Vegan athlete with muscular shoulders

Plant Power – Building Muscle on a Vegan Diet Explained

Surely you can’t build muscle on a vegan diet, right? What about protein? Aren’t all vegans skinny? In this article, we’re going to uncover how and why it’s possible for plant-based athletes to build mass. This is how to add hard, lean muscle on a vegan diet.

What is a vegan diet?

Simply put – a diet that abstains from all animal-derived products. Think no whey or other dairy, meat like chicken breast, or fish like tuna. Eggs are out of the equation too – leaving out the last old-school bodybuilding protein source.

People call a similar type of diet plant based too, which as the name suggests uses plants as a main food source, and mostly rejects processed food. For the most part, the words plant-based and vegan are used interchangeably in today’s food world. We’ll be doing the same too.

So, the vegan world is filled with skinny malnourished hippies and woke-bros, right?

Wrong. Veganism has become one of the fastest-growing diets and lifestyles at present, meaning it’s scope of members in the v-gang are expanding too. Today you’ll find everyone from bodybuilders to actors living vegan – not just friendly new-age types waving incense to cleanse their hemp clothes.

Eating a vegan diet draws athletes for different reasons. Ethics is the main one, with many of them taking on a plant-based lifestyle because of animal rights concerns or a more eco mission. However, some choose to go vegan because of the proposed anti-inflammatory effects of saying no to meat. Some athletes report being able to recover quicker and better post-training because of it.

Nutritional knowledge has come a long way too. Wanting to thrive on a nutritious diet has never been easier with the power of the internet as books, webinars, YouTube, and online courses are all on-demand. Hell, just think of this article and the many more like it.

But, how can a vegan build muscle?

Vegan or not, we all build muscle the same. First, you create a stimulus, say hitting a heavy set of barbell bench presses, which creates tiny tears in your muscle fibers. Next, your body fixes or replaces these fibers via a cellular process whereby it fuses the fibers together to create new myofibrils.

As these fresh myofibrils become thicker and their number increases, the muscle gets bigger, establishing hypertrophy. Growing this way happens when muscle protein synthesis happens at a faster rate than muscle protein breakdown too.

See it as you’re rebuilding a wall faster than your worst enemy is trying to tear it down. How quickly you can stack bricks on top of one another, in this case proteins, the sooner you grow.

Genetics can play a part in muscle building- that’s just a hard truth. But the fact is that every person builds muscle using the above process. So-called hard gainers might need to adjust how they’re eating and what exercise they’re doing if they’re still skinny. On the other hand, there are certain types of people born to body build.

Hard and fast rules of muscle building? Train, employ progressive overload, eat enough, and recover properly.

Can vegans eat enough calories to build muscle?

Yes, yes, and yes. What truly matters is the quality of those calories. We’re not here for a big old dirty bulk driven by vegan junk food and take out. No way! Vegan muscle building is about boosting calories the right way!

Lean bulking requires you to raise your daily calorie needs (TDEE) by around 10-20%. Fats and rich complex carbs are an easy way to do this – as we’ve said before, peanut butter on everythang. For a deeper guide to balancing your macros for building check out this guide. Yes, you still get a cheat meal or two during the week before you ask.

By now you get what we’re trying to say – vegans build muscle just like meat-eaters. It’s all about working hard, progressive overload, and being smart about your recovery. The only difference between the two is dietary, which leads us onto the big ‘P’ – protein.

Selection of vegan protein source beans

Do you need to eat meat? Can you get protein just from vegan food?

Protein is the essential macro for muscle, fact. But despite what you’ve probably been told you can get enough plant-powered protein on a vegan diet.

Beans, lentils, ancient grains, and soy products are all drenched in muscle stacking amino acids. You can even get plant-based protein powders too! It’s all about checking labels and learning a little about the power of plants. Just remember that plant proteins aren’t as bioavailable as your typical animal aminos. The fix? Eat more of them!

What’s important is that you’re mindful of eating every essential amino acid out there. You’ll find these incomplete proteins like soy and quinoa, whereas other sources might be incomplete. Complete protein, as their name suggests, contain all the essential amino acids necessary to build muscle. Incomplete, however, don’t. No need to panic – getting enough EAAs throughout the day is easy if you eat enough, combine your sources, and are smart with your approach. 

To sidestep most issues, vegans commonly combine their sources within 24-hours. Take beans and brown rice, or wholemeal toast and PB at breakfast followed by a tempeh salad at lunch as an example. It’s always a good idea to keep a balanced and varied diet for the sake of nutrient intake, stopping the development of intolerance’s, and your sanity.

Complete Vegan Protein

Incomplete Vegan Proteins

Soy – Tofu, Tempeh, Edamame, Seitan, Isolate

Beans – Black Bean, Kidney Bean, Butter Beans, etc.

Quinoa

Lentils

Complete Vegan Protein Powders

Rice

Buckwheat

Hemp

Ezekiel Bread

Nuts

Spirulina

Wholemeal Bread & Pasta

How much protein do you need to build muscle?

