Building Muscle On A Vegan Diet: (Definitive Guide)

Is building muscle on a vegan diet possible? Are you someone who is thinking of or is already following a vegan diet and wants to know how to build muscle and lose fat?  Then read on to find out all the facts about being a vegan bodybuilder.

Does being a vegan and a bodybuilder go together?  Well if you asked most people in the gym, especially those that love their chicken, the resounding answer would be No.

Well, don’t despair as it’s 100% possible to bodybuild when following a vegan diet.

Veganism and bodybuilding can go hand in hand.  However, it definitely isn’t as straight forward as a traditional omnivorous diet and much easier to get wrong.  This is generally the reason why veganism, when associated with bodybuilding, has such a terrible rap.

Research shows that people following a diet including meat tend to have more muscle than people following a plant-based diet.  One approach is certainly not superior to the other, but as I said above it’s just much easier to get it wrong on a vegan diet.

In order to get a vegan diet right when bodybuilding, it’s incredibly important that you understand all the possible limitations present and learn exactly how to address and overcome them.

Once you do this, then gaining muscle and losing fat will never be a problem again when following a vegan diet.

In this article, I am going to cover all this.  I’ll talk about the many mistakes made by vegan bodybuilders and also blow many myths floating around, wide open.

Grab a coffee or a vegan shake, sit back and enjoy.



The Truth Surrounding Protein and Vegan Bodybuilding

Before we dive into talking about the truth and importance of protein when bodybuilding as a vegan, let’s look at what study after study has shown to be of utmost importance when it comes to building muscle.  There are elements far more important than others, which we can take a look at below.

When trying to build muscle all these should be followed…

  1. Protein is the only nutrient that will directly build muscle.  So make sure you are consuming the right amount of protein.
  2. Although to a certain extent, it is possible to still gain muscle whilst in a calorie deficit it is much more beneficial and efficient to not be.  So make sure you get your calorie levels right to avoid any amount of deficit.
  3. Include a good amount of carbohydrates in your diet.
  4. Focus primarily on big compound movements, whilst making sure you are progressively overloading your muscles.   When training this is the best way to stimulate muscle hypertrophy.
  5. Do not overdo your cardio.
  6. Perform only high-intensity cardio.

So let’s look at protein.

I made it the first point on the list for a reason.  You could implement everything else on the list, but if you don’t consume enough protein, then none of that matters.

If years of research tells us anything, it’s that high protein diets, kick low protein diets little butts when it comes to building muscle and laying waste to body fat.

There are many myths and opinions about how much protein is needed.  Research shows you should be aiming for around 1.2g of protein per lb of body weight.  However, to get a more accurate amount, I prefer to use percentages of calories consumed and advise making sure around 40% of your calories come from protein.  See why this is a much better approach here.

As you can see, whichever approach you take to calculating your protein requirements, you are going to be consuming a fairly large amount.  And this is exactly where people following a vegan diet full down.


Where And Why Vegan Bodybuilders Trip Up When It Comes To Protein Intake

A selection of nuts mixed together which will help with building muscle on a vegan diet

There are actually large similarities between a healthy and nutritious Omnivorous diet and a vegan one.  That being that most of the carbs and fats in both diets will come from vegetables, fruits, grains, oats, oils and nuts.

So what’s the major difference?  You guessed it “protein“.  Unfortunately, on a vegan diet, you have to replace high protein-based foods like eggs, chicken and red meat for options containing much less protein like grains, nuts and beans.

Also in bodybuilding terms, many sources of protein that are replaced are really suited to gaining new muscle where the protein sources that come in just simply aren’t as good.

So knowing this, you will be able to see it automatically means anyone following a vegan diet will have their work cut out when it comes to consuming enough protein to build muscle efficiently.  It takes a bit more effort, planning and thought to get this right when following a vegan diet.

Here lies a problem with many Vegans.  Rather than saying to themselves, a vegan diet isn’t perfect, especially in terms of bodybuilding and than putting more effort into the planning phase, they tend to brush over this and listen to myths.

Let’s take a look at the two most common myths more closely.


Myths Around Protein and Vegan Bodybuilding

Plant proteins are equally as good if not superior to animal proteins for building muscle

So where to start with this myth.  Are all proteins equal?  No, they’re not and even less so in terms of building lean muscle.

Let’s look at amino acids, as this is the reason our first myth gets blown away.

The building blocks of both protein and muscle tissue are amino acids.

In order to stay alive, the body requires 20 different amino acids.  9 of the 20 are classed as essential amino acids, basically meaning they have to come from the food we eat.

Out of these 9, there is one that is extremely important when it comes to building muscle, and that’s Leucine.

So why is leucine so important? There is an enzyme called mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) responsible for cell growth and leucine directly stimulates protein synthesis via activation of this enzyme.

There is a study that shows meals that are rich and high in leucine are much more beneficial to building lean muscle.

