Can you build muscle on a vegan diet?
Can you build muscle on a vegan diet?
So you want to build muscle and improve your athletic performance but aren’t sure how to do this on a vegan diet? Well, you’ve come to the right place.
You can optimize your nutritional intake, hit all your macros, and feel good about the food you eat in order to build muscle on a plant-based diet.
From endurance sports to weight lifting and bodybuilding, there are famous vegan athletes that prove you don’t need meat to excel. James Wilks (famous MMA fighter), Kyrie Irving (pro NBA star), Colin Kaepernick (pro football player), and Kendrick Farris (Olympic weightlifter) are just a few examples of athletes who advocate for the plant-based diet.
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger is now recommending to fellow athletes to “just chill it with the meat”, suggesting that there is no reason why eating a vegan diet would limit athletes from building muscle and strength.
What does a vegan muscle building diet look like?
Before we dive in, let’s first talk about what veganism is. A vegan diet is a way of eating that excludes animal products as much as possible.
It excludes meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, gelatin, and other foods of animal origin. Instead, vegan diets include all foods of plant origin, like vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds.
Nutrition research shows that a key to achieving peak performance and recovery is consuming a healthy balance of all the necessary nutrients while meeting energy needs.
Benefits of a plant-based diet for bodybuilding
It’s better for your health
There’s strong scientific evidence that many chronic diseases (type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and more) can be prevented and controlled with a healthy vegan diet. This is partly attributed to a lower intake of saturated fats and cholesterol and a higher intake of fiber and various micronutrients.
Vegan diets have been shown to reduce biomarkers of chronic inflammation. Inflammation contributes to slower recovery times and increased risk for arthritis.
Common pro-inflammatory foods are red meats, processed meats, and refined carbohydrates. A whole food, plant-based diet is composed of many anti-inflammatory foods that will help your body reduce its overall inflammation, which is especially important for athletes.
Mass building on a vegan diet
Building muscle and strength is actually pretty straightforward from a physiological point of view. It takes working out consistently, eating lots of food, and hitting a protein intake target.
If you train hard but don’t eat enough, or alternatively if you eat lots and don’t train enough, your balance will be off. You likely won’t see the results you want.
Let me show you how we can apply these vegan sports nutrition principles to the vegan diet.
A vegan muscle building diet requires that you eat enough calories. Ideally, you want to consume 10-30% more calories than required for daily maintenance. To find out your daily maintenance caloric goal, use the Harris Benedict Equation. From here, multiply your “Total energy expenditure result” by 1.1-1.3 to find your personalized recommended daily intake for mass gaining.
At first, you’ll have to monitor your weight closely to ensure your caloric intake is within ideal range. Adjust your results as needed. And remember that as you gain weight, you’ll have to periodically re-do the Harris Benedict Equation with your new weight!
Note that fruits and vegetables are very healthy for us, but they are ‘bulky’ and low in calories. If you’re eating a lot of fruits and veggies, it can be hard to gain weight on a vegan diet. You should focus on plant-based foods that have higher caloric density in order to gain muscle. This means making sure that your meals and snacks include larger amounts of grains, beans, tofu and tempeh, meat and dairy alternatives, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and avocados in addition to fruits and vegetables.
During heavy training, you might also benefit from eating frequent meals and snacks, like having snacks before bed.
You have probably heard the myth that you can’t get enough protein on a vegan diet. This is simply not true!
There are nine essential amino acids that we need daily to serve as “building blocks” for protein in our bodies. Some plant foods such as soy and quinoa are complete proteins containing all nine essential amino acids. Otherwise, all plant foods are limited in at least one amino acid. However, by eating a variety of plant proteins, you can get all the amino acids you need and more each day, no problem.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes. Protein intake should be spaced throughout the day and after workouts (i.e. not eaten all at once during the same meal!).
This means if you are an athlete that weighs 90kg, you should aim to have 108-180g of protein per day.
What are the best vegan protein sources?
Here are some of my favourite vegan protein sources:
● Tofu: 20 grams per 1 cup
● Tempeh: 15 grams per ½ cup
● Legumes: 14 grams per 1 cup
● Soy milk: 9 grams per 1 cup
● Quinoa: 8 grams per 1 cup
● Nut butters: 8 grams per 2 tbsp
● Steel cut oats: 8 grams per ¾ cup
● Whole grain bread: 7 grams per 2 slices
● Nuts: 7 grams per ¼ cup
● Hemp seeds: 7 grams per 2 tbsp
Supplements on a vegan muscle building diet
The branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) – leucine, isoleucine, and valine – are gaining popularity. Most studies have failed to show increased performance with BCAA supplementation, but there’s reasonable evidence to show it can reduce muscle damage and soreness, and regulate immune function.
A healthy, balanced vegan diet provides all the BCAA the typical athlete needs. However, for elite athletes, BCAA supplementation may be of value.
Carnosine and Beta-alanine
Sample vegetarian meal plan for muscle gain
The meal plan below shows one example of how you could achieve around 100g of protein in one day while choosing healthy carbohydrate and fat sources, too.
Keep in mind that you would need to work out how many calories you need for your training goals and how these meals would need to be adapted for you.
If you’re looking for a personalized meal plan, a vegan registered dietitian can help you!
Breakfast: Steel cut oats with soy milk, blueberries, and hemp seeds
Recovery snack: Slice of whole grain toast with almond butter and banana
Lunch: A bowl of lentil soup, a side salad with greens, broccoli, mushrooms, pistachios, and a slice of wholegrain toast
Afternoon snack: Hummus with celery sticks and two rice cakes
Dinner: Stir fry with edamame beans, tofu, peppers, and carrots served with quinoa
Vegan athlete recipe ideas
There are countless delicious, simple, and vegan meal ideas out there!
Some of my favourites are:
- Sunshine coconut bowl
- Shredded tofu 6 ways
- Quick shawarma salad
- Easy vegan peanut noodles
- California strawberry smoothie bowl
You can build muscle on a vegan diet!
You can absolutely optimize your nutritional intake to perform and build muscle on a vegan diet. If you have additional questions about vegan sports nutrition check out my other articles and consider meeting with a registered dietitian who can guide you and can help you adopt a well-planned, balanced, nutrient-dense plant-based diet for athletic performance.