If you’re looking to build muscle, you’ll find plenty of info out there extolling the virtues of lean meats and fish. But what if you’re vegetarian or vegan? Is it possible to maintain muscle on a plant-based diet? And can you build muscle on a vegetarian diet?
Traditional muscle-building diets are stacked with recommendations for a protein-heavy menu: steak and eggs for breakfast, salmon for lunch, shakes after the gym, and chicken for dinner.
That may be well and good if you’re a meat eater, but what if you’re following a plant-based diet? What then? What can you eat to build muscle when you don’t eat meat?
If you’re one of the 8 million American adults who choose to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, then you’re probably used to people making comments about your diet already. Do you get enough iron and calcium? Do you have to take supplements? Where do you get your protein? Vegetarians and vegans have heard them all.
Yes, you can make mistakes on a vegan diet, but even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that an “appropriately planned” vegetarian diet can support your health and help you drop pounds. But what about muscle?
The myth of vegetarians as weak still exists in some quarters, but don’t try telling that to Carl Lewis, Venus Williams, and NFL defensive end David Carter. So what should you be eating if you want to build muscle as a vegetarian or vegan? And do you need to supplement your diet?
Does Being a Vegetarian Affect Muscle Growth?
Does being a vegetarian affect muscle growth? Nope. You can build muscle even if you give up meat, according to a 2002 study comparing a set of meat-eating and vegetarian weight lifters. Both groups consumed equal quantities of calories, and the results found that “increases in muscle strength and size were not influenced by the predominant source of protein.”
Matthew Ruscigno, M.P.H., R.D., shares that view. He’s been a vegan for over 20 years and is co-author of the book “No Meat Athlete.”
“As long as you’re eating enough food to fuel the amount of training you’re doing, then a plant-based diet can provide all the energy and nutrients required to train at any level,” he says.
An endurance athlete and lead dietitian at the plant-based nutrition clinic Nutrinic in Los Angeles, Ruscigno says the most important thing is to ensure your diet is balanced and made up predominantly of unprocessed foods.
“A healthy diet should contain whole grains, beans, and lots of vegetables, especially leafy greens,” he says. “In fact, plant-based diets could be beneficial for athletes as they’re high in antioxidants, which may help speed up recovery — and the sooner you recover, the sooner you can work out hard again!”
What Foods Do You Need to Eat to Build Muscle?
The reason many muscle-building diets include lots of lean meats is because they contain protein. When you work out, especially when you’re doing resistance training such as lifting weights, you create microscopic tears in your muscles.
Protein supplies essential amino acids, which help repair and rebuild your muscle fibers so you gain strength and build muscle.
While meat is a good source of protein, there are also plenty of quality vegetarian options. Eggs, milk, and yogurt are all protein-rich, as are some nuts (particularly peanuts and almonds), seeds and legumes — including beans, lentils, and split peas (aka pulses).
However, while you should be including protein in your diet to build muscle, there’s no need to get too hung up on it. “Protein is often overemphasized for athletes,” says Ruscigno.
He cites the importance of other nutrients, like iron, which helps transport oxygen around the body to keep you feeling energized, and carbohydrates, which provide energy. “It’s easy to get these from a plant-based diet.”
Vegetarian sources of iron include beans, nuts, dried fruit, whole grains (such as brown rice), fortified breakfast cereals, and dark-green leafy vegetables, like kale. When it comes to carbohydrates, opt for healthy, minimally processed sources such as whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
Complex carbohydrates are filling, packed with additional nutrients and fiber and release energy into the body much more slowly than processed carbs, such as white bread and pastries.
Refined carbs, which are stripped of natural fiber, can cause spikes in blood sugar, leaving you feeling hungry. (Though there’s a place for those when you need energy, like, right now during training and competitions!)
How Much Protein Do I Need to Build Muscle?
That’s the million-dollar question: How much protein do I need to build muscle? If you look at some of the people you see hitting the weight bench at the gym, you’d think your diet should be all protein, all the time.
But you probably need less protein than you think you do. A 2015 analysis found that Americans are consuming well over the recommended daily amount for the average healthy adult.
(The Recommended Dietary Allowance, which is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, is not the set amount you should eat daily; it’s the minimum amount you need to stay healthy.)
Those who are training regularly may need to consume more protein, so Openfit recommends 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day when people are active. For a 150-pound person, that’s about 89 grams of protein per day (one kilogram equals 2.2 pounds).
According to Ruscigno, that should be an easy number to reach. “When you’re taking part in physical activity, you need more calories,” he says. “The athlete’s diet doesn’t need to be radically different from a regular healthy diet: You’re just eating more of it, and, therefore, more protein.”
The Bottom Line
You can build and maintain muscle mass on a meat-free diet. Whether you’re vegetarian or vegan, you can meet your needs while still eating a balanced diet. Yes, you do need protein, but you don’t need to overload on it or overlook other key macronutrients.