Building Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet – Myths and Strategies

Firstly, the bad news: like the Greeks, we place protein on a plinth high above all other macronutrients for health and fitness, and especially bodybuilding, so much so that it’s essentially synonymous with food for fitness. (The other kings of Olympus would be carbs and, to a lesser degree, fat. Goddess-like qualities are reserved for dietary fibre, by the way.) All of which is why, for so many vegans and vegetarians — and for nonvegetarians who avoid meat — the value of protein is so scary to even consider: what else can we eat that’s missing all the good stuff? But building muscle with plants doesn’t have to be impossible!

An optimal plant-based diet has all the necessary amino acids for muscle-building when enriched by regular resistance training.

You Can’t Build Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet

Muscle-building requires resistance-based strength training and rest. But also: calories. Enough of them – in the form of food that exceeds your TDEE.

Those eating an omnivorous diet generally get their calories from food groups that include meat, dairy and eggs. Those practising a plant-based diet, on the other hand, tend to get their calories from beans, whole grains and vegetables.

Protein is a vital macronutrient that we need in order to build muscle. Made up of 20 amino acids – nine essential amino acids that our body requires to obtain through our diet – protein produces energy that our muscles use when they contract.

Besides increasing plant food palatability with fat, dressing and flavour, this kind of planned eating makes getting reasonable amounts of protein easy. For optimal muscle-building potential on a plant-based diet, all meals should include light, digestible, blood-sugar-raising carbohydrates (cauliflower, quinoa, brown rice or tortillas), consistent, hearty or meaty elements (beans, tofu, tempeh, seitan), dark green, accented leafy elements (spinach, kale, romaine, collards), and the proteinaceous component (avocado hummus or protein pesto dipping sauces) – with optional plant-based protein powders or energy bars!

You Can’t Build Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet

Most people – especially those conditioned to think that meat is required for muscle and strength – feel that going vegetarian (especially vegan) would necessarily lead to muscle and strength losses. But such fears are completely unfounded – whole-food, plant-based diets are extremely healthful and are biochemically more than capable of ensuring muscle growth via delivery of all required vitamins and nutrients, including protein!

A plant-based diet might improve your fitness by helping you get better results from resistance training. Moreover, plant-based diets help provide an alternative to US diets, higher in saturated fat and lower in unsaturated (including omega-3) fat, both of which have negative effects on cardiovascular systems.

Plant-based diets typically have less saturated and trans fats, which are known to reduce bad cholesterol levels, and also allow in more antioxidants, which are vital for fighting inflammation and therefore decreasing your risks of heart disease or certain cancers.

You Can’t Build Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet

Muscle is made up of protein, and so the assumption is that we should look to animal products – meat, eggs, dairy and all other sources of protein – for its growth. People following vegan and plant-based diets often ask: is it possible to build muscle on these diets?

Yes. Maximising muscle girth and strength with minimal eating time, you should eat a diet of both whole foods and plant-based proteins – exemplified in pea, soy, quinoa and hemp – with a regular resistance-training schedule. This consumption of protein in a diet promotes protein synthesis, resulting in increased muscle size and strength gains along with more physical fitness and wellbeing.

Besides – and this is crucial for success – you need to blend in loads of quality carbs from whole-food sources (and especially those high in fibre and dietary fat) to promote muscle growth. And, if you want a little more help with your protein intake – to make sure you get your required muscle-building quantities – vegan protein powders can supply some needed extra support.

You Can’t Build Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet

To build and maintain muscles, fitness and bodybuilding trainers need protein. And we need it for our bodies – for metabolism and for fluid balance/pH regulation. But do you need to eat meat to get muscle? No. There are protein-rich plant foods – lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, tofu – that contain all of the amino acids we need to build our muscles.

Step 1: Determine your daily calorie expenditure and macros.

Step 2: Veg out on whole plant foods: leafy greens, colourful vegetables, potato/tubers, beans/lentils, nuts/seeds, whole grains, tofu/tempeh/fresh fruits.

Step 3: Use plant-based protein powders/bar, if needed, to help reach your protein goals; while focusing on whole foods, it is easy to build muscle successfully on a plant-based diet.

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