Building Muscle on a Raw Food Diet: An Impossible Dream?
If you’ve been a raw foodie or vegan for any length of time then your glowing skin and shiny hair are probably all the evidence you need of the inexorable link between healthy eating, and beauty. But if you’re new to the raw food scene, you may find yourself having to defend yourself against allegations that raw foodism and veganism generate a gaunt, haggard look. Likewise, you may be an athlete who has always been attracted to the raw food diet, but perhaps your fear of losing the lovely, muscular frame you have worked so hard to achieve, has been stopping you from taking the next step.
Muscle Matters: Why We Need to Build it
Most of us wouldn’t mind losing a couple of pounds of fat, yet when it comes to muscle, growth, rather than loss, is key to looking young and feeling strong. The benefits of building muscle go beyond skin deep. Muscle protects your joints and bones, raises your metabolism, and even increases your lifespan.
The medical term for the decreased in muscle mass is sarcopenia, a condition that leads to impaired mobility, falls, fractures and higher mortality rates. Sarcopenia also interferes with the proper mitochondrial functioning of your cells; mitochondria are the cells’ energy generators; without them, the body cannot repair cell damage or rid itself of toxins.
When we say ‘build muscle’, we aren’t necessarily talking about bulking up; we simply mean building and maintaining a healthy muscle mass that will support your bones and joints.
One of the main (and unfounded) criticisms of raw food and vegan diets is that they fail to provide adequate protein intakes. The truth is quite the contrary; there are a myriad of excellent vegan protein sources. Moreover, quality is more relevant than quantity. Raw foodies and vegans who take the time to source quality organic produce will require about half the amount of protein a meat eater needs.
Raw food expert and body builder, Peter Ragnar (author of the book, How to Build Muscle on a Raw Food Diet) says that standard bodybuilding literature sets required levels of daily protein intake too high (at one to two grams of protein per pound of body weight); he recommends a daily intake of around 4o to 50 grams for women, and 50 to 60 grams a day for men (this amount can increase to a whopping 200 grams if your aim is to put on a pound of muscle every couple of weeks).
Excellent vegan proteins sources include nuts and seeds, soybean products, sprouted seeds, whole grains, beans and legumes and spirulina – by weight, spirulina comprises 60 to 70 per cent protein! It also contains all the essential amino acids your body needs to grow muscle.
Amazing Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and the body’s ability to assimilate them increases through exercise. Raw food bodybuilders usually take amino acids like arginine, ornithine and alpha-ketoglutarate one hour before they work out and one hour before going to sleep, to increase muscle growth. Ragnar recommends consuming them for 12 weeks then resting for six.
Nitrogen Balance: Aiming for Equilibrium
Nitrogen is another vital pillar when it comes to strengthening and growing muscles; it is one of the key elements of amino acids. To achieve a positive nitrogen balance, adequate protein intake is vital.
Testosterone, a hormone produced by both men and women, is one of the main muscle stimulators. Its production can be increased naturally by consuming foods that boost healthy cholesterol (HDL). These include wild salmon and other fatty fish, as well as berries and dark, raw chocolate.
Another vital ingredient of muscle generation is Growth Hormone (GH), which increases protein synthesis, promotes fat burning and protects against muscle breakdown and loss.
Growth Hormone also leads to the release of Insulin-like Growth Factor (known as IGF-1), which increases muscle size, strength and efficiency; so much so that it is thought to be the key factor in muscle growth.
To stimulate IGF-1 production, insulin and GH levels must be high at the same time. It is therefore best to consume a meal that is both high in carbohydrates and protein around 45 minutes after a tough workout. At this time, your GH levels are high so by raising your insulin levels as well, IGF-1 production will be stimulated. Potassium (found in beets, broccoli, kale, olives, spinach and many more raw foods) is likewise key to keeping GH and IGF-1 levels up.
One hormone to avoided is cortisol (since it breaks down muscle). Make sure to get at least eight hours’ sleep, keep workouts to between 30 and 45 minutes, don’t train for over two days in a row, avoid extreme diets and stressful situations, and ensure your diet is rich in micro- and macro-nutrients.
Don’t Get Worked Up, Work Out
The importance of regular exercise (and a proper strength training routine) can’t be stressed enough. All the protein consumption in the world won’t build muscle on its own; muscles need to be stressed in order to stimulate the generation of new tissue. Examples of strong sportsmen and women who follow vegan and/or raw food diets abound; some have bigger arms than the typical meat-eating bodybuilder; others sport a leaner look. It is somewhat strange to hear women occasionally express worry about starting a weights routine, fearing they will develop a bulky frame. Muscle is actually extremely hard to put on consistently, especially for women. To really bulk up, serious bodybuilders work on ‘strenuous overload’, which involves increasing the weight lifted until six-to-ten repetitions of a set become difficult to complete. They also aim to stress out the largest number of muscles at the same time, through exercises like squats, parallel bar dips, and rows. To facilitate muscle growth during your workout, make sure to eat a handful of dried fruit around half and hour before your workout, washed down with a delicious glass of freshly squeezed juice.
Organic calcium sources keep muscles from cramping and enables them to contract, a vital part of the building process. Make sure to stock up your pantry with kelp, wild greens, unrefined grains, nuts and seed, broccoli and avocados.