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Muscle-Building Supplements for Vegans (and Everyone Else!)

If you're on a plant-based diet -- or just cutting back on animal products -- check out these four key research-supported supplements to support your workout regimen.

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Many people, including athletes, choose a lifestyle without meat or animal products. In the past, being a vegan or vegetarian strength athlete would have been a rare thing, but today, it’s commonplace—and the numbers are increasing. This has placed pressure on supplement companies to produce vegan-friendly muscle-building supplements that are as effective as their “animal-derived” predecessors.

For those who are living the vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, you likely already understand the importance of getting enough basic nutrients such as vitamins B12 and D, along with adequate amounts of iodine, iron, calcium, and zinc. You’re likely getting enough protein because vegan-friendly protein food sources and supplements are abundant. What you may not know, though, is that many science-backed animal-derived supplements are now produced synthetically (with no animal-based starting products) or produced purely from vegetable matter.

In an effort to help you with your fitness goals, we’ve highlighted four key muscle-building supplements that, as a vegan (or vegetarian), you may not have considered before.

Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids: DHA and EPA

What are DHA and EPA?

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are two essential fatty acids that must be taken in the diet.

Where are vegan sources of DHA and EPA derived from?

Although fish oil is the most common source of concentrated DHA and EPA, there are reasons why fish have so much of this stuff in them. One of those reasons is that fish survive on DHA- and EPA-rich algae. So if you’re a vegan, skip the middle man and go straight to the source. There are many vegan-friendly omega-3 supplements derived from algae (algal oil) that contain an abundance of EPA and DHA.

How can DHA and EPA boost performance?

There are many great benefits associated with DHA and EPA supplementation, which include decreased cardiovascular health risk, increased fat metabolism and decreased symptoms from inflammatory conditions. Additionally, they have been shown to incorporate themselves into heart and muscle cells. In the heart, studies illustrate that consumption of omega-3 fatty acids results in lower oxygen consumption by this organ — essentially enabling the heart to get its work done with less effort. In a study published in Bioscience, Biotechnology & Biochemistry, Japanese researchers illustrated that EPA and DHA serve as “blood thinners” (decrease blood viscosity), which improves blood flow and oxygen supply to tissues to increase exercise performance.

How to take your DHA and EPA: You should be aiming to get 1 to 4 grams of combined EPA and DHA in your diet each day. For best results, take 1 gram of DHA and EPA postworkout with a protein shake and 1 gram with breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Beta-Alanine

What is beta-alanine?

In skeletal muscle, beta-alanine and histidine form the dipeptide carnosine — where the level of beta-alanine limits carnosine production. As such, when beta-alanine is available in excess (i.e., supplemented), it leads to elevated muscle carnosine levels.

What is “vegan-friendly” beta-alanine derived from?

Although carnosine is concentrated in brain and muscle of animals, it is formed from the amino acids beta-alanine and histidine. While carnosine is only found in meat, both these precursors are abundant in vegetable and plant matter. In fact, the most studied and effective patented form of beta-alanine, CarnoSyn, is “vegan-friendly” because it’s derived entirely from plant material.

How can beta-alanine increase performance?

When you take this muscle-building supplement consistently, the associated elevation in carnosine levels boosts muscle function and performance. One of the ways this occurs is through carnosine’s ability to decrease the accumulation of acidic metabolic byproducts that can build up during prolonged high-intensity exercise. By limiting the accumulation of acidic byproducts in muscle, you can push harder for longer during your workouts, resulting in increased training volume.

Beyond its acid-buffering effects, high muscle carnosine also acts as a potent antioxidant, which has been shown to delay neuromuscular fatigue in strength and power athletes — a performance benefit that is unique to beta-alanine supplementation. Since beta-alanine supplementation can delay workout fatigue and increase training volume, it’s not surprising that training with beta-alanine supplementation leads to improvements in body composition.

