It’s a myth that you can’t get your macros in a vegan bodybuilding diet.
If you eat enough of the right calories and protein, train hard, and get enough sleep, you will build muscle as a vegetarian or vegan.
Plant-based nutrition clearly has long-term health benefits compared to consuming meat the way traditional bodybuilders do. Nevertheless, many bodybuilders hesitate in making this positive lifestyle switch because they have been misinformed, and old paradigms take a while to shift.
Therefore, I will address the following concerns/questions:
- Can you build muscle from a whole food plant-based diet?
- What foods should be consumed to gain muscle mass?
Can Muscle Be Gained via a Vegetarian Bodybuilding Diet?
Most definitely, yes. Consider these four different variations of vegetarianism:
- Lacto-ovo Vegetarians (diary and eggs are permitted)
- Lacto-vegetarians (dairy is permitted)
- Ovo-vegetarians (eggs permitted)
- Vegan (no animal products permitted)
These two are technically not vegetarian, but I still consider them part of the “family”:
- Pescatarians (fish is permitted)
- Flexitarians (some meat is permitted)
Each sub-group has its own unique challenges to build muscle mass. It is important for vegetarian bodybuilders to be aware of their respective challenges. The main points are to consume enough calories and protein and assess any deficiencies in order to build muscle successfully.
For instance, it’s easier to build more muscle mass from a lacto-ovo vegetarian bodybuilding meal plan than a vegan one. Egg protein offers substantial nutritional benefits (dairy, not so much). Vegan bodybuilders can still build muscular bodies without question, but they will have the hardest time building size.
Vegan diets in particular tend to be low in calories for obvious reasons (e.g. a salad vs. a 1/4 pounder with cheese). To build muscle mass with vegan macros, you have to pay special attention to calorie intake. That is, you need to consume more calories than you metabolically burn during and after exercise.
The macronutrients within your diet are the main energy providers, and the amount of energy required depends on your exercise regime, exercise efficiency, gender, genetics, and non-exercise habits.
McArdle (2010) reported that a cohort of male bodybuilders increased muscle mass and size and reduced % body fat on a diet of about 18-23 calories/per pound of body weight per day.
The higher end of the calorie intake was highlighted in highly trained athletes compared to novice bodybuilders; again, experimenting with your calorie intake to build muscle is highly recommended, along with consuming the right macro/calorie ratio.
A suggestion is to experiment with the amount of calories that you consume, as this will be a major factor in terms of muscle gain. Reduced calories = reduced muscle gain, and increased calories = increased % body fat.
It’s also very important to regularly assess your % body fat, as an increment could mean that you’re eating too many calories or the wrong types of macros.
Proteins are hugely important for any vegetarian bodybuilder and have the following functions within the body:
- Supports growth and maintenance of body tissues
- Synthesizes enzymes, hormones, and other peptides
- Builds antibodies
- Maintains fluid and electrolyte balance
- Repairs exercise-associated muscle damage
- Provides energy and glucose
A solid alternative to using whey protein are pea and soy protein. Soy proteins are a quick and dramatic method of boosting your overall protein content, and they are very convenient to use.
For those of us who aren’t vegan bodybuilders, egg protein is arguably the best option, as it is more predictable than whey protein in terms of ingredients. Some plant-based nutrition companies produce their own brand of mixed plant and grain proteins to build muscle.
An article from Men’s Health states:
“The protein in eggs has the highest biological value—a measure of how well it supports your body’s protein needs—of any food, including our beloved beef. Calorie for calorie, you need less protein from eggs than you do from other sources to achieve the same muscle-building benefits.”
Again, do your homework via some solid research, as this process will help you with your unique dietary needs whilst building muscle. Other options include pea and hemp proteins, which are also high in proteins and easy to digest and absorb.
A well-balanced, protein-rich diet is the key for building muscle mass, but caution should be applied if you are predominately getting your main source of macros from processed or junk foods, e.g. noodles, potato chips, and sugary sweets.
Such products are extremely counter-productive to muscle growth and in the long term, will cause major health implications and increase % body fat due to the high simple carb and fat content.