The answer to this kind of depends. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), you should aim for 1.4-2.0 gram per kilogram of body weight, sticking to the upper end for bulking [1]. Interestingly, a lot of trainers advocate eating a single gram per pound of bodyweight too. Going for the upper end can be better for vegans because as we just mentioned, plant proteins aren’t as bioavailable as animal types. If you’re needing to stay lean maybe consider more soy over carb-rich beans etc. 

Protein synthesis can only overtake breakdown if you have enough of the muscle-building macro available. So, like all bodybuilders, it’s advised you chow down on protein at every feed.

The ISSN say that 10 g of EAAs as part of a 20-40 g overall amount of protein is optimal for maximally stimulating muscle protein synthesis [2]. An average-sized vegan can achieve this easily in every feed.

Stomaching all a days worth of amino acids all in one or two sittings can be a challenge in itself, though. It’s actually recommended you split your intake up evenly throughout the day, however, at intervals of around 3-4 hours. That sounds much more manageable for us. 

Don’t panic at downing a shake the second you drop the barbell either because we’re going to unveil a secret – the optimum window is up to two hours! The sheer panic of trying to cram in protein while the bar’s still bouncing is old news. Ditch downing shakes due to marketing tactics and stick to what feels comfortable within that window. 

Hard and fast protein rules:

  • 1.4-2.0 g/kg a day

  • 20-40g each serving

  • 3-4 hr intervals

  • 0-2 hr after exercise
  • Ensure you’re eating a full scope of EAAs and BCAAs

Walnuts to be used as fat source for vegan muscle building diet

Fixing fats for your physique

Fats are essential to any muscle-building endeavor – fact. Vegan or not they’re an important part of producing anabolic hormones, and low-fat diets have been linked to lower levels of testosterone in men [3].

Let’s not forget fats one of the three main macros that provide energy too. They’re your body’s second favorite calorie source after carbohydrates and at nine kcal per gram, they’re a great tool to take you into a lean mass stacking calorie surplus. Did someone say peanut butter on everything?

Speaking of testosterone, one study shows that being vegan doesn’t automatically mean lower androgen levels than meat eaters [4]. Interestingly enough, this seems to be in the face of lower total-fat and saturated fat intake, the latter being found in a lot of animal products.

Omega-3 & Omega-6

However, omega-3 and -6 counts can often be low in vegan, which scientists believe is because of the lack of fish in their diet. Whereas most people pop a fish oil capsule or actually eat marine-sources fats, a plant-based diet doesn’t have either of those things.

Marine algae, whether it’s in food, oil, or capsule form can be used as a replacement. You can simply skip the fish and feed it yourself. Other tasty and easy to source Omega-rich foods include nuts, seeds, wild rice, plant oils, and various fortified vegan milks.

Why does this matter? Omega-3 and -6 are vital for growth, development, heart health, fighting inflammation, and combating chronic disease. You could say they’re not something to be missed.

Omega-3 may also boost nitric oxide production for enhanced endurance and muscle pumps, which is a must-have for muscle building. While increased nitric oxide production has been shown to delay fatigue, meaning more reps, muscle pumps themselves have been shown to boost muscle growth in resistance-trained individuals [5] [6] [7].

Selection of the carbohydrate pasta

Carbohydrates for vegan muscle building

Vegans tend to eat diets higher in carbohydrates than your average omnivore athlete. But, when it comes to muscle building, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Carbohydrates are actually very useful when you’re looking to add mass. They’re your body’s preferred energy source, meaning it’ll take calories from carbs before anything else. What does that mean in the short term? Plenty of energy to train hard, lift heavy, and make gains!

It works like this; carbohydrates are broken down and depending on their complexity, or how many sugars they have, they can be quick release or slow release.

Endogenous glycogen stores are maximized by following a high-carbohydrate diet (8–12 g of carbohydrate/kg/day [g/kg/day]); moreover, these stores are depleted most by high volume exercise.” – ISSN, (2017) [2]

How carbs also help build muscle for vegans

Carbs are also protein-sparing too, meaning they protect your hard-earned muscle. If you fall super-low on muscle glycogen, your body might actually catabolize your mass to create it. That means muscle wastage and undoing the hours it took you to build it.

Not only that, but studies have shown eating adequate carbs might improve protein synthesis. This is the process of building new muscle, which as a muscle-building vegan is your top priority [2].

Scientists believe this is due to increased insulin response, and as insulin promotes anti-catabolic effects in the muscle, moves the protein balance in favor of anabolism – aka building [8].

Complex vs simple carbs

Complex carbohydrates are long chains of sugars that take a while to be broken down. They’re good for providing a slow release of energy and are typically more nutritious. Complex carbs are considered low GI (Glycaemic Index).

Scranning these two-to-three hours before training is great for vegan muscle building, as it allows time for them to be digested and for their sugars to be released. Any later can sometimes send too much blood to the stomach instead of other places when you’re exercising, leading to sluggishness and discomfort.

Simple sugars, on the other hand, say gels, bars, or sweets, etc. give you a rapid release of glucose. They’re usually formed of chains one or two sugars long, hence how quickly they’re broken down. You can usually taste their sugary sweetness right away in your mouth! Simple sugars are considered high GI.

