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Unveiling the Battle of Diets: Carnivore vs. Vegan for Maximum Bodybuilding Gains

Published 03/17/2024, 8:30 AM EDT

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Whether it’s a Mr. Olympia winner or a fitness enthusiast with bodybuilding dreams, diet is a crucial aspect. Bodybuilders take dieting very seriously. How a bodybuilder looks on stage depends on how and what they’ve eaten during prep. Let’s take at the controversial carnivore and vegan diets, which despite lying on opposite ends of the spectrum, have been touted as supportive of muscle building. But which one is actually better for bodybuilding?

While there are a plethora of diets in bodybuilding, all diets are high in protein and fats and low in carbohydrates. Although carbs go up when a bodybuilder goes on a bulk, athletes nearly eliminate them in the days leading up to the show. Since protein is the most important muscle ingredient, we’ll compare which of the two diets is best suited for muscle building.

Can you build muscle on a vegan diet?

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The vegan diet has exploded in popularity in the past two decades. Naturally, with growing popularity, many world-class athletes have also adopted the diet. In fact, researchers have extensively studied the vegan diet. Bodybuilding icon Arnold Schwarzenegger himself was a part of the popular documentary on veganism, The Game Changers.

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Since bodybuilding is all about putting on muscle while getting shredded, many still believe that a vegan diet is sub-optimal for building muscle. While it’s possible to consume plenty of protein on a plant-based diet, the problem arises from the quality of that protein. Unlike animal protein, plant-based sources lack the complete essential amino acid profile.

However, there are a few plant-based protein sources, like soy and fermented soy derivatives, that provide high-quality, complete protein. Vegans also work around the ‘complete’ protein problem by mixing various lentils with different amino acid profiles. However, one has to be aware of what foods they combine, or they might still miss some essential amino acids.

With recent developments, however, vegans have multiple options to eliminate all concerns about protein. While veganism doesn’t allow whey protein because it’s an animal product, soy, and pea protein supplements have bridged that gap. Hence, bodybuilding is possible even on the most strict vegan diet. But how does it stack up against the carnivore diet?

Bodybuilding on the carnivore diet

While the vegan diet has its fair share of controversy, the carnivore diet is even more controversial. As the name suggests, the carnivore diet eliminates all plant-based food, which is the opposite of veganism. The carnivore diet included all kinds of red meat, fish, chicken, poultry, and dairy. Unlike the vegan diet, the carnivore diet is even more niche, and nearly no long-term studies on the diet exist.

While celebrities like Joe Rogan have touted the benefits of the carnivore diet, the evidence still remains anecdotal. However, an abundance of protein in the carnivore diet is a huge advantage when it comes to bodybuilding. Nearly all meats are high in protein, and fat content can be optimized depending on the cut of meat.

Animal protein is also complete and of higher quality than nearly all plant-based protein. The carnivore diet also suits bodybuilding because most meat products are low on carbs and also help bodybuilders benefit from high protein and low fat. However, bodybuilders require far more than just protein.

Since the carnivore diet is also an elimination diet like veganism, leaving out all plant products eliminates several necessary vitamins and minerals from the diet. Many of these vitamins and minerals are essential for bodybuilding. Hence, those on a carnivore diet also require supplementation.

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Which one is better for bodybuilding?

When supplementation is taken out of the picture the vegan diet falls behind on protein quality. Hence, one might say that at face value the carnivore diet is better for bodybuilding. However, the reality is that bodybuilders taking this approach require heavy supplementation. In fact, the vast majority of elite bodybuilders do not adhere to either of the extremes.

While they also eliminate certain foods, even the best bodybuilders in the world include plant and animal foods in their diet. Recently, seven-time Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote about eliminating only sugar, ultra-processed foods, and refined grains from your diet. These are the culprits that derail the bodybuilding journey of any athlete.

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Although the carnivore diet might sound like the better option in the context of muscle-building, the myth of vegans not getting enough protein is also untrue. At the end of the day, it all comes down to the individual and what kind of diet suits them the best.

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Written by:

Sagnik Bagchi

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Sagnik Bagchi is a senior bodybuilding writer at EssentiallySports. A passionate fitness enthusiast himself, Sagnik uses his knowledge of bodybuilding to focus on the coverage of major events like the Mr. Olympia and Arnold Classic.
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Edited by:

Abhishek Manikandan