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Key Takeaways

  1. The reason many vegans struggle to build muscle is that they have trouble eating enough high-quality protein. This can be fixed by eating more of the right plant proteins.
  2. Vegans also need to ensure they get enough omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and several other nutrients, which can be obtained from a variety of foods and supplements.
  3. The most effective way to make vegan bodybuilding work is to create a vegan bodybuilding meal plan. Read on to learn how!

Many people think veganism and bodybuilding are mutually exclusive.

Well, they’re wrong. You absolutely can do both.

You have to know what you’re doing, though.

One of the reasons vegan bodybuilding faces a bum rap these days is it’s easier to mess up than the traditional omnivorous approach.

This is why studies have shown omnivores tend to have more muscle than vegetarians and vegans.

There are also several nutrition myths prevalent among vegans that make it particularly hard to build muscle, which we’ll fully debunk in this article.

The bottom line is this:

If you don’t understand and address the downsides and limitations of the vegan diet in the context of bodybuilding, you’ll get disappointing results.

If you do, though, and plan and adjust accordingly, then you’ll have no problem building muscle, losing fat, and getting strong.

And that’s what this article is all about.

In it, you’re going to learn the most common mistakes vegans make when trying to build muscle and how to get the most out of your plant-fueled training.

Let’s start with the first hurdle that trips up so many would-be vegan bodybuilders:

Protein intake.

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The Truth About Protein and Vegan Bodybuilding

When it comes to building muscle, decades of anecdotal and scientific evidence have proven certain elements of your diet and training are more important than others.

For example, if you want to maximize muscle growth . . . 

This last point is vitally important.

Dozens of well-designed and peer-reviewed studies have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that a high-protein diet is superior for building muscle and losing fat than a low-protein one.

In terms of an exact amount, research shows the optimal protein intake for bodybuilding is between 0.8 grams and 1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day.

And this is where many would-be vegan bodybuilders die on the vine.

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

Where Many Vegans Go Wrong With Protein Intake

vegan bodybuilding supplements

Macronutritionally speaking, the main difference between a vegan and omnivorous diet is protein intake.

Most people eating an even halfway “healthy” diet are already getting a large percentage of their carbs and fats from plant foods like grains, fruits, veggies, and nuts and oils.

Going vegan doesn’t change this.

What it does change, though, is protein intake, simply because you replace your favorite high-protein animal foods like meat, eggs, and dairy with lower-protein plant foods like beans, grains, and nuts.

Not only that, but many people replace these protein sources that are particularly suited to muscle building with ones that aren’t.

(More on all this in a minute.)

Instead of acknowledging the fact that getting enough protein on a vegan diet takes a bit more thought and effort than an omnivorous one, though, many vegans choose to dig in their heels and defend their way of eating as infallible.

That is, instead of admitting their diet isn’t perfect and peerless in every way, they whitewash.

And they usually rely on several falsehoods to do it:

1. You don’t need much protein to maximize muscle growth.

This is categorically false.

Low-protein dieting is popular among vegans and is almost single-handedly responsible for the misconception that they can’t build muscle like meat eaters can.

In reality, vegans need just as much if not more protein to effectively build muscle than meat eaters, for reasons you’ll learn in a moment.

2. There’s no such thing as a “protein deficiency.”

Wut?

Here’s how the dictionary defines protein deficiency:

“Reduced ingestion or inadequate digestion of dietary protein and/or essential amino acids, or excess elimination of protein due to compromised renal function.”

Moreover, many studies conducted by scientists around the world have also documented the devastating effects of protein deficiency.

Protein deficiency is most definitely real, and while most vegans can get enough protein from plants to prevent this, they most likely won’t get enough to optimally support muscle growth.

3. All/most vegetables are a great source of protein.

Veggies are a great source of carbs and micronutrients, but protein?

Not so much.

For example . . .

  • Broccoli contains about 13 grams of protein per pound.
  • Brussels sprouts are slightly better, providing about 15 grams of protein per pound.
  • A cup of green peas contains just 8 grams of protein.
  • And a cup of boiled spinach contains a measly 5 grams.

