Why I Struggled To Gain Muscle on a Vegetarian Diet

In my pursuit of determining the most effective way to increase health span while still being able to gain large amounts of lean mass, I decided to try vegetarianism. The reason for this was that I was becoming uncomfortable with the fact that I was consuming low quality meat everyday. I went over this briefly in my article about my 5 day fast (I Forgot To Eat…For 5 Days). Initially, my plan was to show how lean mass could be gained on a vegetarian diet which I did, but at a much slower (and messier) rate than I expected. In the three weeks that I lasted on this vegetarian experiment, I gained approximately 2 pounds. That was definitely a mix of fat and muscle mass. Fat accompanied the weight gain because of many different problems that I will go into more detail about below.

Digestion

In order to support proper muscle growth, my meal plan needed to include multiple vegetarian protein sources. My sources of choice were eggs, green peas, black bean noodles, chickpeas and vegan protein powders (in order to avoid lactose; I realize now that good quality 100% isolates have no lactose). Eating these foods everyday for a week was no issue. In preparing the beans in the first week, I was properly soaking them and cooking them thoroughly. However, although the cooking process was great, I couldn’t control the bloating that they were causing. It was a natural consequence of eating beans. Soaking the beans in advance reduces the amount of resultant bloating but slight bloating was inevitable. The soaking process reduces anti-nutrients like phytic acid and washes away any pesticides which can cause discomfort. Unfortunately, this is only part of the reason beans can cause discomfort. Beans are made up of complex sugar molecules called Oligosaccharides and the human body lacks the enzyme required to break them down. Upon clearing the stomach, these oligosaccharides are passed to the small intestine. Within the small intestine, the required enzyme is not available to break these sugar molecules down so they are further passed onto the large intestine where they serve as food for the good bacteria in the gut. This results in several chemical reactions that cause bloating and gas as a by-product.  Eating beans 3 times a day, to meet a protein quota that I was comfortable with, proved to have its side effects. Everyone is different and some may have a varied ability to handle the digestion of beans. Unfortunately, the digestion process ended up taking it’s toll on me.

Preparation Process Took Forever

In order to prepare the beans properly, I needed to be soaking them for around 24 hours. This happened twice a week (my meal prep days). On top of that, cooking each of the batches of beans took about 2 hours. It was too much. It may have worked had I cooked large amounts and then frozen them for later distribution into containers, rather than cooking them at an “as I need them” basis.

What’s crazy about the soaking process is that I would find that after soaking, the water in which the beans were sitting was always covered in white residue after 24 hours. That’s most likely the several different anti-nutrients and pesticides being removed. It was really cool to see.

Can’t Control The Cravings

I’m not sure what it was about this vegetarian diet but it made me crave sugar like a cocaine addict. I knew that it was a really bad idea to be taking in such fast digesting sugars so quickly after my 5 day fast, but I somehow convinced myself that it was ok, while I binged on salt-water taffy treats and chocolate covered almonds. This most definitely caused me to regain some of the fat that I had very recently lost.

Incomplete Protein

One major problem with using beans as a main protein source is that they have incomplete amino acid profiles. Amino acids are the base molecules to proteins. Some amino acids, the body can create on its own and are considered non-essential. There are other amino acids which the body cannot create and are considered essential. Essential because they must be acquired through dietary intake. If one were to eat a piece of steak or chicken, they would know that they are getting a full spectrum of amino acids. Beans however, are considered by many nutritionists to be complementary protein sources. To go through each type of bean that I was consuming and somehow find out if I was getting the proper amount of each amino acid was too much work. I decided to go ahead with the diet anyways just to see what would happen.

The training program that I am on (Project Mass) recommended that I take 3 separate BCAA (Branched-Chain Amino Acid) drinks in between my 4 meals. BCAAs are three essential amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) which form the building blocks of a muscle protein. I thought that adding this would be perfect because it could alleviate some of the concern that I had that my amino acid profile was incomplete. Within the second week of taking my 3 daily doses of the Mutant BCAA 9.7 product, something very scary happened. A bizarre side effect started to occur where I would become an absolute psycho. Every little thing bothered me to the point where I was on the verge of starting fights over NOTHING! I didn’t realize that it was the BCAA supplement that was doing this to me. I then removed it for a couple days and then re-implemented it only to have the same thing happen again. Now, I don’t take this as being the fault of the Branched-chain amino acids  but instead another ingredient in the mixture of the Mutant product. I had been taking a different flavor of this product and these bizarre side effects didn’t start until I moved to a new flavor. Maybe, the product had been sitting around too long before I bought it? Maybe I had developed an allergy to one of the additives within the product? It didn’t matter, I knew that it was only the BCAA supplement that was doing that to me so I promptly removed it.

The other problem with consuming beans all the time is that they do not have a very high bioavailability. Bioavailability is a measure of the absorption of a protein source upon consumption. Beans rank lower among the bioavailability list compared to cuts of meat like steak, chicken, fish or even eggs. This means that in order to absorb the same amounts of total protein as a meat-based diet, I may have had to add even more protein.

Way Too Repetitive

On paper, this meal plan looked great. I love beans, peas, rice and quinoa so I didn’t foresee any problems. When week 2 came around, I began to lose my appetite. These carb dominant foods were very filling and in the beginning that was the issue. As soon as week 3 came around and the bloating was mounting, I no longer craved those foods even when I was hungry. The same 3 main dishes over and over again began to get boring. It got to the point where I was forcing food down. At this point I realized that I needed to drop this meal plan and reformulate a new plan.

Being that I had come off of ketosis before starting this meal plan, I began to realize how inflamed and miserable these carb based foods were making me. Basically, I had went back to feeling like my old normal again. Ketosis had shown me that there was a whole new level of energy and optimism that could be achieved. Going back to the traditional carb heavy diet showed me that ketosis was my prefered state and that’s what I decided I would go back to.

After a week of eating whatever I wanted in order to restore my appetite, I moved to a keto style diet which consisted of moderate amounts of protein and very high levels of fat. Carbs were kept under 30g (net carbs) and my protein sources were salmon, eggs and protein shakes. This is the meal plan I am currently following and I feel amazing! Inflammation is down, appetite stays up, sugar cravings are down and most important of all I feel euphoric energy even on little amounts of sleep.

How Vegetarianism Might Work

Now although this lean mass gaining experiment didn’t work out for me, I don’t discredit the benefits of a vegetarian diet. First off it’s very cheap! Buying beans in bulk set me back approximately $5 per bean type, for about a month’s supply (even when I was eating them everyday). Secondly, it has a much smaller impact on the environment. In order to see this, I highly recommend that you watch Cowspiracy. Thirdly, it can decrease inflammation tremendously. Obviously, when you eat beans as often as I did, inflammation will be high but if you eat a vegetarian diet based on when you’re hungry rather than a strict meal plan schedule, you will definitely see a decrease in total inflammation.

So although the vegetarian mass gaining experiment didn’t work out for me, it may work for someone else. Everyone is different and some may have what it takes to handle the strenuous digestion process that accompanies the continuous ingestion of beans. There are also many other factors that go into being able to build lean mass, and sometimes ones genetics can allow them to be able to loosen up on their diet. If this is the case some people may be able to make easier gains on a relaxed vegetarian diet.

My future plan is to move in and out of vegetarian/plant-based diets. In thinking about what the ideal diet may be, I’m starting to question the feasibility of cycling diets based on the seasons in order to maximize health and results. Thi idea may manifest itself in a future blog post.

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