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Muscle, Testosterone, and a Plant-Based Diet

Testosterone regulates several functions in the body, including muscle growth, bone mass, fat distribution and red blood cell production.[1] It’s also instrumental in anabolism, the metabolic process in which complex molecules are built from simpler ones—including muscle fibers from proteins in the food you eat. Testosterone levels are therefore very important for maintaining or increasing muscle mass.

Individuals focused on exercise performance and results can achieve optimal testosterone levels by eating well, but what exactly does that look like? Whether plant-based diets affect testosterone levels and muscle growth is a matter of ongoing debate.

How does testosterone build muscle

How does testosterone build muscle?

To build muscle, testosterone interacts with androgen receptors on cell surfaces and regulates gene expression.[2] The body responds by:

  • using amino acids from food to make proteins;
  • increasing growth hormone levels;[3]
  • reducing protein breakdown;[4] and
  • resisting fat storage.[5]

It’s the perfect combination for a muscular physique as long as enough testosterone is available. Conventional “gym wisdom” suggests that eating a lot of animal protein is the best way to ensure optimal testosterone for muscle building, but plant-based foods can be just as powerful.

Can a plant-based diet affect testosterone?

Can a plant-based diet affect testosterone?

Studies on how diet affects testosterone show that, although vegan men tend to have more of a testosterone-regulating compound called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), there are no significant differences in testosterone levels between omnivores and those on plant-based diets.[6]

High-protein, low-carb diets are a different story: they appear to increase cortisol levels and decrease testosterone.[7] Switching to a plant-based diet can reverse this pattern and give testosterone levels a boost.[8]

Optimizing testosterone on a plant-based diet
But not all plant-based diets are created equal. Subsisting on plant-based meat analogs and vegan snacks isn’t the answer for healthy testosterone levels. A diet high in ultra-processed foods can actually reduce testosterone,[9] as can excessive exposure to BPA, a preservative present in many can linings and plastic packaging.[10]

Whole and minimally processed plant foods, by contrast, are low in junk and high in nutrients. Some foods offer particular benefits that support testosterone:[11]

  • Nuts, seeds, and avocados have omega-3 and other unsaturated fats.
  • Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cabbage can control estrogen levels.
  • Bananas contain B vitamins.

Supplementing with vitamin D and vitamin B12 is also recommended to prevent deficiencies.

Can you still build muscle on a plant-based diet?

Can you still build muscle on a plant-based diet?

One common concern about plant-based diets is that, despite being nutrient-dense, they don’t provide enough protein to build muscle. But studies show plant-based sources of protein support muscle growth just as well as animal foods.[12]

Eating a plant-based diet may also increase your VO2 max, the amount of oxygen your body can use when exercising.[13] A higher VO2 max can improve performance during long or vigorous sessions. And because plant-based foods are anti-inflammatory, you may not need as much time to recover before your next workout.[14]

Tips for building muscle with plant-based foods
For best muscle-building results on a plant-based diet, balance is important—including eating enough protein. Strength training regimens require between 0.8 and 1.9 grams of protein per kilogram (about 0.36 to 0.86 grams per pound) per day—[15] that’s around 54 to 129 grams for a 150-pound person.

Unless you’re an elite athlete or undergoing intense training, research shows no additional benefit from eating more. Going beyond what you need may cause health problems, including decreased testosterone.[16] The safe upper limit for protein appears to be 2 grams per kilogram (0.9 grams per pound) per day.[17]

You should have no problem meeting your requirements if you:

  • Include a source of plant-based protein like beans, lentils, tofu, or tempeh at each meal.
  • Eat nutrient-dense snacks like nut butter toast, chia pudding, or fruit and nuts.[18]
  • Eat enough calories to support your exercise regimen.

Tracking your macronutrients with an app like Chronometer can help you visualize how much protein you eat and adjust as needed. With healthy testosterone levels supported by a plant-based diet, your body can use these proteins—and the nutrients from other foods you eat—to build and maintain strong muscles.

