diet (Dean 2014), the importance of this database was that the main motivators of veganism were exposed. Most adopted the diet for health issues, since veganism directly treats lifestyle diseases and supports ethics of animal treatment, while one case was motivated by environmental issues (Fox and Ward 2007; Turner-McGrievy et al. 2014). Several other studies monitored different subtopics, such as the fast food industry craze that continually feeds animal waste products, environmental nitrogen footprint level reduction, and a majority that were on weight loss benefits of vegan diets (Volpe 2005; Turner-McGrievy et al. 2014, 2015). The birth of these subtopics aided in acquiring more control and understanding of diet ideas, enlightening the pathways to optimized control, especially for individuals in need.

Vegan studies are hardly on muscle building and are more on weight loss benefits, specifically for obese individuals. Compared to omnivorous, pesco-vegetarian, and vegetarian diets, vegan diets have proven to be the most efficient in short-term weight loss in a span of six months (Turner-McGrievy et al. 2014). This is attributed to differences in energy intake of saturated fatty acids at less than half the level of intake (5% only) as compared to other diets, supported by high levels of fiber, Vitamin B1, folate, Vitamin C, carotenoids, and iron, but with the lowest intake in proteins, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, calcium, and zinc, further strengthening health benefit motivators in vegans (Davey et al. 2003; Turner-McGrievy et al. 2014). Moreover, cross-sectional studies have also established that most vegetarians and vegans would have the lowest body mass indexes (BMI) and blood plasma cholesterol (low density lipoproteins/LDLs) at least in the western regions of the world, but are also suspected to be exposed to risk factors due to low fatty acids and Vitamin B12 levels (Key et al. 2006). At this point, the trade-off between cardiovascular health and bodily fitness is blurred, since prospective or ongoing long-term dietary studies have yet to be explored.

Differences in risk factors have been explored through cardiovascular health studies and underlying genetic differences among African-American vegans and American lacto-ovo-vegetarians (Toohey et al. 1998; Bergdal and Koury 2016). African-Americans were found to benefit more from the diet according to their plasma lipid levels, but more long term studies are needed for assessing the reduction of cardiovascular disease risk factors (Toohey et al. 1998). Hence, the image of modern veganism is ruled by health benefits that are accompanied by animal ethics awareness, which has dynamically changed in the past decade, as more and more individuals opt to utilize this diet for muscle building (Forbes-Ewan 2002). This is suspicious as athletes invariably include meat in their diets. It is imperative that its susceptibility is explored in further studies.

Bodybuilding Nutrition

Bodybuilding is a type of resistance exercise requiring an adequate excess of protein intake, with supplementary carbohydrate intake and small amounts of fat for successful yet healthy muscle hypertrophy (Tipton and Wolfe 2001; Ratamess et al. 2016). Reduced food and nutrient intake will lead to atrophy, further related to the timing of protein consumption for bodybuilders. Protein response will only last for approximately 24 hours, considered as a ‘window time’ for good uptake of amino acids, which is then dictated by hormonal factors (Tipton and Wolfe 2001).

Excessively high protein with scarce carbohydrate and fat intake is regulated through insulin and testosterone, as insulin permits muscle protein synthesis pathways and reduces catabolic processes (Tipton and Wolfe 2001). High dietary protein levels do not automatically translate to muscle hypertrophy, as it is regulated through these hormones. Therefore, bodybuilding nutrition is reliant on timing and appropriate balance of workout programs in different levels of the bodybuilding intensity hierarchy, instead of only dietary support or supplementation (Ratamess, et al. 2016).

An established standard of daily protein intake is at 1.2–2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight for bodybuilders (Stark et al. 2012). This protein intake is then deemed beneficial only due to the essential amino acid content of the source, preferably coming from meat or milk sources. Leucine is one of these essential muscle growth inducers, where recommended intake is at least 3 g per day (Hoffman and Falvo 2004). Post-workout doses of leucine supplementation in untrained male athletes led to higher rates of muscle growth as compared to those who did not, first discovered in rat skeletal muscle synthesis pathways (Anthony et al. 2000; Dreyer et al. 2008). Fresh milk consumption also supports muscle synthesis, as long as it is timed within 45 minutes of finishing a resistance workout to reduce body fat percentages (Stark et al. 2012).