There is evidence to suggest that increased body fat hinders muscle growth via an increase in insulin resistance. Insulin controls the glucose levels within your body, which is highly anabolic and needed for muscle growth.
Conversely, if you are eating a lot of leafy salads, stir fries, fresh fruit, and vegetable-based meals, you might be falling short with the macronutrients required. To build muscle on a vegan bodybuilding diet, you must add healthy fats or proteins with every vegetable consumed during each meal.
Try to eat six small meals per day following these simple rules, and combine your carbs with beans, legumes, chick peas, tempeh, soya beans, quinoa, brown rice, and tofu to boost the protein content of the meal.
Also, think about adding beans and lentils, avocados, nuts, flax seeds, and walnuts as an excellent source of free fatty acids, and avoid vegetable oils and hydrogenated and hidden trans fats.
Natural peanut butter is also a brilliant source of essential free fatty acids and an excellent boost to your calorie intake, which again is the forward for packing on that desired muscle.
Essential free fatty acids help with fast muscle recovery from high-intensity exercise, help with hormone production, increase metabolism, and support a healthy cardiovascular, immune, and brain function.
Vegan Macros According to the Pros
Robert Cheeke (founder of Vegan Bodybuilding and Fitness) offers some great advice about macro-nutrient percentages:
“The exact percentages may change daily based on diet. They also vary per individual based on factors such as your food preferences, your rate of metabolism (your body’s ability to burn fat), and your specific athletic goals.
“Though it may not be common to consume a lot of food, eating every two to three hours, for athletes training up to hours a day, it becomes a higher focus and a bigger part of everyday life. It’s not extremely challenging either, it just takes some dedication, focus, planning and preparation.”
“I personally enjoy eating frequently throughout the day. My meals tend to be a bit smaller and I get to incorporate a lot of variety, flavors and themes because I am eating more frequently than just three or four meals a day.”
Deryn Macey (strength and conditioning coach) said she needed to switch to high-protein whole grains to dial-in her vegan macros:
“I have no problem with white rice but with my new goals, it doesn’t provide the right protein to carbohydrate ratio for me.
“Switching to grains like bulgur, barley, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat and other higher protein grains will help me stay within my carbohydrate goals while still hitting 160 grams of protein.”
Shannon Clark (certified personal trainer) reminds us that salads alone won’t cut it:
“If you’re the type of vegetarian who gets full on things like brown rice, quinoa, potatoes, legumes, beans and lentils, nuts, seeds, nut butters, and avocados, you’ve given yourself a good chance to build some muscle.
“On the other hand, if you’re a vegetarian who feasts mostly on salad, stir-fry, fresh fruit, and other vegetable-based dishes, you’re likely falling short on your macro needs. For every vegetable you eat, pair it with a healthy fat and protein-packed side. This provides the balance of nutrition you need!”
Monitor More Than Macros
Macronutrient and vitamin deficiencies have to be monitored, not only for building muscle but also for general well-being. Add non-heme iron to your diet by including spinach, kale, and collard, which are dark leafy green vegetables.
Don’t be afraid to mix and match your food choices by adding dried peas, beans, lentils, artichokes, and dried fruit, which again are rich in iron. Iron supplementation and vitamin B12 is recommended, especially for females during the menstrual cycle (Powers, 2012).
Calcium is required for bone maintenance and plays a vital role in muscle contractions. In the short term, low calcium intake causes muscle cramps, and can hinder performance at the gym (Wilmore & Costill, 2012). Long-term neglect can cause a weak bone structure and osteoporosis.
It is common knowledge that dairy produce is high in calcium, so for the lacto-vegetarian, this is not an issue. However, vegans can consume sufficient calcium from spinach, green collard, kale, broccoli, and almonds.
If you are in doubt that your diet is lacking in calcium, there are plenty of calcium supplements to choose from to give it a boost!
Lack of zinc can hinder growth and development across the body, suppress your appetite, and reduce testosterone levels. A recommended 40mg of zinc per day boosts testosterone, which is the hormone required for muscle growth and development.
Pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, almonds, and fortified oatmeal are high in zinc, so add these foods to your varied vegetarian diet.
Powers, S. Howley J (2011). Exercise Physiology: Theory and Application to Fitness and Performance. McGraw-Hill Education.