Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s “impossible” to build muscle on a plant-based diet. These naysayers don’t know what they’re talking about.
To build muscle, your body needs protein, this is the oldest truth in the world of bodybuilding and strength training. This age-old principle is just as true today as it’s ever been. However, animals aren’t the only source of high-quality protein that athletes can leverage. Today, vegan athletes can select from a wide range of plant-based protein supplements to support their journey.
Managing your protein intake is just one part of anabolic equation though. To build long-lasting strength, serious muscle mass, and true athleticism, you’ll need to stay on top of your overall health and ensure that your body has everything it needs to sustain its performance. This includes:
- Managing your daily caloric intake
- Managing your macronutrients and protein intake
- Consuming vitamins and minerals
- Regular training and recovery periods
Below, we’ll dig into each of these key factors and take a long look at how to build muscle and strength effectively while you’re on a plant-based diet.
1. Managing Your Caloric Intake
Before you start breaking down your macronutrient needs and shopping for supplements, you’ll need to start with the most basic aspect of building muscle – making sure you get enough calories to support anabolism and combat catabolism.
Our bodies need a specific number of calories to maintain our weight. This is known as your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). A “calorie” is a metric that’s used to measure the amount of energy in food products. When we consume calories through our diet, our body uses the energy to fuel essential bodily functions and keep our body in a state of equilibrium.
At the end of every day you will want to aim to be in a caloric surplus to support your bodies anabolic recovery. If you do not eat enough calories to support recovery you will be in a catabolic state which is the antithesis to anabolism.
Figure Out How Many Calories You Need For Your Desired Weight
To gain or lose weight, you first need to adjust your caloric intake. If you want to gain muscle and weight, then you’ll need to consume more calories. If you want to lose weight, you’ll need to consume fewer calories.
Pretty simple, right?
On average, adult males need around 2,700 calories and females need around 2,200 calories per day to maintain their weight.
Everybody’s daily caloric needs are different, though, so you shouldn’t rely on averages. Instead, I recommend using a calorie calculator to determine your individual needs. A calculator will account for various factors, such as:
- Your gender
- Your age
- Your current weight
- Your height
- Your metabolism (based on your activity levels)
Using this information, the calculator will show you exactly how many calories you need to consume per day to maintain, decrease, or increase your weight.
If you plan on building muscle quickly, you’ll want to consume slightly over your TDEE. The extra calories will provide your body with the fuel it needs to recover from intense training sessions and build stronger muscle fibers.
Eat High-quality Calories
Not all calories are created equal. 300 calories of peanuts and 300 calories of chocolate aren’t going to have the same effect on your body. Simply put – make your calories count. Are the calories that you’re consuming having a positive effect on your health and providing nutrients or are they detracting from your health?
Keep A Daily Food Record
If you’re a busy individual or new to meal planning, it can be easy to forget everything you ate in a day. This could result in you under-eating, which could negatively affect your muscle gains. From the moment you wake up until you go to bed, keep track of the calories you consume to make sure that you’re getting enough food.
Use A Vegan Mass Builder To Add Extra Calories
If you want to put on weight, you’re going to need to consume more calories. If the idea of eating more food doesn’t sound appealing to you, then you can always supplement with a mass-building shake. These powdered drink mixes typically include protein, healthy fats, and simple sugars that encourage your body to put on weight while fueling your muscle growth.
The best vegan mass builders are made using high-quality ingredients, contain few fillers and additives, and may also include added amino acids, which can aid in post-workout recovery and muscle growth.
2. Getting Enough Protein On A Vegan Diet
Historically, bodybuilders and athletes have fueled muscle growth by eating lean meats and lots of dairy. While animal-based proteins are more easily absorbed by the body, plant-based protein can be just as effective in the long run.
Aside from consuming enough calories, your daily protein intake is one of the most important factors in your body’s ability to build muscle.
According to the National Institute of Health, sedentary individuals should consume 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. This means that a 160-pound person who doesn’t exercise regularly should consume just over 57 grams of protein per day.
However, if you’re trying to build muscle, you’ll need to consume more protein than this. It’s not uncommon for bodybuilders and performance athletes to consume up to 1 gram of protein per pound of their desired weight. For example, if you weigh 160 pounds and want to put on 10 pounds of muscle, you might consume 170 grams of protein per day.
