Have you heard all the buzz about plant-based eating? Maybe it piqued your interest? It didn’t take much convincing for me to realize that eating more plants was a dietary shift I needed to make – I felt amazing after only a few days of eating less animal protein. I wasn’t bloated, I had fewer tension headaches and I fell asleep faster at night. My start to fitness in bodybuilding meant all my meals were centered on animal proteins with the singular goal of eating meat to build muscle. And, even though I was eating a decent amount of vegetables back then, they were pushed to the outer edge of my plate by meats and grains.

That meat-eating-to-build-muscle mindset was hard to shake at first because, in the simplest terms, it works! However, as I got older I noticed so many changes to my body and hormones that had me taking a closer look at my overall nutrition intake and profile. My biggest fear about eating less animal protein? Losing the muscle I’ve worked so hard over the years to build and maintain! Can you relate?

If you’re curious to try plant-based eating but you don’t want to sacrifice your heard-earned muscle, know that it’s totally possible! Plus, you can eat more plant foods without becoming a vegetarian or vegan (the best part IMO!). Plant-based foods give your body and cells what they need to grow, repair, recover and support your weight training efforts.

What is “plant-based” eating? – Eating foods derived from plants, including vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes and fruits but little to no animal products.

Here are a few reasons you might consider eating more plant-based meals –

  • You feel sluggish and fatigued
  • You experience frequent bloating and puffiness that you might actually be mistaking for weight gain
  • You’re constipated or have irregular bowel movements
  • You have a family history of lifestyle-related chronic disease that has you taking a closer look at your health

Here are a few reasons you might be hesitant to eat more plant-based meals –

  • You’re concerned with the lack of variety in your meals because you don’t like a lot of fruits and veggies, nuts, etc.
  • You’re worried about feeling hungry
  • You think plant-based eating is difficult and requires a lot of cooking and meal prep
  • You’re worried about losing muscle or gaining weight because you like how your body looks when you eat animal proteins

All of these concerns are warranted, especially the ones about hunger and loss of muscle. Addressing hunger – Eating more healthy fats helps slow the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates so you’ll feel fuller longer – Healthy fats like avocado, cooking with or dressing salads with oils instead of store-bought salad dressings, and adding nut butters in your oats, in your smoothies or just eating it buy the spoonful :)

So, now to the biggest concern – sacrificing your hard-earned muscle!

A little science lesson for you ~ Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and if you’re eating animal proteins, you’re probably not too concerned with getting enough protein and maintaining/building muscle because you know that animal proteins are complete proteins. The good news is that to build and maintain muscle, you don’t need every single thing you eat to be a complete protein. What matters is your overall nutrition intake in terms of muscle growth and development. However, if you do want to get complete proteins in each of your meals, you can do that with plant-based proteins, too.

What is a “complete protein?” – Also known as a whole protein, it refers to amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and there are 20 amino acids needed to form a protein. However 9 of them are ones our bodies can’t produce on their own, so a complete protein contains all 9 essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts.

Below is a list of plant-based complete proteins – this list is missing a few items because they’re not complete as is or together in traditional combinations, like rice and beans. For example, seitan isn’t complete on its own because it needs to be cooked in a soy-rich broth.

1.     Quinoa – rich in fiber, iron, magnesium, it’s a top choice and it’s so versatile! I cook it with a mix of broth and water to cut back on the earthy taste. If you like that earthy taste, just cook it with water as directed.

2.     Buckwheat – it’s actually not wheat but a relative of rhubarb. It’s gluten-free, non-allergenic and it aids in digestion and helps improve circulation. I love the taste and texture and like quinoa, it’s versatile for sweet or savory meals.

3.     Soy – consult your doctor before eating soy and always pick unprocessed varieties. Some of the concern in eating soy is that it mimics estrogen and can disturb your testosterone levels, possibly leading to estrogen dominance.

4.     Rice and beans – eaten together, this mix is a great protein and carb blend pre and post-workout

5.     Ezekiel bread – made with sprouted grains to increase fiber and vitamin content, it’s easier to digest than other breads. Make a peanut butter and Ezekiel sandwich and you’ve got another plant-based complete protein meal with a boost of healthy fats, too!

6.     Hummus and pita – hummus is made of mashed chickpeas, which has a similar amino acid profile as legumes. Eaten together for a snack or meal – think stuffed veggie pita with hummus.

Putting it all together, here are my top quick tips for building and maintaining muscle with plants –

  • Eat a banana with your plant protein powder. I like Plant Fusion chocolate powder blended with a frozen banana, peanut butter, cinnamon, water and a few ice cubes.
  • Mix quinoa with oatmeal for a power breakfast + fresh fruit and honey
  • Load up on starchy veggies after your workout for muscle recovery – beans, lentils, rice
  • Rice and beans is a great meal pre and post workout + veggies!
  • Add more leafy greens to your main meals and blend them in your smoothies