Avoiding the accompanying high fatty acid contents of meat sources and low glycemic indexes and deficient amino acids in vegetables has led to the ascending popularity of protein supplementation (Hoffman and Falvo 2004). Three of the best known supplements, bovine milk, casein, and whey protein isolates were compared by Hoffman and Falvo (2004). Bovine milk is the most available among the three, comprising of 80% casein and 20% whey proteins. This is rated through the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) and biological value (BV), given a score of 1.00 PDCAAS (Hoffman and Falvo 2004). Casein, the causative agent for bovine milk’s white color, forms aggregates — micelles — within the stomach, yielding sustained amino acid release in a span of a few hours, making it extremely efficient in amino acid provision (Boirie et al. 1997). Due to this, casein also reduces overall protein breakdown compared to only whey protein isolates; however, the bioavailability and fast absorption of whey proteins give it higher biological value, making it the best among the three (Boirie et al. 1997). Furthermore, elderly men have better absorption for whey protein isolates than casein, adding to its proficiency (Boirie et al. 1997; Verdijik et al. 2008).

Pre-post workout versus morning-evening protein uptake regimen studies have revealed that pre-post supplementation and dieting supports more muscle growth, measured in terms of muscle fiber percentage, contractile protein content, muscle creatine, and glycogen markers (Cribb and Hayes 2006). Age and sex also take part in the rate of muscle growth and amino acid absorption.

Age and sex factors differ drastically along life, causing ATP synthesis pathway and gut absorption discrepancies (Verdijik et al. 2008). Even in strict casein supplementation in elderly men that follow the pre-post workout regime, there were no differences detected for muscle growth rates in those who did not receive supplementation. Gut absorption is significantly slower in elderly men, rendering casein slow-release effects useless (Verdijik et al. 2008). Most established protocols in bodybuilding nutrition are for younger men, approximately ranging from 18–35 years of age. Future studies should tackle the efficacy of creatine supplementation in younger men for enhancing muscle growth (Cribb and Hayes 2006).

Plant Nutrition

The intricacies of a vegan diet stem from the variety of plant nutrients that may be obtained through different types of plants such as legumes, fruits, and other vegetables (Craig et al. 2009). Plant nutrients and vegetables fundamentally make up the high fiber contents, folate, Vitamin C, and low saturated fatty acid and cholesterol levels that ensure the high rate of body fat reduction (Davey et al. 2003). Turner-McGrievy et al. (2014), articulated that the most significant weight loss among obese individuals was through a vegan diet, compared to three other diets in a ‘dietary spectrum’ ranging from semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, vegetarian, and vegan. The study was an intervention-style cohort study (Turner-McGrievy et al. 2014), whose results in continuous weight loss manifested until four months after the experiment proper, without a dictated calorie ceiling. Thus, weight loss and all forms of dietary trends are a result of dietary adherence, and not of intake reduction.

Short term sustainability of plant diets has already been proven due to studies on essential amino acid composition and vitamin and nutrient acquisition (van Vliet et al. 2015; Craddock 2016). Not all plants contain all essential amino acids, expressing the need for dietary balance that can only be attained by consuming different types of plants (McDougall 2002). Supporting muscle gain is plausible, though the human body’s response to ingested plant material is different from that to meat (McDougall 2002; Saunders et al. 2012).

Plant ingestion corresponds to ingestion of cellulose and lignin, which are both main components of the plant cell wall and are present at high levels during vegan diets (van Vliet et al. 2015). Due to their presence, higher splanchnic stress and upward shifts in waste urea levels occur during plant digestion (van Vliet et al. 2015). In addition, the present protein and nutrient contents in plants that are destined to be absorbed are contradicted by their own deficiency in Vitamin B12 and C, restricting folic acid accumulation, and promoting uric acid build up (Saunders et al. 2012). Phytic acid, another component of protein rich plants such as legumes, dried beans, nuts, or seeds, were found to inhibit protein and heme iron absorption essential for muscle building (Saunders et al. 2012).

Two types of iron are available in food sources: heme iron that is incorporated into hemoglobin for oxygen absorption and non-heme iron that is the only available form of iron in plants (Saunders, et al. 2012). Daily physical activity is highly dependent on oxygen levels and is a major determinant in normal bodily performance (Redshaw and Loughna 2012). Gut sensitivity to non-heme iron is enhanced by increased Vitamin C consumption that may be mediated through orally ingested doses of ascorbic acid (Schlueter and Johnston 2011). Supplementation may be an essential factor in vegan lifestyle maintenance and must be incorporated into circulating information, especially in magazines or in social media, as aspiring vegans will only be blinded into this reality.

