Can you build muscle by consuming only plants?
Can vegans get enough protein to make gains?
Does vegan protein lack building blocks to be classified as a whole protein?
To answer these questions, let’s look at some of the strongest humans that have existed. These humans were an armed combatant who entertained audiences in the Roman Republic and Roman Empire in violent confrontations with others in their field, wild animals, and condemned criminals.
Roman Gladiators – some of the most feared warriors in history – consumed a diet that was mostly vegetarian, and according to the analysis of bones from a cemetery where the arena fighters were buried, they found the gladiator diet was grain-based and mostly meat-free. The bones revealed that the typical food eaten by gladiators was wheat, barley and beans – and this echoed the contemporary term for gladiators as the “barley men”. There was little sign of meat or dairy products in the diet of almost all of these professional fighters, who performed in front of Roman audiences.
Much of the gladiators training was spent sparring with wooden weapons. If you’ve ever taken part in a boxing session, then you’d know how intense sparring is! Not to mentioned weightlifting and calisthenics incorporated into their training. Can one build muscle on plants? Well, the answer is yes. Not only did the gladiators prove this, but they also were known to be some of the baddest warriors in history.
There is an ongoing debate about whether or not plant proteins are considered ‘complete’ proteins, whereas animal proteins are considered complete. A complete protein is one that contains all the essential amino acids. Animal-sourced protein contains all essential amino acids and therefore are considered ‘complete’ proteins, while most plant foods are considered incomplete—meaning certain amino acids are missing from the protein puzzle.
Now, this would be a problem if, as a vegan you had little to no diversity in your nutrition, but according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the terms “complete protein” and “incomplete protein” are misleading. This is because if a person consumes enough calories from a whole food/varied diet, they should get an adequate supply of essential amino acids within a 24-hour period – even if those calories come exclusively from plant-based foods. Even though some plant-based foods are considered ‘incomplete’, the way to combat this, is to combine ‘complementary proteins’ together. Rice and beans are a good example of complementary proteins, because the amino acids that are missing from beans are found in rice and vice versa.
The bottom line: Plant proteins technically aren’t “complete,” however, as long as you’re consuming a variety of plant protein sources, your body does the work of ‘completing’ the proteins for you. So, get your nutrition varied, go hit the gym and chase those gains!