Myth 1 – There are two things we need to look at when considering a source of protein.

  1. The amino acid profile of the protein source
  2. It’s bilogical value (how well it is absorbed by the body)

Now many people, especially meat eaters use the argument that plant proteins are not complete proteins.  Although I’m not going to cover this point in detail, it just simply isn’t true and many of them are.

However, what is true, is that many plant proteins are not absorbed by the body as well and are much lower in the vital amino acids we need for building muscle.

To illustrate this I have taken 2 protein sources you could eat on a vegan diet

Pea proteinStudies show it is absorbed by the body quite well

Hemp proteinStudies show it really isn’t absorbed that well by the body.

As you can see hemp protein has much less muscle building capabilities than pea protein.  So consuming 50 grams of pea protein will provide you with more muscle building potential than consuming 50 grams of hemp protein.

I am going to use both beef and broccoli to illustrate the differences in amino acid profiles.  Now I understand there are 8 other essential amino acids, but for the sake of this article, I am going to carry on concentrating on Leucine.

We are going to compare the amino acid profile of 9 cups of broccoli and 4 ounces of steak.  You will get 275 calories from each, but there is a vast difference in the amount of leucine provided.

Amino AcidBroccoli (9 cups)Steak (4ounces)
1Leucine1.052.431

There is not even a contest here.  You would be looking at around 18 cups of broccoli just to match the 4 ounces of steak.  I don’t know about you, but 18 cups of broccoli spread over your plate is not very appealing.

If the only issue was broccoli being much lower, then we wouldn’t have a problem, but unfortunately, this is also the case with many more plant-based protein sources.

This example nicely demonstrates at just how much more planning will be needed to ensure you are getting enough high-quality protein that’s easily absorbed and rich in essential amino acids when following a vegan diet.

It’s just incredibly easy to mess up if you don’t do your homework first.

On the other hand, it’s much easier to get things right on your typical Omnivorous bodybuilding diet rich in meats, dairy, fish and eggs.  All these types of foods are high in protein, rich in essential amino acids and generally absorbed easily by the body.

Speaking from an experience standpoint now, in all my years helping people, I am yet to find a vegan bodybuilder who finds it easy to build muscle.

Many believe this to be a problem with a vegan diet on a whole, but it’s simply not true.

What it all boils down to is you not knowing how to construct a proper vegan bodybuilding diet plan rich in essential amino acids.

However, this is exactly what I’m going to show you shortly.

Myth 2 – You can maximise muscle growth on a low protein diet

Please do not believe this, as it’s completely false. As you now know from what you have read above, most vegans usually consume quite a low protein diet.  This isn’t always because that’s what they want, it’s just much more difficult to get the required protein in.

Unfortunately, this is the whole reason why vegans struggle to build muscle compared to meat eaters.


Your Vegan Bodybuilding Meal Planning Guide

A bowl of vegan friendly food with some ingredients on the table

If you listen to half the stuff out there, you would think meal planning was hard.  It’s in fact totally the opposite and a very simple process.  The three steps below should not just be followed by vegan bodybuilders, but buy those following an omnivorous diet as well.

  1. Work out how many calories you should be consuming
  2. Work out how much protein, carbs and fats you should be having
  3. Plan your meals and work out what foods you should be eating for each of them.

The first two steps never cause any issues, however, step number 3 is where it tends to all go wrong for vegan bodybuilders.  This is the step that throws up all the problems.

Specifically

  • Knowing what foods to eat in order to meet their protein needs for bodybuilding and balancing their macros.

Although we have talked a lot about the difficulties of meeting the required protein needs, choosing the wrong foods can also make it hard to hit the required fats and carb levels also.

This is a common problem with vegan bodybuilders, and they usually tell me, that if they manage to hit the correct numbers for one macronutrient they normally find another one is ridiculously high or low.

Although getting this step right may seem hopeless at first, it is actually really easy to overcome this hurdle.


How To Get Your Macros Right For Vegan Bodybuilding

A lady holding a basket with a selection of brightly colored vegetables

When you hear the word macronutrient, most people will automatically think of Protein, carbohydrates and fats.  Basically, these are the parts that are needed by the body in fairly large amounts.  You can also include certain macrominerals in this, but for the sake of meal planning, your main focus should be on protein, carbs and fats.

Although getting your macros right is hugely important when it comes to building muscle, my advice for vegan bodybuilders is.

“Concentrate your efforts initially on getting your calories right and eating enough protein that’s easily absorbed by the body and rich in essential amino acids”.

When creating your meals and adding in foods to meet your protein requirements, forget about how many carbs and fats are being added at the same time.  Let your carbs and fats sort themselves out initially and then they will just need a small amount of tweaking later on.

As you know I recommend hitting these numbers when planning your diet.

  • 40% Protein
  • 40% Carbohydrates
  • 20% Fats

When designing your meal plan, it’s incredibly easy to hit these numbers as a meat eater, due to a large amount of low fat and low carb protein options available.

