Many vegan and vegetarian athletes manage to build muscle—not just maintain muscle. You can compete and stay healthy without relying on animal products for protein, yet most people still think it is impossible to do so.
The meat and dairy industries have marketed their products to convince most of the country that there’s no way to get the protein, calcium, and nutrition you need without the animal products they sell. Don’t fall for their marketing tactics. Get those gains the cruelty-free way.
Building muscle on a vegan or plant-based diet is achievable and will make your body healthier in the long run because:
- Too much protein can be counteractive to your goals
- High protein diets are achievable through a plant-based diet
- Your body needs more than just protein to build muscle
- Plant-based protein powders are more easily absorbable allowing you to get the fuel you need to keep going
HOW TOO MUCH PROTEIN CAN MAKE YOU GAIN FAT RATHER THAN MUSCLE
When you think of gains, you are talking about gaining and building muscle mass—not fat. Excess protein can actually work against your goals for your body.
In fact, you probably get way more protein than you need. Many experts believe that the average sedentary American is getting around 50% more protein than they can use. That’s extra calories and, if it comes from meat and dairy, extra saturated fat and cholesterol, too.
If you consume more calories than your body can use, it stores the excess as fat. Too much protein also puts a strain on the liver and kidneys as the body tries to deal with what isn’t being incorporated into enzymes, muscles, cellular membranes, and connective tissue.
If you do not work out regularly, then you should be eating a fraction of the protein you are currently eating.
Part of the problem is we all eat like we’re major athletes, even when we spend most of our time sitting chained to a desk, at a computer, commuting, or sprawled on a couch in front of our televisions.
Your body is hardwired to desire food often, beg for the richest, densest foods, and store the excess as fat. These yearnings and processes kept humankind from going extinct when cold winters, famines, and scarcity came.
The modern world has changed the way you should treat food and yourself. Your body’s natural tendency is to store or dump what it doesn’t need. So, either you need to seek out the exercise that balances your eating, or you need to eat less—or probably both.
If you want to counteract the deadly combination we have created by inventing more accessible food and spending our time as sedentary beings, then you need to work on getting the right amount of protein for your body and keep your body active.
The standard American diet typically consists of far more protein than your body needs or wants. If you’re confused about your protein intake, check out our article on how much protein you need daily.
HOW YOUR BODY BUILDS MUSCLE
Muscles are made up of long strands called fascicles. Inside of the fascicles live the muscle fibers. And even further, inside the muscle fibers are other strands called myofibrils. When you exercise, you develop little micro-tears in the myofibrils. That’s why after a hard workout, you’ll feel sore.
Proteins then surround the myofibrils, work to repair the damage, and consequently cause the muscle to grow in size. So, by exercising, you are essentially injuring your muscles, and your immune system needs the necessary nutrients to restore and strengthen the muscles.
That’s why you can’t just lift weights and expect to build muscle while eating a horrible diet. And you can’t expect to build muscle from a nutritionally dense diet when all you do is sit at a desk or lounge around the house.
Both exercise and your diet work together to build your muscles and allow you to do what you want to achieve with your body.
HOW TO BUILD MUSCLE AS A VEGAN
The average American only needs between 0.3 and 0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day. That makes about 0.4 or 0.5 plenty depending on what types of exercise you do and how active you are. That amount is easily supplied with protein-rich plants.
However, if your goal is to build muscle and make significant gains, then you need between 0.8 and 1.2 grams of protein per pound.
A High Protein Vegan Diet Plan
You know you need protein, but just eating protein without looking at your protein sources isn’t going to get you the kind of gains you want. You don’t just need protein. You need high-quality protein.
A protein that is rich in amino acids, easily absorbable by your body, and contains Leucine has been shown to help you build muscle mass in the fastest and healthiest way. Some of these high-quality sources of protein include:
- Whole grains such as wheat and oats
- Vegetables and legumes such as beans, peas, and potatoes
- Nuts and seeds such as quinoa and buckwheat
We have more information about plant proteins in our article 8 Great Sources for Plant Proteins. This article is great for new vegans or vegetarians, but if you haven’t transitioned to that lifestyle yet, you can still add these foods to your diet for additional nutrients outside of animal protein.
Most plants aren’t considered “complete” proteins as they may be lacking in one or two essential amino acids, but this is easily counteracted by eating a variety of food. You can’t just eat a bucket of broccoli and expect your body to get all the nutrients it needs.
However, amino acids remain in the body for days, and the correct combinations do not have to occur during the same meal or even the same day as long as you are getting all the essential amino acids throughout a 3 to 4 day period.
The body doesn’t store amino acids long term, but it takes time to digest and absorb protein. So be patient with yourself until you figure out what your body needs.
Bodybuilders, in particular, need to take a more diligent approach to their diet. If your goal is to build muscle solely, then determining how many calories you need, your macros, meal timing and sizing, and the foods you eat for each meal can be extremely beneficial.
Eating more calories is critical since an active body burns through fuel more effectively and more rapidly. If you want to build muscle, you need to eat more calories and more protein. Without the necessary nutrients, your body can’t repair your muscle to keep you going longer.
Many athletes choose to eat several small meals and snacks throughout the day to supply them with the energy demands of a more active lifestyle. A more casual athlete may just need to add a few snacks throughout the day.
A handful of nuts, hummus on crackers, almond butter on toast, or a good protein smoothie with chia seeds or coconut oil after a workout is a good way to speed recovery and get protein to the torn muscle fibers quickly.
If you want more information on how to eat as a vegan athlete, Dylan Falduto, an athlete and one of our writers, explains in this article how he eats for plant-based strength. Or if you want some inspiration for recipes, we have lots of great plant-based recipes on our blog.
And, if you want a story of encouragement, check out Tim McComsey’s success story on how he recovered from Bulimia to become a registered dietician, personal trainer, and fitness model.
Why You Need Carbs to Build Muscle Too
The body needs complex carbohydrates to fuel workouts, boost stamina, and supply the power source behind building and repairing muscle tissue. It also needs good fats to supply energy, control inflammation, and also aid in cellular repair.
Then the body needs the right conditions to tear muscle before it can be built back up. That means plenty of intense exercise, cardio for lean muscle, and strength training to build larger muscles.
SELECTING A VEGAN PROTEIN POWDER THAT FUELS YOUR WORKOUTS AND RECOVERIES
Though you should always try to get your body what it needs through whole food sources at first, protein powder supplements can make reaching your daily protein intake levels significantly easier and more convenient.
Vegan protein powder supplements that come from brown rice, pea, hemp, and other amino acid-rich plant sources provide a good dose of your protein needs in one small scoop, especially if you are more active. You can make a smoothie before your workout to give you energy, or add it to a smoothie after your workout to repair your muscle fibers.
Despite what many would have you believe, these vegetable-based protein powders do as well as whey. One recent study confirmed what we’ve been saying for years with rice protein. Vegan protein powders are equally matched with whey in every way.