As you can see, if you need to eat around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, it’s going to take a couple buckets of these types of vegetables to get you there.

Let’s compare the protein content of these veggies with animal products: 

  • Sirloin steak contains about 90 grams of protein per pound.
  • Chicken breast contains about 96 grams of protein per pound.
  • Wild-caught salmon contains about 89 grams of protein per pound.
  • Eggs contain about 57 grams of protein per pound.

Obviously, then, it’s going to be much easier to meet your daily protein needs if you include some animal products in your diet. 

4. All plant proteins are equally good for muscle building as animal proteins.

Not all proteins are made equal, and especially not for building muscle.

To understand why, we first need to talk about amino acids.

Amino acids are the “building blocks” of protein and tissues in the body, including muscle tissue.

The body needs 21 amino acids to stay alive, and 9 of them must be obtained from food.

These are known as “essential amino acids,” and one in particular is especially related to muscle building. It’s known as leucine and it directly stimulates protein synthesis via the activation of an enzyme responsible for cell growth known as the mammalian target of rapamycin, or mTOR.

This is why research shows that the leucine content of a meal directly affects the amount of protein synthesis that occurs as a result.

In other words, high-leucine meals have a higher muscle-building potential than low-leucine meals.

Now, when it comes to evaluating a source of protein, we need to consider two things:

  1. How well the protein is absorbed by the body
  2. Its amino acid profile

And while it’s not true that plant proteins are “incomplete” (missing essential amino acids), it is true that some plant proteins aren’t absorbed as efficiently and are lower in certain amino acids than others.

For example, protein from hemp seeds is absorbed rather poorly compared to pea protein and has fewer essential amino acids.

These points of bioavailability and amino acid content are important because they explain why eating 100 grams of hemp protein isn’t the same as eating 100 grams of pea protein. The former has less muscle-building potential than the latter.

To understand the importance of amino acid profile, let’s compare the protein found in broccoli to the protein found in beef.

Here’s what 275 calories of each (4 ounces of steak vs. just over 9 cups of broccoli) will get you in terms of essential amino acids:

Essential Amino Acids Steak Broccoli
histidine 0.975 0.48
isoleucine 1.391 .0643
leucine 2.431 1.05
lysine 2.583 1.099
methionine 0.796 0.309
cysteine 0.394 0.228
threonine 1.221 0.716
tryptophan 0.201 0.269
valine 1.516 1.018

As you can see, it’s not even close.

You’d have to eat 18 freaking cups of broccoli to get the essential amino acids found in just 4 ounces of steak.

You run into the same problems with many other plant sources of protein (bioavailability and amino acid profile), which brings us to our first big takeaway on how to make vegan bodybuilding work:

You must ensure you’re getting enough protein that’s both absorbed well and rich in essential amino acids.

In fact, since many plant sources of protein have less bioavailability and sub-par amino acid profiles compared to animal-based products, it’s wise to eat more protein while on a vegan diet to help bridge the gap.

In other words, it’s already tricky to eat a high-protein diet with plant foods alone, and as vegan bodybuilders should probably be eating more protein than their omnivorous counterparts, the challenge is even greater.

This double-whammy is the main reason why vegan bodybuilding is easier to mess up than omnivorous bodybuilding.

The average Western omnivore’s favorite sources of protein (meat, eggs, and dairy) also happen to be very well absorbed by the body and very rich in essential amino acids (and leucine in particular).

This in itself makes their diets very conducive to muscle growth.

And based on my experience speaking with hundreds of people who have had trouble building muscle on a vegan diet, I’ve found that the average vegan eats too little “high-quality” protein to gain muscle efficiently.

This makes it much harder to gain muscle as a vegan than it should be.

Many don’t realize this, though, and think that vegan dieting as a whole is to blame—that you simply can’t get big and strong without animal foods.

Well, they’re wrong.

You just need to know how to make a proper vegan bodybuilding meal plan.

Summary: Many plant sources of protein are poorly absorbed and lower in essential amino acids than animal sources of protein, which is why vegans need to pay special attention to their protein intake to optimize muscle growth. 

