The average American pro football player retires at age 27, just over four years after starting in the NFL. If you’ve ever watched a game (or played tackle football), you’ll probably understand why: The constant and intense contact sport takes its toll on the human body.
And then there’s Tom Brady, the recently (twice) retired quarterback widely regarded as the best to ever play the game, with seven Super Bowl wins to his credit. Brady’s latest retirement came at the age of 45 — 23 full seasons after getting chased, hit, and slammed to the turf by the world’s most scary 6’3”, 310-pound opponents.
In addition to genetic explanations, or just plain luck, there’s a third (and most likely) possibility as to how Brady pulled this off. Since 2004, Brady has been eating an entirely whole-food diet that’s largely plant-based, which has allowed him to maintain muscle mass and recover quickly from injuries.
So what’s the connection between diet and muscle health? What about Brady’s diet, in particular, contributed to his health and career longevity? And also, if you’re not a professional athlete, why should you care about building and maintaining muscle mass as you go through life?
Let’s “tackle” that last question first.
Why Building Muscle Is Important for Good Health
Strong muscles are important for everyone, even if you’re not an athlete, bodybuilder, or your family’s designated jar opener. Being strong allows you to support your body in various situations and positions, and allows you to perform essential movements like lifting, gripping, bending, and pulling.
Stronger muscles produce stronger bones and joints, which can help prevent injury, as well as stave off degenerative bone diseases like osteoporosis. But increasing muscle mass and strength can also prevent chronic diseases that are seemingly unrelated to your ability to do bicep curls and squats.
Stronger muscles aid your metabolism, which makes sense if you think about the fact that one of the main functions of metabolism is to get fuel to those muscles. One 2013 study found that bigger, stronger muscles actually combated insulin resistance and prevented the development of type 2 diabetes in mice. (Our view on the use of animals in medical research is here.)
The need to maintain muscle mass becomes more critical as you age because muscle loss occurs naturally with aging. As much as it pains me to write this, muscles start deteriorating in your 30s. Between ages 40 and 60, most people lose an average of 8% of their muscle mass every decade. After 60, the loss typically accelerates at an even faster rate.
Let’s drive home the seriousness of muscle loss by using its scary medical name: sarcopenia (from the Greek sarco, meaning flesh, and penia, meaning poverty). Studies show that sarcopenia comes with many health consequences: People get diseases sooner, move less easily, and can die earlier.
So what are some of the best ways to build muscle?
How Do You Build Muscle?
I know this is Food Revolution Network, but I’ve got to start by telling you that you probably can’t build much muscle in the kitchen (unless you’re lifting weights in there, or have the world’s heaviest cast iron pans). The best way to grow your muscles (here’s another scienc-y word — hypertrophy — to describe that phenomenon) is through exercise. And, in particular, the kind of exercise known as resistance training.
Resistance training is any physical activity that causes the muscles to work against some opposing force (like a weight). There are two main varieties: isometric and isotonic. Isometric exercises keep joints still, while the muscle group strains against the resistance. Examples of isometric exercises include planks, wall sits, held yoga poses, and so on. In other words, your muscles are working, or you collapse downward (because that’s where gravity wants you).
Isotonic exercises involve moving muscle groups against some resistance. Examples include push-ups, sit-ups, and lifting weights.
You can combine isometric and isotonic training by, for example, resting at the top of a push-up before going down again, or holding a squat near the bottom for a few seconds before straightening your legs.
Do You Have to Use Heavy Weights?
Many people believe that for weight training to effectively build strength and mass, you need to lift heavy weights. Hence the oft-repeated (though misleading) saying: “No pain, no gain.” But in one recent study, people in their middle age, who opted for lifting lighter weights, gained as much strength and muscle growth as those who favored significantly heavier weights. These findings challenge the prevailing notions in the fitness community, which often advocate that only substantial weights can yield effective results.
As well, there is another groundbreaking research study, which stands as the most comprehensive meta-analytical review on resistance training to date. Remarkably, it found that there isn’t a singular superior way to lift weights. It didn’t matter whether people engaged in routines featuring heavy or light weights, nor if they engaged in frequent or infrequent sessions and sets. Everyone experienced marked enhancements in muscular strength and mass – regardless of their age or gender — if they put in the time. These findings highlight the universal efficacy of resistance training in sculpting a stronger, more muscular physique for anyone committed to the process.