Bodybuilding.com has a handy protein intake calculator that you can use to help determine your body’s protein needs, based on your goals and activity levels.
Consume High-Protein, Plant-Based Foods
To fuel your muscle growth, you’ll need to include as many sources of plant-based whole-food protein into your diet as you can. While plant-based foods aren’t quite as protein-dense as meat and animal-derived protein, there are still a number of all-natural plant-based foods with a high protein content, including:
- Beans (black beans, soybeans, lentils, chickpeas, pinto beans, navy beans, etc.)
- Nuts (peanuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios, etc.)
- Seeds (chia, sunflower, pumpkin, flax)
- Nutritional yeast
- Soy-based foods such as tofu, nattō, or tempeh
All of these foods are packed full of protein and other essential nutrients that your body needs to continue performing at its best.
If you get tired of nuts, beans, and seeds, you can always try some plant-based meat substitutes, such as:
- Soy burgers
- Beyond Meat sausages
- Vegan jerky
Plant-based “meats” aren’t always the healthiest, as they typically contain high levels of sodium and preservatives because at the end of the day these are not whole foods and usually involve a high degree of industrial processing. However, they are very high in protein and can help add variety to your meals.
Plant-Based Protein Supplements
If you find that you’re unable to meet your daily protein needs with food alone, you can always try consuming plant-based protein supplements as well. Vegan protein shakes are especially useful right after an intense training session, and provide anywhere from 15-30 grams of protein in a single serving.
Whey protein has always been one of the leading supplements among athletes. However, whey is a dairy by-product that plant-based eaters try to avoid. Instead, vegans consume plant-based proteins, such as:
- Pea protein
- Soy protein
- Chickpea protein
3. Important Vitamins & Minerals
It’s not uncommon for plant-based eaters to find themselves becoming deficient in certain vitamins and minerals. Vitamin B12, zinc, iron, and other nutrients are commonly found in animal-derived foods, but are harder to find in plants. Without the proper nutrients, your body may not be able to perform as well and your muscle gains could be hindered.
Below are some of the most important vitamins and minerals that vegans should be consuming.
Vitamin B12 is commonly found in eggs and red meat, but can also be consumed in the form of plant-based supplements. B12 is an important vitamin that helps your body produce red blood cells, create DNA, and maintain its metabolism.
Athletes who are deficient in B12 may find it hard to sustain long periods of intense exercise, and B12 deficiency can lead to a number of other health complications.
Iodine is a mineral that your thyroid needs to help regulate your body’s growth and development. If you’re iodine deficient, you may struggle to build new muscle, no matter how hard you train.
During high-intensity training sessions, your body loses calcium through sweat, which makes it especially important for athletes to consume. Calcium is important for bone and joint health, which are vital for any athlete.
On average, though, plant-based eaters get far less calcium since they don’t consume dairy. This is why it’s important to add plant-based calcium supplements to your diet.
Zinc is an essential mineral that plays a key role in hormone management and helps your body maintain healthy testosterone levels. This, in turn, can affect your body’s ability to build muscle. Additionally, zinc boosts your immune system, which can lead to fewer sick days and help you keep up with your training schedule.
Iron is an essential mineral that’s mostly found in red meats. However, it’s also present in certain leafy greens and superfoods, which can be processed to produce isolated, plant-based iron supplements.
Iron helps your body build red blood cells. Red blood cells transport oxygen to your muscle fibers and help with overall muscle building and repair, which is why it’s important for all plant-based athletes to maintain their iron levels.
Skinny Yoked Conclusion
Building muscle on a vegan diet can be a bit more challenging than following a traditional diet with animal-derived proteins. However, as long as you stay on top of your supplementation, daily caloric intake, and fill your kitchen with healthy, plant-based proteins, it’s certainly achievable.
If you are curious about going towards a plant-based diet we highly recommend dipping your toes in the water first before diving headfirst into a drastically different diet. When people make drastic diet switches overnight it can result in gastrointestinal stress.
The best method for transitioning into a plant-based anabolic diet is to do it gradually, over the period of at least 1 month. As you slowly eat less and less animal product and phase in plant-based alternatives you’ll give your gut (and mind) time to adapt to these new changes making the likelihood of a successful outcome higher.
It’s also worth mentioning that you’ll probably need to add a couple of nutritional supplements like a bodybuilding-specific multivitamin to make sure you’re getting essential nutrients normally found in meats and dairy!