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Can you build muscle on a vegan diet?

gain muscle mass vegan nutrition
10 min reading time

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.

vegan smoothie bowl
vegan seitan ribs

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

In addition to muscle building, the vegan diet has been associated with several other benefits that can improve athletic performance

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.

More energy

Oftentimes, people report having more energy and feeling better overall after removing animal products from their diet. Having more energy can help you perform better during your training sessions. You may find your motivation and stamina will increase.

Less inflammation

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.

Caloric surplus

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.

Protein intake

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

vegan salad bowl
vegan protein options

Carbohydrates

Carbs are your main energy source during exercise. Evidence shows that carbohydrate restriction is detrimental to performance. Whole grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, and seeds, not only provide excellent complex carbohydrates, but are also packed with fiber, micronutrients, and phytochemicals that will help you perform. The Dietary Reference Intakes’ (DRI) Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) recommends that 45-65% of daily calories come from carbohydrates. This comes out to 5-12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day. The more activity you do on a given day, the higher within the range you should aim.

Fat

After considering your protein and carbohydrate needs, the rest of your diet will be composed of healthy fats. The AMDR for fat suggests 20-35% of calories from fat. A low fat diet (less than 20% of calories) is not recommended and has been shown not to benefit performance. Excellent healthy vegan fat choices include nuts, seeds, nut butters, oils, milks, avocados, olives, and soy foods.

Supplements on a vegan muscle building diet

I like to use a food-first approach, meaning that you should aim to meet your needs with whole foods before resorting to supplements, processed foods, and protein powders. However, not surprisingly, an athlete’s needs for vitamins and minerals is higher than the amounts that an inactive person would need. You might find that you are struggling to meet all your dietary needs and are curious about vegan muscle building supplements. Here are my thoughts:

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 has important functions for athletic performance. It is needed to synthesize protein, for tissue repair, and to produce red blood cells. Because whole plant foods lack vitamin B12, all vegans must rely on fortified foods and/or supplements to ensure an adequate intake. Note, however, that there are no muscle building or performance enhancing benefits from taking a surplus of vitamin B12.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is directly involved in the building of strong bones. It is also important in the maintenance of muscle and the nervous system. You can obtain Vitamin D from fortified foods, but if you eat minor amounts of these, train indoors, or have limited sun exposure, it is recommended that you take a supplement.

Iron

Iron deficiency is common among athletes, especially female athletes. Our bodies need iron to transport oxygen in our blood. With iron deficiency, athletes experience muscle fatigue, low endurance, and decreased performance. Speak to your doctor or registered dietitian to discuss iron supplementation should you have a diagnosed iron deficiency.

Creatine

Creatine is maybe the most popular ergogenic aid among bodybuilders and strength athletes. Clinical trials have actually shown that creatine is helpful in reducing fatigue during short bursts of high intensity activities (like lifting weights and sprinting). It also helps to build muscle. Creatine is only found in meat, so vegans don’t naturally ingest it. Most creatine supplements are vegan though because they are synthetically produced. Popular creatine regimens suggest a 3-7 day loading phase of 20-25 grams of creatine per day, followed by a maintenance dose of 3 grams per day for four weeks.

Protein powder

Food first! If you find you are struggling to meet your protein needs with foods, then you might consider a protein powder. Keep in mind that like most protein powders, plant-based protein powders are quite expensive. And remember that whey protein is made from dairy so it is definitely not vegan!

BCAAs

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

Carnosine is a protein containing beta-alanine. Because carnosine is present only in animal products, vegans might have lower carnosine levels. Vegans might benefit from supplementation to boost muscle carnosine content.

Pre-workout

Pre-workout formulas might provide a short-term boost in performance but they are packed with chemicals and sugars. They also lead to many side effects, such as rashes and headaches. They are not necessary. If you’re looking for an energy boost, try a small amount of caffeine instead.

Caffeine

Caffeine is a known stimulant and should only be used in moderation. Excess intakes can cause anxiety, rapid heartbeat, and insomnia which can lead to decreased performance in the long term.

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:

Check out my Tik Tok and Instagram pages for more healthy and easy vegan recipe ideas.

 

 

 

vegan feta pasta by vegan dietitian
vegan tofu by vegan dietitian

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.