Unfortunately for the couch potatoes of the world, however, just thinking about the gym or buying a gym membership or even walking in the front door and buying a smoothie, doesn’t help all by itself. You have to actually use the weights.
How Hypertrophy Works
Let’s get back to that term hypertrophy (which, remember, is the fancy word for muscle growth and not a high-strung, gold-plated figure on a pedestal) and examine what has to happen biochemically for it to occur.
To put it simply, resistance training grows muscle cells first by damaging them and allowing them to recover, and then repairing them. When you use muscles beyond their current capacity, they respond by sustaining “micro-tears” (rhymes with bears, not fears — perhaps because they aren’t actually crying, although sometimes it might feel that way). Then during recovery, your body repairs these tears with combinations of proteins and hormones to help them grow back bigger and stronger.
This is known as adaptation; it’s like your muscles are going, “Wowza, that load was uncomfortably heavy. We’d better grow stronger just in case an even bigger challenge comes along next week.” And the key trigger of adaptation is volume: the total weight lifted during a given exercise. The higher your volume, all other things being equal, the more hypertrophy, and the stronger and bigger your muscles become.
Load also matters. There’s evidence that fewer repetitions of heavier weights cause more micro-tears and leads to greater hypertrophy — although experts caution that this shouldn’t be your only style of workout.
Frequency is also important. Working your muscles on a regular basis, and changing up the specific exercises, enhances muscular adaptation and thereby facilitates them growing stronger.
Diet and Muscle Growth
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Caption: Vanessa Espinoza, Vegan Athlete, Personal Trainer, and Nutrition Coach
So resistance training is the first step in building muscles. But as we’ve just seen, muscles don’t get built when we lift weights or hold planks. Rather, that’s where they get torn down.
Muscles rebuild and grow during recovery, with a basic recipe of rest plus nutrition. The food you eat gets turned into the proteins and hormones that grow your muscles and lead to adaptation, as well as the energy required to fuel the process and to allow you to repeat workouts again and again.
Food has a lot of different jobs to do when it comes to building muscle. And one of the most important is to provide amino acids to replace the ones damaged during exercise. The macronutrient source of amino acids is our pal protein. That’s why athletes need lots of protein.
But while protein is necessary, there are many other nutrients that also contribute to muscle growth. And too much of the “wrong” kind of protein can actually damage your health and reduce your longevity.
The Role of Protein in Building Muscle
When you consume foods that contain protein, you digest them into their component amino acids, which your body uses as the building blocks for various tissues, enzymes, and hormones that keep you going. In the context of resistance training, protein is necessary for muscle building and repair to occur after exercises are complete. And eating protein shortly after exercising has been shown to support muscle synthesis — although researchers disagree on both the optimal amount of protein and the timing window that leads to the best results.
On the other hand, eating too much protein (or more than your body needs) can lead to a variety of health issues, potentially shortening your life.
Excess protein is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, as your body lacks a mechanism for storing protein (unlike carbohydrates, which get stored as glycogen, and fats, which get stored as fat). So if you consume more protein than your body can use, it either gets broken down for energy or converted into fat — and both processes can be hard on your body.
The majority of people eating the modern industrialized diet are already eating too much protein. And many of them are doing so based on the erroneous belief that if some protein is good, then more must be better. To calculate how much protein you really need, follow the steps in this comprehensive article on plant-based protein.
Why Animal Protein May Not Be the Best for Your Health
The source of your protein matters as well. The ill effects of excess protein are almost exclusively found in people over-consuming animal protein. While there’s a common misconception that animal protein is nutritionally superior to plant protein, and that people — especially athletes — who eat a plant-based diet probably aren’t getting enough protein, that myth has been comprehensively debunked.
Not only does a diet rich in plant protein provide adequate amounts of all of the essential amino acids, it also protects the body from too much insulin-like growth factor 1. IGF-1, as it’s known by its friends, is a hormone produced from protein that helps control the growth and development of organs, muscles, and tissues in the body.
IGF-1 is crucial for your body’s development when you’re young, and plays a role in hypertrophy as well, but too much of it can negatively affect your health. High IGF-1 levels are associated with increased cancer risk, for example. And animal protein, but not plant protein, spikes IGF-1 levels in your body.
B Vitamins and Muscles
Protein isn’t the only important nutrient when it comes to muscle building and athletic performance. B vitamins also play a role. Your body needs them to convert proteins and sugars into energy, as well as for synthesizing and repairing the red blood cells that carry oxygen to the rebuilding muscles.