How to take your beta-alanine: There is a positive relationship between a beta-alanine dose and muscle carnosine levels. The research suggests that you can reap the benefits of CarnoSyn beta-alanine with as little as 1.6 grams per day. However, it will take some time for muscle carnosine levels to peak. The research shows that you get the greatest carnosine loading effect when you take 4 to 6 grams of CarnoSyn beta-alanine per day. Split your daily dose into three servings and take pre-workout, Intra-workout and postworkout. Since beta-alanine supports the “buildup” of skeletal muscle carnosine over time, then take it throughout the day on rest days, too.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

What are BCAAs?

Leucine, isoleucine, and valine are three of nine essential amino acids that are prized as muscle-building supplements. Being essential simply means the body cannot synthesize them, so we have to get them from food or supplements. BCAAs make up a great proportion of the total amino-acid content in skeletal muscle and are readily broken down (catabolized) during exercise. During exercise, BCAAs are reduced to their basic components and are eventually used as fuel for energy. Based on this, it is obvious why BCAA supplementation benefits athletes undergoing strenuous training.

What are “vegan-friendly” BCAAs derived from?

Vegan-friendly BCAAs are becoming very popular, even among meat-eating athletes. This is likely because it has become apparent that many non-vegan BCAA products are commonly formed from hair or duck feathers. Vegan BCAAs are produced via fermentation of plant sources in fermenters or bioreactors.

How can BCAAs increase performance?

Preworkout BCAAs prevent their breakdown during exercise, reduce muscle soreness and protect muscles from catabolism. BCAAs have also been shown to decrease perceived exertion and fatigue during heavy training by balancing the brain’s tryptophan levels and providing substrates for energy production.

Postworkout BCAAs protect the body from catabolism and decrease recovery time. The BCAA leucine also boosts the release of the anabolic hormone insulin. You want insulin levels to be rapidly elevated after your workouts because this hormone carries nutrients such as glucose and amino acids into muscle cells — promoting greater protein synthesis and muscular gains during recovery.

How to take BCAAs: Research tells us the best BCAA products contain leucine, isoleucine and valine in a 2:1:1 ratio. We recommend taking 5 to 10 grams of BCAAs 30 to 60 minutes before your workout and again immediately postworkout to get the best results. On non-training days, take 5 to 10 grams of BCAAs a few times between meals to increase energy, decrease hunger and assure you have an abundance of these essential aminos on board.

Creatine

What is creatine?

Well-known as a muscle-building supplement, creatine, or methyl guanidine-acetic acid, is a nonessential compound that is produced by the body and is taken in through meat sources in the diet. Creatine is synthesized by the body from arginine, methionine and glycine and is stored in skeletal muscle.

What is “vegan-friendly” creatine derived from?

Creatine is not found in plants, but most creatine supplements are synthetically produced from “vegan-friendly” starting products in laboratories.

How can creatine increase performance?

Creatine is taken up and stored in skeletal muscle where it provides high-energy creatine phosphate to muscles, which serves to help produce adenosine triphosphate or ATP (energy for contraction). In the end, having elevated creatine stores in muscle promotes dramatic increases in strength and power during explosive and extended performances with less time needed for rest.

Increased creatine phosphate levels also buffer (reduce) muscle acidity that occurs when you perform high-repetition exercises or sports in which you go all-out for extended periods. Under these conditions, your body gets its ATP from anaerobic glycolysis, and most of us know going all-out for this long leads to lactic-acid buildup and a loss of muscle power. The muscle acidity-lowering effect of creatine supplementation will allow ATP production to go at top speed and enable you to perform longer at max.

How to take creatine: We suggest sourcing a vegan-friendly source of creatine monohydrate because the abundance of research supports this form. Take 3 to 5 grams of creatine monohydrate before your workout, and on rest days, take 3 to 5 grams around the same time as you do on training days.

Related: Sports Supplements to Boost Strength and Speed Recovery 

From: Vegetarian Times