As vegan diets become more popular than ever among consumers, those who work out regularly might ask, “how do vegans build muscle with plant-based food?”
Building muscle as a vegan is about simple lifestyle and dietary changes; for those who take building muscle seriously at a professional level. For example, if you’re pursuing a career in bodybuilding, it’s possible to become a champion in your field while avoiding animal products entirely. For those who are just looking to tone up and maintain muscle, this is completely possible on a vegan diet too.
Our guide answers everything from questions about protein, to deficiencies, to what sort of foods you should be eating when trying to build muscle on a plant-based diet.
Do You Need to Eat Meat to Get Enough Protein?
To build muscle, you need protein, and contrary to what some believe, it is completely possible to get enough of it on a vegan diet. You can eat everything from pulses such as lentils and beans to soy-based foods and vegan meat products. The Beyond Burger, made by vegan meat brand Beyond Meat, contains even more protein than a traditional beef burger at 20 grams per patty.
In fact, any concern about “getting enough protein” is misplaced, according to the dietitian and nutritional adviser Reed Mangels. “Although protein is certainly an essential nutrient which plays many key roles in the way our bodies function, we do not need huge quantities of it,” she maintains.
Of course, if you’re trying to build muscle, the story might be a little different. Even so, you still don’t need to worry too much about supplements when trying to build muscle on a plant-based diet. “Vegan athletes‘ protein needs can range from 0.36 to 0.86 grams of protein per pound,” notes Mangels. “Protein supplements are not needed to achieve even the highest level of protein intake.”
In fact, Mangels warns that everyone – including athletes – need to be careful about consuming too much protein.“More (than the Recommended Dietary Allowance) is not necessarily better,” she notes. “There do not appear to be health advantages to consuming a high protein diet. Diets that are high in protein may even increase the risk of osteoporosis and kidney disease.”
Will You Get Deficient In Vitamins and Minerals?
After concerns about protein, the next thing some worry about when switching to a vegan diet is becoming deficient in vitamins and minerals. Whilst everyone needs to ensure they are looking after their body, those working on building muscle need to be especially preoccupied with their health and making sure they are consuming all the right nutrients.
One of the most common deficiencies for those who follow a plant-based diet is B12, but it’s not only vegans who suffer from this. Actually, anyone who doesn’t follow a balanced diet is at risk of developing a vitamin B12 deficiency, signs of which include fatigue, depression, confusion, and balance problems.
To consume enough B12, ensure you’re eating foods such as fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, and mushrooms. You could also drink fortified plant-based milk, and if you need to, take a vegan supplement regularly.
Another deficiency to be aware of is vitamin D, which can cause muscle pain, as well as fatigue and depression. Ensure you’re taking a plant-based supplement, or eating vegan fortified foods and getting enough sun to avoid becoming deficient in vitamin D.
It is possible to get all the vitamins you need from plant-based foods, but if you’re struggling to maintain a balanced diet, you could consult a nutritionist or use a meal planner.
Can You Get Enough Calories to Build Muscle on a Vegan Diet?
As well as protein, getting enough calories is essential to building muscle. According to Mary Weidner – the co-founder of Strong Fastr, a vegan-friendly, muscle-building app – this is a common issue for bodybuilders and athletes who transition to a vegan diet.
However, overcoming the problem is not too difficult, it is a case of adding healthy snacks into your diet.
“Fruits and veggies are typically quite filling and low-calorie and as a result, it can be hard for some to eat enough calories,” Weidner told LIVEKINDLY. “In this case, vegan calorie-dense foods like nuts, seeds, and bananas should be added into smoothies or eaten as snacks.”
For bodybuilders who are trying to bulk up, care and attention when meal planning goes a long way, says David Barbour, the founder of wellness company Vivio Life Sciences. “You may have to get creative with your bulking meal plans, even when you are cutting weight and reduce food intake,” he explained to LIVEKINDLY. “There are plenty of 100% vegan bodybuilders… they prove it is possible.”
He advises, “Listen to your body, once you decrease your bodily fat past a certain point it becomes rather apparent what your body actually needs, it is easier to interpret, listen, and engage.”
Can You Be a Successful Bodybuilder on a Vegan Diet?
As Barbour notes, it is entirely possible to be a successful bodybuilder whilst following a vegan diet. Massimo Brunaccioni is an Italian bodybuilder who decided to go vegan for the animals around seven years ago.
His dietary choices haven’t held him back, he regularly competes in international tournaments, placing second at the 2018 World Natural Bodybuilding Federation (WNBF). In 2017 and 2018, he won the amateur division of WNBF, the INBF Natural USA.
“No one can say that vegans cannot excel in bodybuilding,” the athlete wrote last year. “There are still some who consider it inferior and talk about superior protein, not realizing that the world (and science) are moving forward.”
He continued, “I am confident that maybe, in a bit of time, these people will also lose the anchor of those stupid myths and preconceptions like myself, seven years ago.”
Brunaccioni isn’t alone. Last May, at the You Plant-Based Guide Conference, six prominent vegan bodybuilders were featured on a panel, including Robert Cheeke, Vanessa Espinoza, Will Tucker, Dr. Angie Sadeghi, and Ella Magers – aka “Sexy Fit Vegan.” They shared their secrets to staying fit and getting enough protein.
