Creatine for Vegans: Sources, Supplements, Benefits, Dosage

November 25, 2021

Over recent years creatine has risen in popularity in being the latest supplement to improve athletic and sports performance. In this article, we take a deep dive into creatine for vegans, vegetarians and plant based eaters and special considerations in this dietary choice.

What is creatine?

Creatine is a non protein amino acid that can be found in some foods but is also often supplemented. It is considered a non-essential nutrient because it can be produced endogenously (within our own bodies). 

For the most part, the interest in creatine has mostly been in regards to its use as a sports supplement. 

It is one of the most well-researched ergogenic aids around and can benefit almost every athlete due to its role in energy metabolism. 

It also has applications beyond sport including in neurological health and potentially mood regulation. 

There are many types of creatine on the market, the positive outcomes found from supplementation are specifically from creatine monohydrate. 

This is a white, mostly tasteless powder that should be ingested after mixing with a liquid such as water, juice or in a smoothie. Creatine monohydrate is very bioavailable and around 99% of what you consume is absorbed in the digestive tract (1)

Most creatine is stored in the skeletal muscle but small amounts are also stored in the brain. Supplementation of increases stores in both muscle and in the brain, although it has a greater impact on muscle creatine stores (1)

What does creatine do?

Creatine in the muscle is used for very efficient energy production during short bursts of high intensity exercise. From a biochemical perspective, creatine is combined with a high energy phosphate group and that molecule is called phosphocreatine. This is what is stored in the muscle.

When the body requires a production of energy very quickly, the phosphate group breaks off of the phosphocreatine so that it can be used to create another molecule called adenosine triphosphate or ATP. 

ATP is the main energy currency of the cell. 

More creatine stores equals greater production of ATP for energy. This allows for a great amount of rapid energy production during exercise which can result in improvements in performance.

Sources of creatine

Creatine can come from three different places;

  1. Endogenously – Our bodies produce ~1g per day from the amino acids, arginine, glycine and methionine (1).
  2. Animal products predominantly red meat and fish – People who eat animal products get around ~1g of through their diet daily on average (2).
  3. Creatine supplementation – you can supplement directly with creatine monohydrate.

Do vegans have low creatine levels?

For those on a plant-based diet who do not eat red meat or seafood, they are relying solely on the endogenous production of this nutrient as plant based foods do not contain creatine (3).

Vegetarians may get some creatine through eggs and dairy but it isn’t a significant amount. 

Studies have shown that vegetarians and vegans have lower creatine stores. This would make sense considering their low dietary intake (4). 

However, you will not become deficient if your dietary intake is low. Clinical deficiency will only occur if you have a specific medical condition that reduces endogenous creatine production or storage. 

Supplementing is less about avoiding deficiency and more about improving energy production for performance and potentially improving cognitive function. 

Therefore,  supplementation isn’t necessary for every person following a plant-based diet such as other nutrients like B12, but it may be worth considering. 

 

eggs and dairy are vegetarian sources of creatine

What are the benefits of supplementation?

Performance & Body Composition

The well studied benefits of creatine are mostly in relation to athletic performance.

The concentration of phosphocreatine decreases rapidly after the onset of activity, leading to fatigue (4)

Starting an activity with a high store of phosphocreatine helps to enhance performance as well as recovery.

Research has shown that consistent supplementation can increase maximal strength and power, decrease recovery time, reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMs)  and assist with increases in lean body mass (4, 5, 6).

Creatine’s link to improvements in muscle mass is likely due to the fact that you are able to train at higher intensities, providing a greater stimulus to muscles resulting in overall greater training adaptations.

 

Brain Health & Mood 

Convincing evidence exists also of creatine’s effectiveness in psychological function. 

Creatine plays a pivotal role in brain-energy homeostasis and supplementing may be useful in managing mental fatigue, improving short term memory, reducing the impact of sleep deprivation, improving reasoning skills and maintaining mental capacity with aging (5,7). 

Supplementation may even assist in the treatment of depression in some individuals. A preliminary study found creatine to be effective in managing treatment-resistant depression in women (8). 

The theory is that altered cerebral energy metabolism may be involved in the pathophysiology of depression. Improving creatine stores in the brain may rectify this altered energy metabolism (8).

However, it appears that increasing  stores in the brain may require larger doses of supplementation than required for muscle saturation. Although it is unclear what the ideal dosage is (7).  

It should also be noted that whilst vegans and vegetarians do tend to have lower creatine stores in their blood and muscles, this does not seem to extend to brain stores (9). 

Lack of dietary creatine does not impact brain stores as the brain is dependent on endogenous production of creatine synthesised locally (9). 

As such, the low intake in plant based individuals is not going to increase the risk of depression by depleting brain stores. Although supplementation may assist in normalising energy production in the brain caused by other physiological responses. 

 

 

How should it be taken?

 

The goal of supplementation is usually to saturate muscle creatine stores. This can be done in one of two ways.

Fast loading 

The first is with a loading phase followed by a maintenance phase. The loading phase allows you to reach peak muscle stores very quickly, within 5-7 days. 

When your muscle stores are optimised to their fullest potential that is when you will experience the full benefit of supplementation. 

This phase involves supplementing at a dose of 20-25g per day for a week. You should break this up into 5g doses 4-5 times per day as taking it all at once will likely result in gastrointestinal distress. 

How many doses you have to split the total 20-25 into will depends on your individual tolerance. Some people can stomach 10g twice per day. However, to play it safe, 5g doses are unlikely to cause gut upset.

After the 5-7 day loading phase you will proceed to the maintenance phase. This is where you take 3-5g of creatine monohydrate per day to maintain total muscle creatine saturation. 