Let’s look at a typical 5-ounce chicken breast as an example

A screen shot showing the nutrition facts of a 5 oz chicken breast

However, as a vegan, it’s much more difficult to be this precise.  Most forms of good vegan protein sources will also be high in either carbs or fats as well.

You may find your fats have to be slightly higher and carbs slightly lower in order to allow you to meet your calorie and protein needs.

Don’t worry too much about this though, as eating enough calories and high-quality protein is of utmost importance when it comes to building muscle.

The more familiar you become with the macros and calories of the foods you like to eat, the easier it becomes to design a food plan.

Will you get it perfect the first time?  Probably not.  It’s initially a case of trial and error at the beginning.  But by focusing on meeting your calorie and protein needs first, the whole process of meal planning as a vegan bodybuilder is a lot easier.

Also, think about buying a good quality vegan protein powder.

Buying a vegan protein powder will make it so much easier to hit your protein numbers without adding in loads of unwanted carbs or fats.

If you can I would recommend aiming for one that has a combination of Pea and brown rice protein.  Both of these are absorbed really well by the body and together give you a full spectrum of essential amino acids very similar to whey protein.


What Are The Best Sources Of Vegan Protein For Building Muscle?

We now know we are looking for high-quality protein sources absorbed easily by the body and rich in essential amino acids.  Specifically Leucine.

Below is a list of protein sources that meets all our requirements:

  1. Meat substituteSeitan
  2. Nuts – Almonds, pistachios, walnuts, peanuts
  3. Nut Butters – Natural peanut butter, natural almond butter
  4. Seeds – buckwheat, quinoa
  5. Vegetables – peas, beans, legumes, potato
  6. Grains – rice, oats, wheat
  7. Supplements – Pea and brown rice protein powder

There are of course more, but these are the very best and should make up at least 70 to 80% of your daily protein.

It really is that simple.

Hang on, wait a minute.

There seems to be something missing.

Why hasn’t anything soy-based been included?  Let’s take a look.


The Issues Surrounding Soy Protein

 A bowl of soy beans and a glass of soy milk on a table

Straight off the bat, I’m going to say that avoiding soy protein all together is definitely not necessary.  Research shows it is a decent source of protein.

So what’s the problem then?  Well, there are studies showing both positive and negative effects of consuming soy protein.

Let’s take a look at some of the results from these studies done on men.

Study 1 – Showing Effects Of Soy On Male Hormones

This first study shows soy having a feminising effect on men.  This is down to isoflavones which are estrogen molecules found at large in soybeans.

They took and tested semen from 99 different men.  They found that those who consumed high amounts of soy over the previous 3 months had just over 40 million sperm/ml less than those who consumed slightly less soy over the last 3 months.  They had discovered that isoflavone intake was largely associated with reduced sperm count.

Study 2 – Showing Effects Of Soy On Male Hormones

The results of this study were quite different from the first one.  32 men were used and consumed both high and low levels of isoflavones from soy and no signs of change in their semen quality were found.

Study 3 – Do Isoflavones Actually Normalise Estrogen Levels

This study shows that by either increasing or suppressing production, isoflavones can actually help to normalise estrogen levels.

It’s all very confusing isn’t it, with so many studies both for and against consuming soy.

So we have looked at a few studies showing the effects of soy on men, so let’s see what effects it has on women.

Study 4 – Does Soy Have Less Of A Negative Effect On Women?

This study here shows that soy is less likely to have any kind of negative effect on women compared to men.

Study 5 – Can Soy Help Reduce Heart Disease And Breast Cancer In Woman?

Well according to this study on the effects of soy on heart disease and this study on the effects of soy on breast cancer, consuming it can actually help reduce your risk.

Study 6 – Research doubting the above is true

The title says it all.  This bit of research casts major doubts that soy can help reduce the risk of breast cancer and heart disease.

So what’s the bottom line on soy?

Personally, I would say, no one really knows the answer to the true effects soy has on the body.  Personally, I would say you don’t need to entirely avoid it, but I would really limit your intake.  For example, in supplement form,  I would always choose a pea and brown rice protein blend over anything else.


Key Takeaways For Building Muscle On a Vegan Diet

  1. It is entirely possible to build muscle on a vegan diet
  2. You must be willing to plan your calories and macros in order to succeed on a vegan diet.
  3. Not all vegan protein sources are equal.  You must select ones that are easily absorbed by the body and rich in essential amino acids.
  4. I would recommend limiting the amount of soy protein you consume
  5. You must be prepared to eat a selection of staple protein sources every day, which should make up around 70 to 80% of your protein intake.
  6. You must have all your meals planned out.  If you do this, you won’t have any problem gaining muscle on a vegan diet. 

 

Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article here at BFG Muscle.  What’s your take on Vegan Bodybuilding? Have any other question?  Please don’t hesitate to comment below.


how to build muscle on a vegan diet

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