Vegan Bodybuilding 101
In this article, we present everything you need to know about vegan bodybuilding, including scientific research and common misconceptions.
I also put together a sample vegan bodybuilding meal plan toward the bottom.
Many of the fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilders today are hesitant to go vegan due to the fear of compromising their fitness goals. However, the only obstacle they face is the lack of education about vegan bodybuilding.
“Luckily, we know that you can get your protein source from many different ways: you can get it through vegetables if you are a vegetarian. I have seen many bodybuilders that are vegetarian, and they get strong and healthy.” ~ Arnold Schwarzenegger
The Vegan Bodybuilding Experiment
The YouTube video below is about Joshua Knox, a recreational bodybuilder that works at Google, who tries going vegan for a week.
After reflecting on the experience and noticing how easy it was, Joshua tried going plant-based for thirty days. That turned into over 1.5 years. He talks about how following a vegan bodybuilding diet lead to massive strength and endurance gains.
Joshua also cites health benefits like how his cholesterol went from 196 to 120 in a short period of time. Even if you’ve seen this before it’s certainly worth watching again.
Vegan Bodybuilding Myths
The vegan lifestyle has always been considered a hindrance to bodybuilding due to many unverified opinions from media and society. A quick reality check will help you differentiate fact from fiction in the vegan bodybuilding space:
Myth 1 — “All vegan foods are healthy.”
- Not all vegan food items are healthy, including junk food such as chips, French fries, ice cream, etc. Healthy preparation is equally important, even for veg food items, and should be considered along with the food type (e.g., whole foods should be preferred over processed foods).
Myth 2 — “Essential vegan food is more expensive than meat.”
- Contrary to popular belief, a vegan diet is actually not more expensive than meat. A plant-based diet comprises of fruits and vegetables, i.e. fresh produce, which is usually more affordable than processed and packaged food.
Myth 3 — “Bodybuilding/bulk-up needs more animal-based protein than plant-based protein.”
- Plant-based proteins are equally effective for bulking up as their animal-based counterparts. In fact, plant-based proteins are also rich in antioxidants, which help in recovery after exercise. The YouTube video below provides a useful overview of vegan protein sources (here’s a vegan food source list).
Myth 4 — “Vegan food does not have enough proteins/essential nutrients.”
- Absolutely false! A balanced vegan diet covers all the essential macro and micronutrients you need to achieve your bodybuilding goals. Many athletes and bodybuilders are now turning to vegan diets primarily because it offers the same benefits without the dangers of a meat-based diet, including heart disease for red meat eaters.
Muscle Building Process
While many of us go to the gym to build lean muscle and get into great shape, we often do not see the results as planned. Why? This is largely because working out alone is not a sufficient method to achieve the desired result.
Muscle building is a time-consuming process that requires the right combination of training, diet, and rest, none of which can be left out. It’s like a recipe — after all, what would bread look like without flour?
Here are a few explanations of the science behind muscle growth to help you fine-tune your routine:
- Our muscle cells are made up of fibers that are the basic unit of contraction. To build muscles, you have to put greater stress on these fibers than what your body is used to. A heavy workout, especially with high load and low reps exercise, damages these muscle fibers, initiating the muscle repair process.
- The repair process takes place when you rest after a workout. The body treats this as an injury and overcompensates by increasing the thickness of repaired muscle fibers, leading to muscle growth called hypertrophy.
- Since these muscle fibers are essentially proteins, growth will occur when the body synthesizes enough proteins, with the help of food items consumed. Therefore, it is very important to supply the body with enough proteins to aid muscle rebuilding. The body also needs carbohydrates to facilitate the process.
- Hormones such as testosterone also play a role in bodybuilding by stimulating the protein building process. While the male body produces enough testosterone naturally, some bodybuilders use steroids to induce synthetic hormones in the body to accelerate the muscle building process. This practice should be avoided, as it does more harm than good for the body.
- Not providing enough rest to the body can actually reverse the intended effect. It can put the body in a destructive state, with irreversible damage to the muscles. The rebuilding process peaks around 24-48 hours after the resistance exercise. As such, each muscle should rest two to three days before repeating.
Macros (macronutrients) such as proteins, carbohydrates, and fats are the essential fuel for bodybuilding. Good knowledge of various types of nutrients, including their role in muscle development, can help you create a perfect diet plan for any bodybuilding goal.
- One of the most important and clearly the most popular macronutrient for muscle building is protein, which is needed for building, repairing, and maintaining muscle fibers. Proteins are comprised of amino acids, some of which are naturally produced in the body (non-essential amino acids), while others have to be supplied through our diet (essential amino acids). Amino acids are further discussed later in this article. Some types of proteins are absorbed much faster and easier than others.
