Look through any of the traditional muscle-building diets, and you’ll see the same old meal plan recommendations: turkey and eggs for breakfast, chicken breast for lunch, and steak for dinner.
But hey…. What if you’re on a vegan (i.e. plant-based) diet?! 🌱Can you still build serious mass if you don’t eat meat?
Spoiler alert: yes.
Admittedly, it may be a bit more challenging for you to build muscle while on a vegan diet. But it’s not impossible.
You just have to be aware of several limitations of the vegan diet–in the context of bodybuilding, specifically–and account for them.
So, yes, you definitely need to be more conscious of making the right nutrition choices.
Don’t worry if you feel like you’re wading into deep waters; this article is going to provide you with everything you need to know to get the most muscle gains out of your fuelled training sessions.
Get enough protein daily
As with all muscle-building diets, you have to ensure you’re getting enough protein daily. This macronutrient (or rather, the amino acids it contains) literally serves as your muscle tissues' building blocks.
But… How would you know how much protein you need to eat daily?
Well, you’ll have to calculate it. Current studies show that hitting anywhere between 1.6 grams to 2.0 grams of protein per kg of body weight is plenty if you're trying to maximize muscle growth.
That said, be aware that you’d get a much more accurate figure of your required protein intake if you were to use your lean mass instead of your body weight–but you’re unlikely to have access to this knowledge unless you’ve had something like a DEXA scan done before.
So, to put the numbers into perspective: let’s say you weigh 60 kg. You’ll, therefore, need to eat 120 grams of protein daily if you’re following the guideline of 2.0 g/kg of body weight.
That means you’ll need to have a rough gauge of the amount of protein you’re getting in each meal.
If you’re not a fan of Googling for the nutritional information of every single thing you put in your mouth, calorie-tracking apps (like MyFitnessPal and MyNetDiary) are lifesavers.
Opt for high-quality protein sources
Before you call it a day after calculating your daily required protein intake… There's something else you need to do if you wish to build the most muscle possible while on a vegan diet.
And that is, ensuring you base your diet around high-quality protein sources.
Definition of a high-quality protein source
To understand why you'll need first to know the 2 main factors that determine the quality of a protein source:
• Digestibility – The proportion of amino acids from the protein that can be digested, absorbed, and used for protein synthesis.
In general, based on the 2 requirements listed above, plant-based protein sources are already considered ‘inferior’ in comparison to animal-based sources.
That’s because animal-based proteins typically contain higher leucine content (roughly 8 to 13%, compared to 6 to 8%) and have a higher digestibility (more than 90%, compared to 45 to 80%).
Best vegan protein sources to build muscle
So, if you wish to really build as much muscle as you can on a vegan diet, you’ll need to choose high-quality plant-based protein sources–those high in leucine content and digestibility.
For your easy reference, here are a few examples of high-quality vegan protein sources:
• Lentils (red, green, and brown)
• Black beans
• Kidney beans
• Vegan protein powder
Another tip: get in a good variety of protein sources.
That’s because plants tend to contain low amounts of at least one or two essential amino acids, depending on the category to which they belong.
For example, legumes lack methionine and cysteine, while grains, nuts, and seeds tend to be low in lysine.
Combining a variety of vegan protein sources increases the likelihood that you’re getting adequate amounts (in terms of maximum muscle growth) of all 9 essential amino acids.
And this is supported by a 2019 review published in Sports Medicine, where researchers found that the consumption of different plant-based protein sources resulted in a larger muscle protein synthesis response than a single plant protein source.
Don't forget to get your basics right, too
Here's the thing. Getting adequate protein–and ensuring that it mostly comes from high-quality sources–will not get you far if you're not doing the basics right.
So, what are these basics?
Here’s an overview of the things you need to do if you wish to build as much muscle mass as possible on a vegan diet (or any diet, really):
• Eat in a calorie surplus – Want maximal gains? Then you'll need to eat in a calorie surplus. There's no getting around this. Aim for a roughly 10 to 20% increase to your maintenance calories; don't go beyond this, or you'll gain too much fat compared to muscle.
• Make time for recovery – There's no muscle growth if you don't give your muscles time to repair themselves. Program in at least one or two rest days. And if you really can't sit still, consider doing active recovery days, where you just do light stretching/brisk walks around the neighborhood. Just no heavy lifting.
• Actually work out – Ah, the most crucial factor of all. If you want to build muscle while on a vegan diet, you'll need to work out (unless you’re on steroids, but that’s a whole other story)–and consistently, at that. Building muscle takes time. Years of hard work. Be patient, and you shall be rewarded.
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Anthony, J. C., Anthony, T. G., Kimball, S. R., & Jefferson, L. S. (2001). Signaling pathways involved in translational control of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle by leucine. The Journal of Nutrition, 131(3), 856S-860S. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/131.3.856S
Anthony, J. C., Yoshizawa, F., Anthony, T. G., Vary, T. C., Jefferson, L. S., & Kimball, S. R. (2000). Leucine stimulates translation initiation in skeletal muscle of postabsorptive rats via a rapamycin-sensitive pathway. The Journal of Nutrition, 130(10), 2413–2419. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/130.10.2413
Anthony, Joshua C., Lang, C. H., Crozier, S. J., Anthony, T. G., MacLean, D. A., Kimball, S. R., & Jefferson, L. S. (2002). Contribution of insulin to the translational control of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle by leucine. American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism, 282(5), E1092-1101. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.00208.2001
Lonnie, M., Hooker, E., Brunstrom, J. M., Corfe, B. M., Green, M. A., Watson, A. W., Williams, E. A., Stevenson, E. J., Penson, S., & Johnstone, A. M. (2018). Protein for Life: Review of Optimal Protein Intake, Sustainable Dietary Sources and the Effect on Appetite in Ageing Adults. Nutrients, 10(3). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10030360
Trommelen, J., Betz, M. W., & van Loon, L. J. C. (2019). The Muscle Protein Synthetic Response to Meal Ingestion Following Resistance-Type Exercise. Sports Medicine, 49(2), 185–197. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-019-01053-5