Out of all the misconceptions surrounding plant-based diets, the notion that vegans are skinny and couldn’t possibly build any muscle because of their “lack of protein” is amongst the most common ones. Especially those who are already into fitness fear giving up animal products because it could mean losing their gains. But is vegan muscle building and sustaining really that impossible or tough?
At the end of the day, you could build muscle on any diet which offers you enough calories, paired with a great exercise routine. In this article, we wanted to show you how it’s not really a struggle to make vegan gains – your plant-based diet can even put you in a great advantage.
There are a lot of strong, successful vegan men and women who are rocking their careers as professional athletes. World’s strongest man Patrick Baboumian, MMA/UFC fighters like Mac Danzig, Jake Shields or James Wilks, triathletes like Brendan Brazier, Hillary Biscay or Rip Esselstyn, tennis stars Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Novak Djokovic, ultramarathoner extraordinaire Scott Jurek, or undefeated boxer Timothy Bradley, Jr. They all switched from steak, milk, and eggs to beans, nuts, and greens.
Let’s find out what’s required in order to build strength and fitness!
Vegan Muscle Building 101
1. Get into the right mindset
There are many things we can achieve in life, but few of them are possible if our mind is not in the right place. The same goes for following a diet or workout regime. Your success here is an accumulation of daily steps you take which will lead to your desired goal over time. Meaning: real change takes time. Don’t get fooled by people in the fitness industry showing you crazy transformations! That’s mostly messing around with portion sizes, dehydration, and lightening.
Also, lots of bodybuilders you see on the internet take questionable “supplements” or downright inject substances like growth hormones, testosterone or steroids in order to get that big. So, there’s no point comparing yourself to them! What’s more, some of these people have huge contracts with supplement companies in order to sell you that dream of powdering your way into a shredded self. They won’t be afraid to give out harmful advice, so take everything that sounds too good to be true with a grain of salt.
Be aware that everyone’s body is different. For some, it’s easier to put on muscle or weight. In any way, a natural weight and size are much healthier than trying to transform into one extreme or the other. Some people aren’t supposed to become very big while others find it more difficult to cut extra fat. But with the right tools (which you’ll find below), you can get as close as possible to your ideal, fit body.
Please notice that muscle mass is often hidden under body fat so you need to tackle both of these areas: growing muscle and losing fat. But don’t rely on your scale too much since muscle weighs more than fat and you might slim down while gaining a bit of weight.
Try not to become discouraged if you don’t see results right away – size and strength happen outside of the workout over time. The more enthusiastic you are and the more meaningful your reasons, the greater your success will be. You’ll work harder on it, be happier while doing so, and eventually see this as a lifestyle you can follow for good.
Lastly, finding people who are inspiring and have the same goals as you is so helpful. Let them hold you accountable and see how contagious their positive attitudes can be.
2. Let go of the protein obsession
This has to be every bodybuilder’s favorite topic: getting their protein. And lots of it. But is this really the most important or healthy approach? Animal-based protein, meaning meat, dairy, and eggs, come with a huge load of problems. They contain cholesterol, saturated fat, hormones, methionine, cancer-causing animal protein, antibiotics, and zero fiber. They are part of the reason why some bodybuilders die way too early.
When ingesting protein, it is broken down into ammonia derivatives which means an extra workload for your kidneys. So we don’t want to overdo it and make sure we’re going for the best source of protein because every food comes in a package – either with fat and cholesterol (as in animal products) or with fiber and complex carbs (as in legumes).
The truth is that nobody really knows how much protein per day a person needs. There are some good and bad recommendations but our bodies just aren’t predictable machines. You might see numbers ranging from 1g of protein per kilo to 1g per pound, some even higher.
The official recommendation is 0.8g/kg per day which is based on a person’s healthy weight and includes a fairly liberal safety margin. The general population in the West eats way more than that. Nitrogen balance studies (the best way to determine protein needs) have shown adults can be healthy and thriving on as little as 0.5-0.66 g/kg. They have also shown that you can actually build strength and muscle at that level with a proper resistance exercise program.