- Carbohydrates are the source of energy you need in order to hit the gym. Some people avoid carbs under the assumption that carbs make them fat. However, a certain level of carbohydrates is essential to perform routine exercise, because deficiency of carbohydrates can make the body resort to breaking down proteins for energy source.
- The two types of carbohydrates are simple carbohydrates, the quick energy source readily usable by the body, and complex carbohydrates, slow-burning energy sources that take longer and are more work for absorption by the body. The YouTube video below does a great job of explaining the science behind carbohydrates and why we need them regardless of fitness goals.
- Though fats are unpopular among bodybuilding community, a controlled consumption can actually be useful for the body. Since fats are the densest form of energy, they are used to fuel the body’s day-to-day activities. The two types of fats are:
- Saturated fats: These come from animal fat products such as cream and cheese, and fatty meats such as beef. These should be avoided as they contain cholesterol and increase the chances of heart disease.
- Unsaturated fats: These are the healthy form of fats that actually provide energy and help with absorption of essential vitamins. Common items such as nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocado, and canola oil are a good source of unsaturated fats.
- Fibers are low-calorie foods that can help you feel full during the diet period. It slows down the digestion process, thus delaying hunger and keeping your calorie count in check. Furthermore, it helps in the absorption of protein, making an indirect contribution to bodybuilding.
- Drinking enough water to keep your body hydrated is essential for many reasons. First, it helps in clearing toxins and metabolic wastes from the body in the form of urine. A high-protein diet leads to accumulation of toxins such as urea and ketones, which are washed away with water. Second, water helps in the transfer of nutrients to the muscle cells of the body, a very important task in bodybuilding. Third, during a workout, your body loses a great deal of water in the form of sweat, and drinking more water replenishes this.
Determining how many macronutrients you need: A quick way to keep a track of your macronutrients is to measure the required calorie intake for your body and then distribute those calorie intakes among the three macronutrients (i.e., proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.)
An average person needs 15-16 calories per pound of bodyweight for maintenance — for example, a 160 lb. individual would need ~2500-3000 calories per day. And these calories can be converted to macronutrients by weight using the following conversion factors.
- Proteins: 1 gram = 4 calories
- Carbohydrates: 1 gram = 4 calories
- Fats: 1 gram = 9 calories
However, this requirement depends on many different factors for each individual, and there is no one fixed answer for everyone. A few key factors that determine the macronutrient consumption rate are listed below:
- In general, the body’s macronutrient requirement goes down with age. A child needs more macronutrients during the growth phase of their body than an average adult needs for the maintenance of their body. During old age, the body’s metabolism slows down, thereby compromising its ability to digest macronutrients. Undigested macronutrients accumulates as fat in the body.
- Men typically require higher amount of macronutrients than women do, because they have a larger body (both height and weight) and more muscle mass. However, pregnant women and lactating mothers have increased metabolic needs that require additional protein intake.
A lesser known but very important factor to determine your macronutrient requirement is your genetics. Depending upon your metabolism rate, your body can be classified as one of the three categories below:
- Ectomorphs: These are hard gainers whose bodies just refuse to bulk up due to a fast metabolism, which burns calories very quickly. The ratio of macronutrients that ectomorphs typically need to hit is 50 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, and 20 percent fat. They need to consume on average 750-1000 calories more than their maintenance calories to bulk up.
- Mesomorphs: This is the ideal body type to have, as it reacts perfectly to diet and workout routine. An ideal diet for mesomorphs would be around 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat. Since their metabolism is not as fast as ectomorphs, for bulking up, their body needs just 500 more calories than that for maintenance routine.
- Endomorphs: These are the people generally referred to as overweight. They appear large, with fat accumulated around their waist area. Due to a slow metabolism, their body accumulates fat very quickly, and they have to make a conscious effort to keep a check on their calorie intake. They should keep their carbs to a minimum, with an ideal ratio of 25 percent carbs, 35 percent protein, and 40 percent fat. Food intake should be 200-500 calories lower than maintenance calories.
Protein consumption based on fitness targets: Since most of your body parts are made of protein, you need a constant supply of protein to maintain the overall health and function of the body. However, if your fitness goal is to bulk up or lose weight, you need even more protein because of the accelerated muscle breaking and rebuilding process.
Vegan Bodybuilding Diet
Plant-Based Nutrients vs. Animal-Based Nutrients
“Animal-based protein is the same as plant-based proteins” — this is a very common misconception that can be debunked with readily available facts.