Although omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies can be mediated through seeds and oil consumption in vegan diets, further studies are required for the long term effects of a vegan diet on human nutrition (Craddock 2016). Suspected diseases that may develop in long term vegans are general malnutrition caused by Vitamin B12 deficiency and iron deficiency anemia that may further predispose individuals to other cardiovascular diseases besides atherosclerosis or cholesterol and lipid-caused diseases (Pawlak 2015). Other associated diseases are megaloblastic anemia that may lead to coronary artery disease or myocardial infarctions, especially since red blood cell maturation is reliant on Vitamin B12 and folic acid levels (Aslinia et al. 2006; Pawlak 2015). Megaloblastic anemia is the enlargement of red blood cells due to incomplete differentiation, where cells do not fully excise their nuclei to form the characteristic biconcave shape of red blood cells (Aslinia et al. 2006). The trade-off between cardiovascular health and physical fitness is blurred once more due to these possible complications.

Anatomical Assessment

Muscle growth and organ performance are both targets of classical anthropometric analysis that originally developed formulas for body mass index that include age, height, sex, and weight factors as determinants for overall health and anthropometric lean body mass measurements for skeletal muscle growth (Heymsfield 2014; Nuttall 2015). Markers used in lean body mass are the creatine muscle levels detected through the D3-Creatine method (Heymsfield 2014). Measurements were conceived as a response to the immediate need for both cachexia and sarcopenia detection in the 70s and 80s (Heymsfield 2014). Cachexia is characterized by overall body weakening due to chronic illness, while sarcopenia is the natural deterioration of skeletal muscle due to age (von Haehling and Anker 2015).

Muscle capacity is dynamic throughout life, with ATP and creatine phosphate synthesis rates gradually increasing with age (Van Praagh and Doré 2002). Modern methods were used to determine these, coming from computed tomography (CT), photon absorptiometry, and magnetic resonance (MR) then advancing to water-fat MR imaging, diffusion tensor imaging, MR elastography, short-time echo MR, primed to link anatomy and physiology of skeletal muscles (Heymsfield 2014). These were developed in order to isolate measurements of only lean body mass and not the totality of muscle and fat detected.

Traditional anthropometric methods only factor in metric measurements, utilizing body landmarks (usually in bony points like the elbows or patella) and standardized posture to quantify muscle or arm length (Sims et al. 2012). Stadiometers and sitting-height tables are traditional tools that are limited to only these, eventually evolving into 3-D body scanning technology for more appropriate measurements with secured accuracy and are not upon the discretion of the person measuring (Simmons and Istook 2003). These new advancements standardize and make more accurate baseline measurements, which are essential in all types of studies that benefit human health.

Internal measures of cardiovascular performance are done through cardiovascular magnetic resonance, angiographies, and heart rate measurements (Rathi et al. 2008). Cardiovascular magnetic resonance detects ventricular diastolic and systolic function that directly implicates pre-load blood volume, stroke volume, and heart contractility force that are all indicators of possible developing heart disease (Rathi et al. 2008; Zuhl and Kravitz 2012). Angiographies detect blood vessel congestion through the introduction of detectible radiopaque substances in X-ray examinations (Rathi et al. 2008). These methods are somewhat invasive and expensive for routine check-ups, despite their reliability.

Routine renal performance checkups are much easier and indicative of early disease risk factors as compared to cardiovascular performance, since usually only urine samples are analyzed (Knott 2015). Risk factors are elucidated in levels of urine creatinine, urea, and dissolved salts; high creatinine levels are known indicators of muscle atrophy and high muscle activity in muscular individuals, as they are direct waste products of muscle function, along with urea (Knott 2015). High levels of both products in the urine may imply impaired renal function or dehydration, which may thereby affect most body processes, as the kidney’s endocrine functions also regulate many processes such as red blood cell differentiation and pH levels to prevent acidosis and related diseases (Knott 2015). Renal performance may be one of the first markers in bodybuilding studies that give more straightforward implications in contrast to cardiovascular performance. It will also be easier to standardize renal performance since there are established normal levels in different individuals than cardiovascular performance, since different people of different physical and genetic backgrounds would have varied measurements (Knott 2015). Anatomical assessment advancements establish baseline data and even historical data. They are the keys to ensuring human ethics are followed in experiments and may be safety mediators, once well understood.

On a final note, I have omitted the bibliography from this article and will be providing a copy of the paper for those who wish to view the entire project. I believe that the importance of science is to share one’s findings in order to push our current technology and practices forward, as I would want to spark more ideas from the discussions that should happen around them. Until a thorough and legitimate study on the subject is made, one can only hypothesize the short and long term effects of a vegan diet on early adult bodybuilders. Another additional note would be studies on racial implications, but that would only merit its own separate discussion.

Do you think it really is possible to be a vegan bodybuilder?

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