Do you need meat to build muscle?

build muscle
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says Nick Mitchell, founder of training company Ultimate Performance, who says a diet including meat and fish is essential if you want to make the best possible gains

If you train hard and want to be the strongest you can possibly be, it’s optimal to have meat and fish in your diet. That’s not to say you can’t progress without them – but you’ll be at a distinct disadvantage. 

Meat and fish aren’t just beneficial for their protein. It’s also the creatine, iron, leucine, zinc, taurine, glycine, vitamin B12, carnosine, carnitine, omega fats and other nutrients they contain. These all help create a better muscle response to exercise and better recovery, resulting in a superior ability to pack on size.  

In theory it’s possible to replace meat with supplements. But it’s an expensive way to get everything your body needs and is a lot harder than just getting those nutrients through food. And even if you invest in all the pills and powders, you’ll need to watch out for gelatine-based capsules and products containing animal derivatives such as rennet. 

I once had a vegetarian guy who came to me to do a transformation for a magazine feature. After I put him through his paces in the gym it was clear that he needed to change his diet to reach his goal. Being a persuasive type, I convinced him to eat meat and fish. The photoshoot looked great, and I guarantee he would never have achieved such incredible results if he hadn’t turned carnivore.

If you have ethical beliefs that stop you eating animal products, I respect that. And you’ll still make progress in the gym – it will just be slower. There are muscular vegetarians and vegans out there, of course. I’ve just never met any. 

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says Derek Tresize, a vegan with a certification in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University and a WNBF pro natural bodybuilder with three first-place finishes

First let’s get one thing straight: there’s not much in animal foods that can’t be found in plants. Whole plant foods contain proteins, complex carbs, healthy fats, fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. On the flipside, animals contain no carbohydrates, no fibre, no antioxidants and very few vitamins or minerals, and they have more contaminants due to bioaccumulation (mercury in fish, for example), and potentially unhealthy substances such as saturated fat. 

Animal proteins have the advantage of being more concentrated (often about 80-90% of the calories are from protein, while high-protein plants are closer to 50%) and containing more creatine and leucine. However, it’s still easy to hit your protein quota by eating plenty of legumes, green vegetables, nuts and seeds. There are also high-quality plant-based protein powders available if you need to supplement your diet. As for creatine and leucine, even meat eaters have to take supplements to get the amounts needed for serious muscle growth.

Eating plants will provide all the essential nutrients you need to build healthy lean body mass. Also, animal proteins take more time and energy to digest. Every vegan athlete I’ve spoken with, from endurance athletes to MMA fighters, describes feeling more energetic and enjoying faster recovery after eliminating animal proteins. In my experience, the only people convinced you need meat and fish for optimum muscle growth are those who are too scared to go without it.

Coach Staff

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