- Your body does not absorb the protein directly in its current form. Instead, when you consume a high-protein meal, it is broken down into its constituent amino acids in the stomach. These amino acids are then transported via your bloodstream to various parts of your body to aid in muscle tissue maintenance, repair, and growth.
- The body then selectively combines these amino acids to form different proteins to make up most solid matter in the human body, including eyes, nails, hair, muscles, skin, heart, etc.
- There are about 20 known amino acids that mix up and twist together to make up to 50,000 different kinds of protein. These are divided into two categories based on their synthesis mechanism:
- Around 10 of these amino acids are naturally produced by the body. These are called non-essential amino acids.
- Remaining amino acids cannot be manufactured internally by the body. These are called essential amino acids, since they have to be supplied by a balanced protein-rich diet.
- The primary purpose of consumed proteins is to supply the body with essential amino acids. While both plant- and animal-based proteins can provide essential amino acids, they primarily differ in amino acid profile. This profile determines the rate at which the absorbed amino acids are put to use in our body.
- Animal-based proteins containing “substrate” amino acids are more readily available for our own protein synthesis, since these amino acids are similar to those found in humans. Plant-based proteins contain simpler amino acids that need more work from our body to be converted to usable forms.
- In addition, one needs to consume more variety of plant foods to get all essential amino acids compared to lesser variety of animal foods for the same purpose. However, plants come with added benefits of vitamins, minerals, fibers, and antioxidants.
Being a vegan does not mean the same boring diet every day. That said, vegan or not, bodybuilding diets tend to be boring and repetitive. A well-planned vegan bodybuilding diet is a great way to enjoy a variety of food options and to meet all your nutritional needs simultaneously. Here, we discuss what you need to know about a highly effective plant-based diet.
- Protein sources: Almost all vegan foods contain some amount of protein, but the key here is to choose the most effective food items for proteins. Soy products are the most common source, along with chickpeas, lentils, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, broccoli, walnuts, whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, and corn.
- Calcium sources: Milk and dairy foods are highest in calcium. However, dark green vegetables, such as turnip and collard greens, kale, and broccoli, are good plant sources when eaten in sufficient quantities. Fruit juices and soy milk are also rich in calcium.
- Omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids: These are essential for the heart, brain, skin, and joints. A few of the commonly available sources of fatty acids include canola oil, soy oil, walnuts, ground flaxseed, and soybeans.
- Iron: A lack of red meat can cause deficiency of iron, a common concern among vegans. Good plant sources of iron include dried fruits, whole grains, nuts, green leafy vegetables, seeds, and pulses. Foods rich in vitamin C should go along with iron, as vitamin C helps in the absorption of iron in the blood. Green leafy vegetables are rich in both of these.
- Vitamin B12: One of the important vitamins not easily available in vegan food is vitamin B12. An easy way to meet this deficiency is to consume vitamin B12 supplements. It’s also found in fortified nutritional yeast, some supermarket cereals, and fortified soy and rice milks.
- Vitamin D: Another missing vitamin in vegan food is vitamin D. A quick and easy way to generate vitamin D in the body is to get exposure to the sun for 15 minutes per day. However, if you have an indoor job with little or no time for exposure, vitamin D supplements are the way to go.
Now that you know the science behind bodybuilding and the nutrients that can make it happen for you, it is time to roll up those sleeves and make a plan for your fitness goals. Remember that a disciplined execution of the plan is equally important as the plan itself.
- Meal frequency: Although this topic is up for debate, some experts say you should eat every two to three hours to constantly replenish the body’s nutrient levels. Besides the three main meals of the day, eating protein-heavy snacks in between is beneficial for bodybuilding. Conversely, other experts say it doesn’t matter, as long as you meet your targeted macronutrient totals for the day. What should you do? Try one method for 90 days and see if it’s working for you. Different things work for different people.
- Don’t skip meals: This is more targeted for those who compete at a high level. Skipping meals is a bad idea because it may alter your body’s nutrient absorption mechanism — e.g., if you don’t supply the body with enough carbohydrates on time, it will start using proteins for energy. This could mess up your muscle growth process due to deficiency of proteins.
- Distribution of nutrients: Post-workout meals should be heavier on carbohydrates, while later meals of the day should have more protein content in them. This is because the body will convert excessive carbs to fat if you sit around all day. That said, try to have a consistent ratio of macros with each meal throughout the day.
- Drink lots of water: When you are not eating, the body is digesting previously consumed food, allowing for the absorption of nutrients into the body. Water is essential for this process, so the body should be drinking up during non-meal times.
Knowing the disadvantages of non-vegan food compared to vegan food: It is hard to resist the temptation of meat, as it is considered an easier source of protein in one’s diet, though not an ideal one for multiple reasons. Besides damaging the environment and causing animal cruelty, some of its harmful effects on health can be a warning sign for vegan bodybuilders and even meat-eaters.
