Should Vegetarians and Vegans Take Creatine?

Should vegans and vegetarians take creatine supplements?

This article explores whether individuals adhering to primarily plant-based diets should consider incorporating creatine supplementation into their regimen.

What Is Creatine?

Creatine monohydrate powder and the chemical structure of creatine.

Creatine, a naturally-occurring compound, has an important role in energy production.

In this context, creatine, stored within muscles, helps to restore adenosine triphosphate (ATP) levels when they are depleted. ATP, functioning as fuel, provides quick energy for physical activities such as running or lifting weights (1).

Consequently, higher muscle creatine levels allow a more rapid replenishment of ATP levels during physical exercise. In simpler terms, energy production becomes quicker during times of need (2).

Research consistently supports the notion that creatine offers benefits for strength gains and exercise performance, while also being safe and effective (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).

While the evidence base is not as extensive, some research also suggests that creatine may confer benefits for cognitive health and memory, particularly for older adults. Further research in this area is ongoing (8, 9).

Key Point: Higher creatine levels facilitate quicker energy production, resulting in benefits for strength and physical exercise.

Do Vegetarians and Vegans Have Creatine Sources In Their Diet?

Creatine can be synthesized from the precursor amino acids arginine, glycine, and methionine (10). These amino acids naturally occur in a wide range of foods, whether animal-based or plant-based.

It is believed that endogenous creatine synthesis within the body is typically 1 gram per day (11).

Certain foods also contain relatively high amounts of preformed creatine, and it is estimated that the typical omnivores consumes 1 gram of creatine from their daily diet (11). However, plant-based foods lack it, and it is predominantly found in red meat, poultry, and fish (12).

Considering that vegetarian and vegan diets exclude these specific foods, individuals following such diets lack a natural source of creatine in their daily diet. Even though vegetarians do synthesize some creatine from amino acids, numerous studies demonstrate that their muscle creatine levels are lower than those of omnivores (13).

That being said, does this imply that vegetarians should contemplate creatine supplementation?

The answer to this question hinges the reason for considering supplementation and the expected benefits the individual seeks.

Key Point: Vegan and vegetarian dietary patterns provide foods with precursor amino acids for creatine synthesis. However, they lack foods supplying preformed creatine, leading to lower creatine muscle stores in vegetarians compared to omnivores.

How Much Creatine Do People Store On Average?

The average muscle creatine levels for young adults who do not supplement with creatine hover around 120 mmol per kilogram. However, there appears to be an upper muscle creatine storage limit of 160 mmol per kilogram (14, 15).

It is important to highlight that omnivores will represent the bulk of these ‘average’ muscle creatine levels. Thus, non-creatine-supplementing vegans and vegetarians are likely to possess slightly lower creatine stores than the aforementioned ‘average.’

In this context, muscle biopsies reveal that total creatine stores are 10-15% lower in vegetarians compared to omnivores (16). It is also probable that this difference might be somewhat more pronounced in vegans.

Controlled trials have clearly demonstrated that creatine supplementation significantly increases muscle creatine levels from baseline levels (17).

Hence, it is simple for a vegetarian or vegan to increase muscle creatine levels beyond those of the average omnivore through supplementation.

Key Point: The typical muscle creatine level stands at 120 mmol per kilogram. Creatine supplementation can notably raise these levels.

Is Creatine Essential?

Unlike some nutrients and compounds that the body requires which vegan diets don’t provide, such as vitamin B12, the consumption of a source of creatine (or supplementing with creatine) is not deemed essential.

This is because the body can synthesise creatine through the amino acids arginine, glycine, and methionine, all of which are abundant in various foods.

Nevertheless, could supplementing with creatine be deemed “optimal” for vegetarians and vegans, even if it isn’t “essential?”

It could be, but that depends on the individual’s goals.

In this context, we must once again ponder why someone might contemplate creatine supplementation.

Key Point: Supplementing with creatine isn’t essential, but it could offer benefits.

What Beneficial Effects Does Creatine Supplementation Have For Vegetarians?

There have been several studies examining the impact of creatine supplementation on individuals following a vegetarian diet.

Here is a summary of key findings from the existing evidence base:

  • In a 2020 systematic review encompassing nine randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies, the benefits of creatine supplementation for vegetarians were analyzed. The authors concluded that “creatine supplementation could be useful for any athletes who have low pre-existing muscle creatine stores, and this is typical in vegetarians” (18).
  • To achieve muscle creatine stores equivalent to omnivores, a supplementary dose of approximately 1 gram per day is required. However, a standard daily supplementary dose of 5 grams significantly elevates creatine stores beyond the average level seen in omnivores (18, 19).
  • In a 2011 randomized controlled trial involving 70 female vegans and vegetarians, along with 51 meat-eaters, baseline performance in memory tests such as word recall, reaction times, and rapid information processing tasks showed no differences between the groups. However, after four days of creatine supplementation, memory performance in vegetarians surpassed that of the meat-eaters. Conversely, vegetarians taking placebo pills instead of creatine did not experience this increase in memory performance (20).
Key Point: Research indicates that creatine supplementation in vegetarians can effectively raise creatine muscle stores to the same level as, or beyond, omnivores. Although research in this area is limited, it could also be beneficial for memory performance.

The Benefits of Creatine Aren’t Exclusive To Vegetarians and Vegans

It is important to note that the potential benefits of creatine supplementation are not limited to individuals following vegetarian or vegan diets.

For instance, vegetarians typically have only a one-gram smaller creatine intake than the average omnivore. Furthermore, research consistently shows that a supplementary creatine dose of 3-5 grams per day is most commonly used fto saturate muscle creatine stores and obtain benefits (6, 21, 22).

In other words, the majority of people with typical diets have not fully saturated their creatine stores and may benefit from creatine supplementation.

Thus, although omnivores have slightly higher muscle creatine stores than vegetarians and vegans, a supplementary creatine dose is likely beneficial for all groups seeking exercise performance-related benefits.

Key Point: The majority of people seeking exercise performance-related benefits may benefit from creatine supplementation, whether they are vegan, vegetarian, or omnivores.

Should Vegans and Vegetarians Supplement With Creatine?

As discussed in this article, creatine supplementation can increase muscle creatine levels in vegetarians and vegans to levels equivalent to, and higher than, omnivores.

The research on creatine shows that supplementation can be advantageous for physical activities that require short bursts of energy.

That said, performance gains from creatine are modest rather than striking, and supplementation is far from necessary.

However, for elite athletes and those wishing to maximize their strength, creatine supplementation may be a beneficial option to consider.

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Michael Joseph, MSc

Michael works as a nutrition educator in a community setting and holds a Master's Degree in Clinical Nutrition. He believes in providing reliable and objective nutritional information to allow informed decisions.