Those with a large amount of muscle mass and/or who are very active will go through more creatine so they should aim for the higher end of the 3-5g dosage recommendation. 

It could also be argued that because vegans and vegetarians are not consuming as much creatine through other dietary sources, that they should also aim for the higher end of that range.  

A small amount of creatine is degraded and excreted in the urine each day so the daily maintenance dose will allow you to keep your levels high. 

Consistency is key when it comes to supplementation. You should take it on training and non-training days. The aim of the game is to keep consumption/production slightly higher than degradations and excretion. 

 

Slow Loading

The second way to start supplementing with creatine is slow loading. This is basically where you skip the loading phase altogether and go straight to the 3-5g maintenance dose. 

Loading is not the only way to reach peak muscle  stores. You can do it over time with your maintenance dose. 

Although this does take much longer than if you were to complete the loading phase. At least four weeks of consistent supplementation would be required to get the full benefit of  supplementation. 

 

Cycling creatine

There are many myths surrounding supplementation. One of those myths is that you need to cycle on and off.

This is not true. 

We now know that ongoing supplementation will not decrease your sensitivity to the supplement, nor will it affect your body’s ability to produce it endogenously.

Cycling off creatine would only reduce your body’s stores to below optimal and potentially interfere with your ability to take it every day once you cycle back on.

Like doing anything, supplementing consistently requires you build a habit in doing so. Cycling on and off will just make this habit forming more difficult. 

 

What happens if I forget to take it?

If you forget to take your creatine a day here and there, it is unlikely to impact your muscle stores significantly. The 3-5g dose should be effective in topping your stores back up after a day of not taking it. 

Furthermore, it takes around 30-days for your muscle creatine levels to return back to pre-supplementation levels after stopping supplementation (10). So if you have not taken your creatine for 2-4 weeks, you may want to repeat the loading phase or simply slow load it with the maintenance dose. 

 

When Should I Take Creatine?

Creatine can be taken at any time. Consistently taking it on a daily basis should be the first priority.

Supplementing does not provide an acute effect like other supplements such as caffeine. The goal of  supplementation is the build up effect.

In saying that, studies have shown that supplementing after resistance training may lead to slightly better improvements in lean mass than taking it at another time during the day. 

But you should be more concerned about daily intake rather than timing. 

There is also some evidence that having carbohydrates and protein at the same time as your supplementation may improve the uptake into muscle cells (11). This is more pertinent to the loading phase.

The research does show that you need a significant amount of carbohydrates and protein to improve the uptake of creatine so it may not actually be worth worrying about. You may wish to have it with food where possible but it definitely isn’t a must.  

 

 

Is creatine vegan?

 

Dietary creatine comes strictly from animal proteins and is therefore not vegan. However,  supplements are almost always synthetically made.

It would be unusual to find a plain creatine monohydrate power that wasn’t vegan.

As with any supplement you may wish to double check with the company about the ingredients, processing and testing to ensure it is 100% vegan and cruelty free. 

 

Is creatine safe?

 

Creatine has undergone rigorous safety testing since it became popular as a supplement in the 1990’s (1,4).

One of the only side effects is a small amount of intracellular water retention, particularly in the loading phase if you are taking 20-25g per day.

Some people say supplementation makes them feel puffy although the amount of water retention that occurs is unlikely to be noticeable in most people. 

Depending on the person this water retention may be anywhere between 1-3kgs. It is unclear if the water retention is acute or is persistent throughout the entire time it is supplemented (1). 

However, because  storage is finite, once saturation has been optimised you will not continue to store more and more water with supplementation. 

Water retention is not something to be concerned about unless you are a weight making athlete who needs to make weight in the near future, in which case you should be mindful of the potential increase in weight upon starting supplementation. 

From another point of view, creatine can be used to hyper hydrate prior to events to avoid dehydration due to its ability to increase intracellular water storage. This can be beneficial in endurance sports and things like multi-event tournaments where dehydration may be an issue. 

It can also be utilised after an acute weight cut where an athlete uses manipulation of fluids and sodium to make weight for an event. In the rehydration process, creatine is often used. 

check with the company to ensure the creatine is vegan

Should vegans, vegetarians or plant based eaters take creatine?

 

If you are plant based and think creatine would help you with athletic endeavors, optimising body composition or cognitive function, it is well worth a try. 

Although it isn’t 100% required on a vegan or vegetarian diet, the evidence we have for its benefits are strong. 

It also has very little downsides outside of a small amount of water retention.

If you do choose to supplement, just make sure that you choose creatine monohydrate and take it consistently in order to get the best results. 

 

This article was written by Plant Nutrition and Wellness’s resident plant based sports dietitian and nutritionist Leah Higl. If you’re following a plant-based or vegan diet and want to make sure you’re meeting all your nutritional needs, optimise your performance and have an individualised nutrition plan created uniquely for you, get in touch today.

 

References

 

  1. AIS Sports Supplement Fact Sheet – 
  2. Benefits of Creatine Supplementation for Vegetarians Compared to Omnivorous Athletes: A Systematic Review
  3. Brain creatine depletion in vegetarians? A cross-sectional 1H-magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS) study
  4. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine
  5. Oral creatine supplementation augments the repeated bout effect – Study
  6. Analysis of the efficacy, safety, and regulatory status of novel forms of creatine
  7. Effects of creatine supplementation on cognitive function of healthy individuals: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials
  8. Creatine monohydrate in resistant depression: a preliminary study
  9. Brain creatine depletion in vegetarians? A cross-sectional 1H-magnetic resonance spectroscopy (1H-MRS) study
  10. Muscle creatine loading in men – Journal Article 
  11. Protein- and carbohydrate-induced augmentation of whole body creatine retention in humans

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