Magers claims that in her younger years she struggled with a negative body image, eventually discovering a passion for veganism and fitness. The bodybuilder and fitness expert believes that in the muscle building community, there is an unhealthy “obsession” with – often animal-based – protein. For over 12 years, she has worked as a vegan fitness and wellness professional, and in 2013 she was named Bodybuilding.com’s personal trainer of the month.
“It’s true, going vegan is refreshing, energizing, and gives your body all the highest quality nutrients it needs to be healthy,” she notes on her website. “It cuts out bad fats & all the hormones & antibiotics you find in meat & dairy products, and if you do as I recommend & eat organic, non-GMO, unprocessed foods the majority of the time, you will mold your body into the sexy, lean shape you have always wanted.”
What Should You Do, Eat, and Drink to Build Muscle on a Vegan Diet?
1. Consume Healthy Calories
As Weidner noted, consuming enough calories on a plant-based diet can be hard for new vegan bodybuilders, but it’s important that you try to consume the right amount. If you do not consume enough, you may start to lose body mass as your body starts to use itself as an energy source, according to Bare Performance Nutrition.
To make sure you’re getting enough calories, you should consider taking a vegan bodybuilding supplement, such as MyProtein. But you also need to ensure you’re consuming the right foods. Pack in healthy proteins such as nuts and quinoa, as well as fruits, like raisins and bananas. Nut butters like peanut butter and almond butter also good snacks as well as plant-based milk in smoothies. Soy milk tends to be the highest in protein. You can also opt to snack on high-protein vegan jerky.
You could also consider cooking your food in coconut oil to give it a calorie boost.
2. Eat Healthy Carbohydrates
Don’t be scared of carbohydrates, they will help you to build muscle. However, this doesn’t mean you should gorge on unhealthy treats. Stick to low-glycemic carbs, such as fiber-filled whole wheat pasta and bread. Eat oatmeal for breakfast, and try and pack in legumes and beans like chickpeas, lentils, and black beans into your meals every day.
3. Make Sure You’re Getting Omega-3
Most bodybuilders get their omega-3 – aka polyunsaturated fatty acids that help you to build muscle and avoid injuries – from fish, but it’s entirely possible to also get it from plant-based sources.
Walnuts are a particularly good omega-3 source, with even more levels than salmon. Dr. Greg Maguire, the founder of BioRegenrative Sciences, told LIVEKINDLY, “The omega-3 fatty acid in walnuts is in a different form than that in salmon. But like salmon, when humans eat omega-3 fatty acid in the form of ALA they can also convert it to EPA and DHA. You don’t need a salmon to convert it for you.”
4. Eat Little and Often
According to Bare Performance Nutrition, eating little and often – roughly six to eight small meals or big snacks – will allow you to maintain a “positive nitrogen balance” on a vegan bodybuilding diet. “It’s important that you have a steady flow of nutrients such as protein, healthy fats, calories, and carbs constantly entering your body,” the publication notes. It adds that taking supplements will help to keep this constant flow going, but eating healthy plant-based snacks like fruit, nuts, seeds, or bars, is also essential.
“Not only does this help to keep your body fueled and ready for your next workout session,” the publication continues, “but it also helps to boost your metabolism and make you burn fat faster.”
5. Keep a Food Journal
Keep track of what you’re eating, so you know which plant-based foods and recipes work for you. For busy days, maybe it’s a peanut butter and banana smoothie that does the trick, or a morning bowl of oatmeal. For days when you have more time, experiment with different recipes and note down which ones were simple. Also note which ones were more complicated, as you could always prepare these in advance.
You could also use your journal for meal prep, to plan out what you’re going to eat throughout the week. This is an especially good practice if you know you have a busy week ahead of you, and you don’t want to let your balanced diet slip.
Bare Performance Nutrition notes, “If you’re serious about following a vegan bodybuilding diet, you must keep track of every single bite and sip. Keeping a food journal is a fantastic option, or there are plenty of apps for tracking your diet. When you have a food journal it’s easy to reference how many calories and protein you’ve already consumed you can eat more or less as needed. It also helps you to be aware of your eating habits.”
6. Supplement With Vegan Protein Powder and Bars
You can also supplement your diet with high-protein snacks like vegan protein shakes and bars. Sunwarrior makes a plant-based protein powder that can be incorporated into a raw vegan diet as well as one made from peas and brown rice.
KOS chocolate protein powder, which contains 20 grams of protein per serving, uses a blend of pea, pumpkin seed, flax seed, chia seed, and quinoa protein. Vegan athlete Brendan Brazier founded the plant-based protein brand Vega, which makes a variety specifically designed to meet the nutritional needs of athletes. It also makes bars with names that sound like candy bars, including Chocolate Peanut Butter and Mint Chocolate.
Vegan protein cookies are becoming increasingly popular. Lenny & Larry’s makes flavors like Chocolate Chip, Peanut Butter, Snickerdoodle, and Birthday Cake. Munk Pack and Long Island-based brand No Cow both make gluten-free and vegan protein cookies. If you’re looking for a low-calorie, low-sugar vegan protein bar option, the majority of No Cow’s options contain 20 grams of protein, about 200 calories, as little as 1 gram of sugar, and up to 18 grams of dietary fiber.
Image Credit: Massimo Brunnacioni
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