How to Create a Vegan Bodybuilding Meal Plan

vegan bodybuilding meal plan

Meal planning is very simple. There are just four steps:

  1. Work out your calories.
  2. Work out your macros.
  3. Work out your meal timing and sizing.
  4. Work out your foods for each meal.

If you’re not familiar with any of that, check out this article on meal planning before continuing here.

What we’re going to focus on in this article is step number four, because this is what trips many vegans up.

Specifically, they run into two problems:

1. Eating enough protein.

To many, 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day seems impossible.

2. Balancing their macros.

The wrong food choices can make it very hard to not only meet protein needs but carbohydrate and fat needs as well.

For example, many vegans struggle to get anywhere near the standard “bodybuilding calorie split” of 40% of daily calories from protein, 40% from carbs, and 20% from fat.

They often find that meeting one macronutrient target makes another hopelessly high or low.

Fortunately, these issues are fairly easy to overcome.

First, let’s talk protein.

What Are the Best Sources of Vegan Protein?

vegan diet bodybuilding protein

As you know, the best sources of vegan protein are those that are both well absorbed and rich in essential amino acids, with special attention given to leucine.

There are quite a few protein sources that fit that bill:

  • Grains like rice and oats
  • Vegetables and legumes like peas, beans, and potato
  • Nuts like almonds, peanuts, walnuts, and pistachios
  • Seeds like quinoa and buckwheat (unfortunately most other seeds are poorly digested unless ground into a flour)

It’s as simple as this:

If you get the majority (70%+) of your daily protein from high-quality sources like these, you’re going to do well.

If, however, you get the majority of your protein from lower-quality sources, such as hemp, corn, and wheat, you’re going to struggle.

Beyond what I already mentioned, here are some more specific high-protein, vegan-friendly foods for hitting your protein goals:

  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Seitan
  • Amaranth
  • Kamut
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Spelt
  • Chia seeds
  • Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
  • Farro
  • Flaxseeds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Mycoprotein
  • Protein powder (Thrive is a pea/rice blend)

Now, there’s one food conspicuously missing from this list: soy. Read on to learn why.

Summary: The easiest way to make a vegan meal plan that provides plenty of high-quality protein is to focus on nutritious, well absorbed, essential-amino-acid-rich protein sources like beans, peas, nuts, and certain kinds of grains like quinoa and rice.

The Problem with Soy Protein

vegan soy protein

Soy protein is a mixed bag.

It’s an all-round good source of protein for building muscle, but it’s also a source of ongoing controversy.

According to some research, regular intake of soy foods has feminizing effects in men due to estrogen-like molecules found in soybeans called isoflavones.

For instance, a study conducted by scientists at Harvard University analyzed the semen of 99 men, and compared it against their soy and isoflavone intake during the 3 previous months.

What they found is that both isoflavone and soy intake were associated with a reduction in sperm count. Men in the highest intake category of soy foods had, on average, 41 million sperm/ml less than men who did not eat soy foods.

On the other hand, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph had 32 men eat low or high levels of isoflavones from soy protein for 57 days, and found that it didn’t affect semen quality.

Furthermore, several reviews suggest that neither soy foods nor isoflavones alter male hormone levels.

There’s even evidence that isoflavones can help normalize estrogen levels by either suppressing or increasing production as needed.

What gives, then?

Well, there isn’t a simple answer just yet.

What we do know, though, is the effects can vary depending on the presence or absence of certain intestinal bacteria. These bacteria, which are present in 30 to 50% of people, metabolize an isoflavone in soy called daidzein into an estrogen-like hormone called equol.

This can be seen in a study conducted by scientists at Peking University, which found that when equol-producing men ate high amounts of soy food for 3 days, their testosterone levels dropped and estrogen levels rose. These effects were not seen in women, regardless of equol production or lack thereof.

Now, that’s an overview of soy and men. What about women?

Well, research suggests it’s less likely to negatively affect hormones, regardless of equol production, so there’s no reason for concern here.

So, all things considered, I’d say completely avoiding soy protein is probably unnecessary. 

That said, why not opt for something else when there are so many other sources of plant-based protein available?