The time during which the most growth happens in our bodies is during infancy. Mother’s milk has 6% protein, providing us with everything we need in order to grow into healthy human beings. Why the need to go for 20% or more protein later?
Problems with excess
These high numbers just cause people to reach for isolated protein sources or animal-based foods. No scientific study has ever shown that consumption of protein beyond 10% of daily calories stimulates additional muscle growth. In fact, excessive animal protein intake can be harmful.
Not only is there evidence that it is often stored in fat cells, it contributes to the onset of a variety of diseases such as osteoporosis, impaired kidney function, and heart disease. It raises a hormone called IGF-1 which can stimulate the growth rate of certain cancers. This happens when you consume soy protein isolate as well!
Focusing on concentrated sources of protein (such as powders or supplements) isn’t just potentially more harmful, it’s also not necessary. An American Dietetic Association’s position paper states that “recommended protein intakes can generally be met through diet alone, without the use of protein or amino acid supplements.”
The protein recommendations for strength training range from 1.2 to 1.7 g/kg body weight per day, which comes down to 120 to 150 grams of total protein. When you eat around 3000 calories per day and stay on a 15-20% protein diet, you would be getting 115 to 150 grams already – without any supplements.
Meeting needs simply by eating
This goes to show that protein needs and energy needs are equivalent. If you need more protein, you can just consume more food. Overall calories matter more than macronutrients. It’s a challenging, tiring and virtually impossible task to be counting your calories or macros every single day – the numbers are never very accurate and your body’s needs are different each day. The only way you could determine that would be in a lab.
It can be helpful to loosely track your food intake for a few days in order to see if you’re eating 1200 or 5000 calories but keeping it up won’t be possible or even necessary.
Finally, you don’t need to combine different plant-based foods to get complete protein. Read more in our extensive article here. And consuming soy (which is actually an awesome source of protein!) is not going to give you cancer or make you more feminine!
The phytoestrogens found in soy don’t change baseline blood levels of hormones – as studied on men drinking 1.7 cups per day which actually resulted in lowered estrogen levels. Dairy is more of a concern since it contains actual estrogen from mother’s milk, not just a plant version of it like soy does.
3. Focus on healthy food
Starches for great strength
Opt for complex carbohydrates like oats, potatoes, pumpkin, whole grains, and fruit. In order to consume enough calories for your workouts, choose bread and pasta instead of just eating steamed potatoes if you cannot consume very large portions. Since you don’t want to put on extra body fat, stay away from empty calories like oil, sugar, or alcohol. They also mess with your energy levels, motivation, and overall health.
You want to be consuming nutrient dense food where you’ll find all of the different compounds you need to replenish your body and be fueled for activity. Wholesome vegan foods are perfect for that and help to build healthy muscle tissue. Some important nutrients to look out for are:
Iron found in dark leafy greens, beans, lentils, dried fruits (low iron means low energy)
Calcium found in spinach, collard, kale, broccoli, hemp milk (for muscle contraction and bone health)
Zinc found in pumpkin seeds, almonds, macadamias, oatmeal or cereals (for muscle growth and repair)
Potassium found in bananas, oranges, potatoes, kale, avocados (electrolyte for muscle contraction lost via sweat)
Stock your kitchen, fridge, and freezer with healthy staple foods so you’ll never be hungry and replace your favorite foods like ice cream or meat with vegan versions. If you’re not familiar with many of these staples, try them out from time to time to see if you like them. Get excited about how awesome they are for your body!
No need to fear calories, if you simply choose great sources, you will be healthy and thriving instead of overweight and lethargic. Remember, mindset makes a whole lot of difference and diet has a much greater impact than workouts do. Overall, it’s much better to eat a vegan diet to build muscle and sustain your physique.