Two vitamins in the B family, folate (B9) and vitamin B12, are critical cofactors in energy production and in the rebuilding and repair of muscle tissue damaged by physical activity. Folate, in particular, has been associated with muscle strength in large-scale population studies. And there’s an association between niacin (a form of vitamin B3) and vitamin B6 intake and physical strength in older people. And vitamin B12 helps regulate levels of homocysteine, a by-product of protein metabolism.
Carbs and Muscle Growth
When it comes to getting swole (or maintaining muscle mass), we can’t forget about carbohydrates. They’re the principal energy source that we use to move, so we need them to fuel our workouts. Carbs also stimulate insulin production, a powerful anabolic hormone (meaning that it stimulates growth, including that of muscles).
And if your workouts involve endurance activities, dietary carbohydrates can support and enhance your performance, since they’re your muscles’ preferred energy source during moderate- to high-intensity activity.
This is why many endurance athletes engage in the practice of “carb loading” prior to the start of their event.
Fat and Muscle Growth
You also need to consume some healthy fats to support muscle growth. These include monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids, which also promote the production of muscle-building hormones. Compared to the saturated fat in animal products, polyunsaturated fats are more likely to promote gains in lean muscle mass as opposed to being stored as fat.
A Supplement to Consider: Creatine Monohydrate
Many weightlifters and bodybuilders supplement with creatine monohydrate to aid muscle growth. And unlike some other supposed performance-enhancing supplements sold at the gym (or in shady online infomercials), there’s actually plenty of evidence to support its effectiveness.
A 2022 meta-analysis of 16 randomized controlled trials of creatine monohydrate supplementation and muscle gain found that people — especially those who were young and healthy — who trained hard achieved greater muscle growth than those who trained similarly but did not supplement.
You might be thinking, but hold on a minute! There are other substances that grow muscles but come with some nasty and potentially life-shortening side effects — for example, anabolic steroids. They’re notorious for helping perfectly talented mortals to win epically long bicycle races and break home run records while increasing their odds of premature heart attacks and strokes, liver disease, kidney failure, and psychiatric imbalances.
Is creatine another “Faustian bargain,” helping to grow muscles today at the expense of health tomorrow?
In a word, no. Current research not only finds no dangers but actually supports taking creatine to improve, of all things, cognition and brain health. And the gains are particularly impressive in vegetarians, who, by virtue of avoiding meat, typically have less creatine in their diets and their tissues.
In 2003, researchers published a study showing improvement in both memory and intelligence tests in vegetarians who consumed five grams of creatine a day for six weeks. And a 2011 study found that vegetarians who supplemented with 20 grams of creatine monohydrate for just 5 days improved their memories compared with those taking a placebo.
Both Exercise and a Healthy Diet Will Help You Gain Muscle
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Caption: Torre Washington, Vegan Competitive Bodybuilder & Fitness Coach
To summarize so far: Weight-bearing exercise by itself won’t build muscle unless supported by your diet. Diet alone can’t build muscle unless you’re also stressing your muscles through resistance training. But when you combine the right kind, frequency, and intensity of exercise with a healthy diet, you can build and maintain muscle mass throughout your life.
There are dozens of professional plant-based athletes who prove that both muscle mass and performance aren’t hindered by not including animal products. In addition to Tom Brady and a bunch of Tennessee Titans in the NFL, there have been Olympic weightlifters (Kendrick Farris), tennis greats (Venus Williams), basketball players (Chris Paul), soccer stars (Alex Morgan), and Olympic cyclists (Dotsie Bausch).
Even the most famous bodybuilder of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has “terminated” the meat-heavy diet of his professional lifting days in favor of a mostly plant-based diet. The actor who delivered the iconic put-down “You hit like a vegetarian” in the 2013 movie Escape Plan has more recently been promoting a plant-based diet, especially for bodybuilders and other athletes in the second half of life.
And closer to home, I work out regularly with my dad, John Robbins, who is now 76 and still stronger than me (and I’m no weakling, thank you very much). One of my life goals, in addition to bringing about a food revolution of healthy, ethical, and sustainable food for all, is to bench press more weight than my dad before he hits 100!
Best Plant-Based Foods to Build Muscle
So let’s get to the details. What are some of the best foods to help preserve and even increase your muscle mass and strength?
For more on beans and how to use them, see our article here.
For more on lentils and how to add them to your diet, see our article here.