If I were vegan, I’d limit my intake to no more than 30 to 40 grams of soy protein per day (and, if I’m going to be completely honest, I’d probably just choose rice or pea protein powder instead).

If you want to include soy in your meal plan, however, consider these foods:

  • Edamame
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Soy protein concentrate (which may actually lack isoflavones depending on processing methods)

Summary: Men can include some soy in their diet without likely downsides, but with so many other good sources of protein available without potential negative side effects, I recommend they get the majority of their protein from sources other than soy.

Balancing Your Macros for Vegan Bodybuilding

vegan bodybuilding nutrition

The dictionary defines “macronutrient” in the following way:

Any of the nutritional components of the diet that are required in relatively large amounts: protein, carbohydrate, fat, and minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous.

(Most people think of “macros” as just protein, carbohydrate, and fat, but technically it includes the macrominerals and water as well.)

When it comes to diet and meal planning, the macronutrients you want to pay the most attention to are protein, carbohydrate, and fat.

When it comes to building muscle, getting your “macros” right is extremely important.

This is true regardless of whether you’re vegan or omnivorous.

Now, the standard baseline diet I recommend for lean bulking bodybuilding looks like this:

  • ~1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day

(This should be slightly higher when cutting.)

  • ~0.35 grams of fat per pound of body weight per day

(This can be slightly lower when cutting.)

  • ~2.2 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight per day

(Again, this will be lower if you’re cutting.)

If you want to learn more about these recommendations and how to adjust them based on your needs, check out this article on figuring out your macros:

This Is the Best Macronutrient Calculator on the Net

Now, hitting macro guidelines like those above is fairly easy as an omnivore, mainly because of the amount of low-carb and low-fat sources of protein available to us.

As a vegan, however, you might find you need to raise your fats and lower your carbs to hit both your protein and calorie targets (and especially when you’re cutting).

(This is primarily because most forms of “good” vegan protein also come with carbs and/or fats.)

And that’s fine because, as you know, eating enough calories and enough protein are of paramount importance when you want to build muscle.

A high-carb diet is more conducive to muscle growth than a low-carb one, but this is secondary in importance to the above.

So if you have to “sacrifice” some of your carbs to make sure you get enough protein without eating too many calories, you should do it.

I wouldn’t recommend you reduce your carbohydrate intake more than necessary, though. If you’re not sedentary and very overweight, you have no reason to follow a low-carb diet.

Otherwise, balancing your macros is just a matter of familiarizing yourself with the calories and macros of the foods you like to eat and then using that knowledge to create a proper meal plan.

Again, you can read more about the whole meal planning process here, but all it takes is a bit of trial and error and you’ll get the hang of it.

I should also mention here that a good vegan protein powder can help with this tremendously because it allows you to add large amounts of protein to your diet without adding much in the way of carbs and fats.

As I mentioned earlier, my go-to would be a pea protein or, ideally, a rice and pea protein blend (their amino acid profiles are complementary and, when combined, look a lot like whey protein).

If you’re looking for a tasty, high-quality, high-protein rice and pea protein powder blend that’s also low in carbs and fats, check out Legion Thrive.

The Vegan Menu for Bodybuilders

Fat

Here are some of my favorite vegan sources of fat (many of them also include some protein):

  • Avocado
  • Nut butters like peanut and almond
  • Nuts like cashews, macadamias, and Brazil nuts
  • Tahini
  • Olive, avocado, and macadamia nut oils

Carbs

For carbs, these are my go-tos:

  • Potatoes (sweet and white)
  • Oats
  • Rice (brown, white, wild)
  • Bulgur
  • Quinoa
  • Whole-wheat pasta and bread
  • Vegetables like broccoli, carrots, kale, mushrooms, and cauliflower
  • Fruit like bananas, apples, berries, pineapple, and oranges

Summary: Aim for 1 gram of protein, 0.35 grams of fat, and 2.2 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day when bulking, although it’s fine to eat slightly more fat and less carbs if you have trouble eating this much food.

What About Micronutrient Deficiencies?

vegan deficiencies

You’ve probably heard that excluding animal products from your diet increases the risk of various nutritional deficiencies.

This is true.

For example, studies show that many vegans have low levels of . . .

