How to Gain Muscle on a Vegan Diet
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Ditching animal products can benefit you and the earth in dozens of ways — from protecting against a whole host of diseases to reducing your impact on the environment — but can you gain muscle on a vegan diet?
While some muscle-heads swear by a fridge full of chicken breasts, animal products aren’t the only way to support muscle growth. Read on to learn more about the science behind muscle building, the ins and outs of plant-based protein, and what to include in your vegan muscle-building diet.
Can Vegans Build Muscle?
Yes, they sure can. “Vegans can build muscle just like anyone else, with a surplus of calories, protein, and putting stress on muscles,” says Taylor Wolfram, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., and private practice dietitian based in Chicago.
Mascha Davis, M.P.H., R.D.N., private practice registered dietitian nutritionist, founder of NomadistaNutrition.com, and author of the upcoming book Eat Your Vitamins agrees: “Vegans can definitely build muscle because muscles are mainly built as a result of working out and increasing the weights you are lifting,” she says. “Protein is important, too, but it’s possible to get the protein you need on a vegan diet — if the diet is planned carefully.”
The Science Behind Muscle Building
Here’s the basic equation for muscle building:
- Nutrition + training + time = muscle growth
“Simply eating more calories and protein won’t result in more muscle,” Wolfram says. “You have to include regular strength training in your routine.” So while what you eat — and how much you eat — has a major influence on muscle growth and maintenance, you also need to get your butt to the gym. That goes for everyone, vegan or not.
Working out causes microtrauma to muscles (i.e. tiny tears), which the body immediately gets to work not only repairing, but also reinforcing and strengthening in anticipation of more bouts of exercise. Growing muscles is all about challenging them (by upping your weight or varying your reps, for instance). But you also need to leave room for recovery — that’s because muscles grow between workouts, not during them.
Beyond caloric intake, the type of food you eat, and how you train, several other factors influence muscle development including:
- History of physical activity
Is Plant-Based Protein Good for Building Muscle?
While animal proteins are “complete,” meaning that they have all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of life and muscle), many plant proteins are not. That’s not to say you can’t meet your protein needs as a vegan, you may just need to be more mindful of the variety of foods you eat.
The good news? You don’t need to worry about pairing certain foods in one meal. While it was once advised to combine complementary proteins at each meal to form a complete protein (like rice and beans, for instance), you can eat plenty of different plant-based protein sources throughout the day and still get all the amino acids you need.
What about plant-based protein powder? While it’s not a must, it may help you sneak more protein into your day. “Protein supplements are not needed to meet protein demands for building muscle,” Wolfram says. “However, if someone is struggling to get the protein they need through food, protein supplements can help.”
And it doesn’t have to be in in a shake — you can add a scoop of plant-based protein powder to pancake batter or oatmeal to bump up the protein content.
To get a more well-rounded balance of essential amino acids, it’s a good idea to look for a plant-based protein blend, which research suggests can more closely resemble animal proteins versus plant-based powders made of one protein source. If you’re not sure how plant protein powder stacks up against the old standbys, you can take solace in this: In one study comparing whey and pea proteins, both options resulted in similar strength, performance, body composition, and muscular adaptations.
What Are Some Vegan Foods to Eat that Help Build Muscle?
Add a variety of the following plant-based foods with protein to your vegan muscle building meal plan:
- Legumes: Beans, lentils, peanuts, peas
- Nuts and seeds: Pistachios, walnuts, pecans, almonds, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, nut and seed butters
- Soy products: Tofu, tempeh, edamame
- Vegetables: Broccoli, artichokes, asparagus, corn, brussels sprouts
Vegans can absolutely build strength and muscle, it may just require a little more attention to detail.
Whatever your protein sources are, plant-based or not, the basic method to develop muscle remains the same: “Lift weights and make sure you eat enough overall calories,” Davis says. “Consuming a varied diet with a good amount of complex starches, protein, and healthy fats at every meal should help you build muscle efficiently.”