Tempeh, a fermented soybean cake that originated in Indonesian cuisine, delivers plant-based protein and a variety of B vitamins, with the added bonus that the fermentation it’s undergone may help make its nutrients more bioavailable.
For much more about tempeh, see our article here.
3. Nuts and Seeds
Here’s a comprehensive article on nuts and your health.
And if you’d like to find out about making your own nut and seed butters, this article has got you covered.
Quinoa, a pseudocereal originally cultivated in the Andes region of South America, is a gluten-free whole grain with a nutty, creamy taste. It’s high in protein, including all nine of the essential amino acids, and provides complex carbohydrates as well.
For more on quinoa (including how to pronounce it), check out our article here.
5. Sweet Potatoes
Sweet potatoes can’t be beat for the delicious way they deliver long-acting complex carbohydrates, as well as vitamins B3, B5, and B6.
For everything you didn’t realize you wanted to know about sweet potatoes and your health, here’s an article dedicated to these terrific tubers.
Oats provide a ready source of glucose to muscles while still being low glycemic (i.e., not spiking blood sugar), in addition to biotin (B7), vitamin B1, and protein. A 2020 study found that oatmeal eaten before a high-intensity workout actually blocked the formation of some of the inflammatory compounds that typically form after such exercise.
Find out more about the health benefits and environmental considerations of oats.
You probably don’t need fancy (and expensive) formulas to enhance your athletic performance. All you need is a healthy, energizing, and muscle-enhancing diet to support your fitness goals. From hearty plant-based proteins to energizing and B vitamin-rich greens to fiber-rich carbohydrates, these nutrient-dense recipes make a great template for a performance-enhancing meal plan and are a delicious way to enjoy the key nutrients required to thrive on a plant-based diet.
Simple Homemade Granola is an easy-to-prepare breakfast cereal or midday snack that fits right into a healthy diet for peak performance. This lightly sweetened crunch-fest offers plenty of fiber, healthy fat, and plant protein that results in a delicious, wholesome recipe to make again and again. Plus, the combination of fiber-rich oats and protein-packed nuts and seeds makes it a highly nutritious way to support muscle recovery and growth!
Boasting 20 grams of plant protein per serving, our Plant Protein-Powered Salad contains healthy fats, fiber, and a spectrum of phytonutrients. This salad is a great example of how you can optimize nutrition for muscle growth while meeting your protein needs with ease. What’s more, this salad is nourishing and satisfying!
Tempeh Sausage Pasta hits all the right notes for a wholesome meal that has tons of flavor and nutritional value. Tempeh is a hearty plant protein that takes on any flavor you add to it. In this case, savory herbs and spices transform tempeh into meaty sausage crumbles. The result is a healthy and delicious meat substitute that gets even better with the addition of red tomato sauce and pasta. Essentially, this is an all-in-one meal with high-quality plant-based protein, fiber-rich carbohydrates, and vitamin-rich veg that makes eating for muscle building simple and delicious!
Hearty and Healing Lentil Burgers do double duty. They’re hearty and savory enough to leave you feeling satisfied and nourishing enough to support your fitness goals. Plus, there are plenty of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and lots of plant protein and beneficial fiber in every delectable bite. This is a perfect meal to pile high with even more nutritious veggie toppings to take its nutrient quotient to the next level.
Creamy peanut butter pairs surprisingly well with leafy greens in this nutrition-maximizing blender creation. In addition to spinach and peanut butter, the banana and dates ensure that it’s naturally sweet and delicious. Plus, this is a great post-training liquid meal thanks to healthy servings of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats, which work together to help replenish your body and keep you feeling energized!
Building Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet Is Possible!
Building muscle is necessary for strength and important for overall health. And it becomes especially important with age. To build muscle, you need a combination of both exercise and nutrition.
Protein, as well as B vitamins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats, all contribute to muscle mass and strength. Whole foods, plant-based sources of these nutrients can help your body to meet its needs while bringing down inflammation. And unlike foods of animal origin, plant-based foods can help protect you from chronic diseases.
By including some of these foods and recipes, along with getting in resistance training and other forms of strength training exercise, you can build and maintain muscle while laying the groundwork for a long and strong life.
Tell us in the comments:
Are you an athlete, or do you work out regularly?
Now that you’ve read this article, do you understand how to build muscle on a plant-based diet?
What’s your favorite post-workout meal?
Featured Image: iStock.com/Hispanolistic