References

  1. “Testosterone: Functions, Deficiencies, and Supplements.” Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/276013
  2. Kraemer, William J., Nicholas A. Ratamess, Wesley C. Hymer, Bradley C. Nindl, and Maren S. Fragala. “Growth Hormone(s), Testosterone, Insulin-like Growth Factors, and Cortisol: Roles and Integration for Cellular Development and Growth with Exercise.” Frontiers in Endocrinology 11 (2020). https://doi.org/10.3389/fendo.2020.00033.
  3. Pietrangelo, Ann. “16 Effects of Testosterone on the Body.” Healthline. Healthline Media, September 17, 2018. https://www.healthline.com/health/low-testosterone/effects-on-body#Muscle,-Fat,-and-Bone.
  4. Birzniece, Vita, Udo J. Meinhardt, Margot A. Umpleby, David J. Handelsman, and Ken K. Ho. “Interaction between Testosterone and Growth Hormone on Whole-Body Protein Anabolism Occurs in the Liver.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 96, no. 4 (2011): 1060–67. https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2010-2521.
  5. Herbst, Karen L, and Shalender Bhasin. “Testosterone Action on Skeletal Muscle.” Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care 7, no. 3 (2004): 271–77. https://doi.org/10.1097/00075197-200405000-00006.
  6. Kuchakulla, Manish, Sirpi Nackeeran, Ruben Blachman-Braun, and Ranjith Ramasamy. “The Association between Plant-Based Content in Diet and Testosterone Levels in US Adults.” World Journal of Urology 39, no. 4 (2020): 1307–11. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00345-020-03276-y.
  7. Anderson, Karl E., William Rosner, M.S. Khan, Maria I. New, Songya Pang, Paul S. Wissel, and Attallah Kappas. “Diet-Hormone Interactions: Protein/Carbohydrate Ratio Alters Reciprocally the Plasma Levels of Testosterone and Cortisol and Their Respective Binding Globulins in Man.” Life Sciences 40, no. 18 (1987): 1761–68. https://doi.org/10.1016/0024-3205(87)90086-5.
  8. Michael Greger M.D. FACLM. January 18, 2017. Volume 34. “The Effect of Animal Protein on Stress Hormones, Testosterone, and Pregnancy.” NutritionFacts.org, January 18, 2017. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-effect-of-animal-protein-on-stress-hormones-testosterone-and-pregnancy/.
  9. Hu, Tzu-Yu, Yi Chen, Pei Lin, Chun-Kuang Shih, Chyi-Huey Bai, Kuo-Ching Yuan, Shin-Yng Lee, and Jung-Su Chang. “Testosterone-Associated Dietary Pattern Predicts Low Testosterone Levels and Hypogonadism.” Nutrients 10, no. 11 (2018): 1786. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10111786.
  10. Leonard, Jayne. “The 8 Best Foods to Boost Low Testosterone.” Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, January 28, 2020. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323759#foods-to-avoid.
  11. Edip, Mehmet. “8 Vegan-Friendly Foods That Boost Your Testosterone.” Muscle & Fitness, March 10, 2004. https://www.muscleandfitness.com/flexonline/flex-nutrition/8-vegan-friendly-foods-boost-your-testosterone/.
  12. Hevia-Larraín, Victoria, Bruno Gualano, Igor Longobardi, Saulo Gil, Alan L. Fernandes, Luiz A. Costa, Rosa M. Pereira, Guilherme G. Artioli, Stuart M. Phillips, and Hamilton Roschel. “High-Protein Plant-Based Diet versus a Protein-Matched Omnivorous Diet to Support Resistance Training Adaptations: A Comparison between Habitual Vegans and Omnivores.” Sports Medicine 51, no. 6 (2021): 1317–30. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-021-01434-9.
  13. Jewell, Tim. “VO₂ Max: Definition, How It’s Measured, How to Improve.” Healthline. Healthline Media, April 22, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/vo2-max.
  14. Gora, Anna. “What Science Says about Veganism for Athletes.” LiveScience. Purch, May 19, 2022. https://www.livescience.com/veganism-for-athletes.
  15. Pointing, Charlotte. “How Do Vegans Build Muscle with Plant-Based Food?” LIVEKINDLY, December 15, 2020. https://www.livekindly.co/how-do-vegans-build-muscle-with-plant-based-food.
  16. Whittaker, Joseph, and Miranda Harris. “Low-Carbohydrate Diets and Men’s Cortisol and Testosterone: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Nutrition and Health, 2022, 026010602210830. https://doi.org/10.1177/02601060221083079.
  17. Huizen, Jennifer. “How Do You Know If You Are Eating Too Much Protein?” Medical News Today. MediLexicon International, August 21, 2018. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322825#are-high-protein-diets-safe.
  18. Andrews, Julie D. “The 8 Best Muscle-Building Foods for Vegans and Vegetarians.” Men’s Journal. Accessed June 29, 2022. https://www.mensjournal.com/food-drink/8-best-muscle-building-foods-vegans-and-vegetarians/8-seeds/.

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