(Many omnivores have various micronutrient deficiencies as well, so eating indiscriminately doesn’t necessarily make for a healthier diet.)

You’ve probably also heard that these common deficiencies among vegans can be avoided by simply adding certain foods to your diet.

This is true to a point, but it’s also easier said than done.

For example, the calcium in some vegetables isn’t as bioavailable as the calcium in dairy products (and in any case, multiple servings of veggies are needed to equal a single serving of dairy).

Many plant sources of iron and zinc are also inferior to animal sources and require rather large amounts to be eaten.

The omega-3 fatty acid problem boils down to the fact that a vegan’s primary source of this vital fat is alpha-linolenic acid, which is poorly absorbed by the body

All this means that you have two options if you want to optimize your health and performance on a vegan diet:

  1. Micromanage your diet to include generous amounts of foods high in the nutrients listed above.
  2. Supplement.

And in some cases like vitamin D and EPA and DHA, supplementation is the only viable choice.

Personally I would choose door number two because it’s easy and fairly inexpensive, but if you’re a staunch anti-supplement guy or gal, you’ll need to put extra time into your meal planning to ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of the many vital nutrients your body needs.

Here are some of my recommended sources for hard-to-get nutrients on a vegan diet:

  • Vitamin D: supplement.
  • Vitamin B12: supplement, fortified cereals.
  • Iron: beans, prunes, fortified cereals.
  • Calcium: edamame, tofu, sesame seeds, almonds, spinach, and bok choy.
  • Zinc: soy products, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, and lentils.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids: ground flaxseeds and walnuts, but I’d recommend an algae oil instead (though this can be expensive).
  • Riboflavin: almonds, mushrooms, fortified cereals.
  • Iodine: seaweed (especially Kombu kelp), iodized salt.

Summary: Vegans are more at risk for certain micronutrient deficiencies, but these can be avoided by consuming a diet of the right foods and supplements.

Examples of Vegan Bodybuilding Meal Plans

At this point you’d probably like to see some well-made vegan bodybuilding meal plans, so here are a few that we’ve made for our custom meal plan clients.

As you can see, with a little work and creativity, you can do just fine.

vegan meal plan -bulk

vegan meal plan -bulk 2

vegan meal plan -cut

vegan meal plan -cut 2

The Bottom Line on Vegan Bodybuilding

There’s no reason you can’t build muscle as a vegan, but you need to acknowledge it will be more difficult than if you were following an omnivorous diet. 

The biggest challenge of building muscle on a vegan diet is getting enough high-quality, easily-absorbed protein. 

You can work around this issue, though, by carefully choosing certain plant foods that are rich in high-quality protein. Even then, however, you’ll likely have to eat quite a lot of these foods to hit your daily protein target of around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.

If you’re willing to go the extra mile and carefully plan you meals so you can hit this protein target consistently, while getting most of your protein from high-quality sources like peas, beans, quinoa, rice, nuts, and so forth, you can build muscle effectively.

Soy is also a good source of high-quality protein, but some research shows it may cause negative health effects in men when eaten in large amounts. As a result, I recommend you get most of your protein from other sources.

When it comes to macros for building muscle on a vegan diet, my recommendations are the same as for meat eaters: 

  • Get around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. 
  • Get around 0.35 grams of fat per pound of body weight.
  • Get around 2.2 grams of carbs per pound of body weight. 

As a vegan, you may find it easier to hit your protein and calorie targets by slightly reducing your carb intake and increasing your fat intake, although this may not be necessary.

Certain micronutrient deficiencies are more common among vegans than omnivores. However, you can avoid this problem by consuming a variety of different micronutrient-dense foods and supplementing strategically.

So, here’s what all this comes down do:

If you’re not willing to plan and/or track your calories and macros and eat a handful of staple foods regularly, and possibly take some supplements, you’re going to struggle to build muscle as a vegan.

On the other hand, if you’re willing to carefully manage your diet so you’re getting enough high-quality protein and calories, as well as plenty of nutrient-dense foods to avoid micronutrient deficiencies, you can build muscle just fine as a vegan.

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What’s your take on vegan bodybuilding? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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