Your body can use this glucose by transforming it into glycogen for muscle fuelling glycogen fast. So, simple carbs are ideal for quick energy before training or an aggressive tactic for replenishing muscle glycogen quickly. Cool tip – drinking coffee alongside carbs can help glycogen reuptake!

Complex Carbohydrates

Simple Sugars

Beans

Glucose (Energy Gels, Bars, Drinks)

Whole Grains (Quinoa, Buckwheat, Barley, etc.)

Table Sugar

Oats

Lactose

Wholewheat Pasta

Fructose

Brown & Black Rice

Soda

Wholemeal Bread

Sweet treats (Candy etc.)

Sweet Potato

Cookies/Biscuits/Cake

Fibrous Vegetables

Beer

Wholemeal Flour

Dried Fruit (Mango, Dates, etc.)

Micronutrients – Vitamins & Minerals

Muscle building isn’t just about the big and bulky macros. It’s also important to shore up your physique with all the essential vitamins and minerals too. We call these micronutrients.

Unfortunately, as you’ve probably heard, plant-based diets can often be deficient in a bunch of these. While there are loads vegans out there thriving, a lack of knowledge or concern can leave gaps in the nutrition of some.

Over time these unoccupied necessary spaces lead to deficiencies, which can be followed by health complications. Naturally, this is less than ideal for building plant powered muscle!

Vegans tend to show low levels of both vitamin D and B12. In fact, both of these deficiencies can be common in carnivores who don’t follow a wholesome, balanced diet too. Vegans just seem to be the most at risk.

Vitamin B12 has crucial roles in metabolism and energy production. Lack of it may lead to fatigue, depression, balance problems, and even confusion – four things that’ll halt your gains like a broken down train. How can you counteract the risk? Fortified vegan milk, nutritional yeast, a vitamin B complex supplement, or certain mushrooms.

Ample vitamin D is also no joke for getting yoked. Deficiencies in this can cause low testosterone, muscle pain, fatigue, and depression. You’re also more at risk if you’re a vegan who doesn’t spend much time in the sunshine. Bottom line? Look toward a plant-based vitamin D supplement or eat food fortified in it. Oh, and try to step out in the sun, it’s good for your wellbeing and anabolic hormones.

Vegan muscle building supplements

Supplements aren’t essential for building muscle – fact. But, there’s evidence out there suggesting they could speed up your progress and enhance results. We’ll dust off the best ones here to round up, but feel free to check out our full best vegan supplements guide soon.

A complete guide to the best vegan supplements is coming soon! Keep checking in v-gang.

Vegan athlete building muscle with a barbell

Last lift on vegan muscle building

Vegan muscle building isn’t as far fetched as people claim. Look at the likes of athletes like Nimai Delgardo, Natalie Matthews, and Patrik Baboumian have achieved. You’d be sorely mistaken to call those weedy, skinny, or malnourished. The correct term is stacked, jacked, and full of lean mass.

Follow the dietary advice in this article and grow your own plant-powered muscle. Train the same, lift heavy, and make sure to look after your recovery. We’ve given you the tools to bulletproof your diet, the rest is on you!

Good luck and embrace the Muscle Mindset.

References

[1] Jäger, R., et al. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2017 14:20

[2] Kerksick, C., Arent, S., Schoenfeld, B., Stout, J., Campbell, B., & Wilborn, C. et al. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Journal Of The International Society Of Sports Nutrition, 14(1). doi: 10.1186/s12970-

[3] Volek, J., Kraemer, W., Bush, J., Incledon, T., & Boetes, M. (1997). Testosterone and cortisol in relationship to dietary nutrients and resistance exercise. Journal Of Applied Physiology82(1), 49-54. doi: 10.1152/jappl.1997.82.1.49

[4] Allen, N., & Key, T. (2000). The effects of diet on circulating sex hormone levels in men. Nutrition Research Reviews13(2), 159-184. doi: 10.1079/095442200108729052

[5] Martins, M., Moss, M., Mendes, I., Águila, M., Mandarim-de-Lacerda, C., Brunini, T., & Mendes-Ribeiro, A. (2014). Role of dietary fish oil on nitric oxide synthase activity and oxidative status in mice red blood cells. Food Funct., 5(12), 3208-3215. doi:

[6] Harris, W., Miller, M., Tighe, A., Davidson, M., & Schaefer, E. (2008). Omega-3 fatty acids and coronary heart disease risk: Clinical and mechanistic perspectives. Atherosclerosis197(1), 12-24. doi: 10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2007.11.008

[7] Schoenfeld, B., & Contreras, B. (2013). The Muscle Pump. Strength And Conditioning Journal, 1. doi: 10.1519/ssc.0000000000000021

[8] Abdulla, H., Smith, K., Atherton, P., & Idris, I. (2015). Role of insulin in the regulation of human skeletal muscle protein synthesis and breakdown: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Diabetologia59(1), 44-55. doi: 10.1007/s00125-015-3751-0

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