- High levels of saturated fat and cholesterol content in some cuts of meat increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
- Processed meat is usually loaded with sodium, which is a serious concern, as it often leads to high blood pressure, stroke, or heart failure.
- The most common form of meat, red meat, takes longer to digest, and excess unabsorbed meat can affect the liver.
- Excess consumption of meat can increase iron intake in the body. This can lead to excessive iron content in the brain and may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Answering Common Concerns
Whole vegan food vs. processed vegan food:
- Once you decide to go vegan for environmental, ethical, and/or health reasons, it is extremely important to stick to the right kind of vegan food. Eating processed fast food like pasta, burgers, cookies, etc., even if they are vegan, defeats the health aspect of this commitment. You should instead stick to plant-based whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, etc.
- Sugar content in processed food is much higher than whole foods, which makes it difficult to keep a count of your calorie intake.
- Whole foods generate less waste for the environment. A simple example will demonstrate this. A processed box of vegan cookies requires many more resources from the environment than a bag of apples (e.g., trees for paper and packaging, electricity for baking, etc.)
- Whole foods make you feel fuller for a longer duration, thus mitigating your craving for more food. You are likely to feel hungrier after eating a box of cookies than after eating an equivalent number of apples.
Need of protein shakes with vegan diet: If you are a vegan bodybuilder or athlete, you will need to incorporate vegan protein powder into your meal plan. Why? It is virtually impossible to hit your target amounts of protein from vegan food alone.
Especially if you’re a guy like me who weighs 225-230 lb. — can you imagine the amount of beans and quinoa I would have to eat?
That said, if you are a garden variety vegan (pun not intended) who doesn’t train hard in the gym, then a whole food, plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily need protein powder supplementation.
Congratulate yourself for reaching the end of this lengthy article. If you are reading this, then you are really motivated to leave meat and make the commitment to a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. Making a sudden switch to a vegan bodybuilding diet can be difficult and often impossible for daily meat-eaters.
One way to transition to a vegan bodybuilding diet is to gradually reduce the meat in your diet while increasing fruits and vegetables. Here are a couple of tips to help you get started:
- Get connected. Find vegan bodybuilding communities online. There is power in numbers and it will help keep you accountable. Reach out, ask questions and let others help you with your journey. Remember, they have been where you are and can relate.
- Get motivated. It is difficult to give up meat just for kicks. A habit change that affects your lifestyle requires much more motivation. So read up on why you want to be a vegan (you have probably started on this already). Key areas to study include animal rights, personal health benefits, its effect on the planet, etc.
- Ramp up. Each week, increase the number of meatless meals in your diet. Find ways to include fruits and greens such as spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and collards in your daily meals. You can also try one or two veg recipes in your weekly meal plan and gradually increase the number with time.
- Substitute meat with veg products. Take your preferred recipes and substitute the meat with something vegan. For example, make fajitas using extra-firm tofu rather than chicken. You will be surprised at how many dishes taste very similar with these simple substitutions.
- Branch out. Scan the Internet for vegan menus. Buy or borrow vegan cookbooks. Check out ethnic restaurants to sample new vegan cuisines. The more variety you bring to your vegan diet, the more likely you’ll meet all your nutritional needs.
- Tell friends and family. If you are serious about being a vegan, tell your friends and family about it. Discuss your reasons and commitments on this issue. This commitment will give you additional motivation, since it is easier to cheat oneself than to cheat others.
- Keep learning. Start with our 12 Best Vegan Bodybuilding Diet Tips.
Vegan Bodybuilding Meal Plan
(inspired by Robert Cheeke’s vegan bodybuilding meal plan)
- Vegan protein shake
- Lemon water
- Tofu scramble
- Assorted fresh vegetables (carrots, cucumbers, peppers)
- 16 ounces of water
- Burrito with rice or quinoa, greens, beans, and avocado
- Small green salad with omega 3-6-9 EFA Oil
- 16 ounces of water
- Almond or peanut butter with sliced apples
- 16 ounces of water
- Large green salad with steamed green vegetables and tempeh
- Bowl of carrot/ginger soup
- 16 ounces of water
- Vegan protein shake
- 16 ounces of water
Total Calories = 4,000
Total grams protein = 200g
Total grams of carbohydrates = 660g
Total grams of fats = 70g
Total water consumption = 104 ounces (factoring in water for protein drinks too)
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- Tipton KD, Wolfe RR (2001). “Exercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth.” Int J Sport Nutr Exer Metab, 109-32.