Many people think veganism and bodybuilding are mutually exclusive.
You know, like oil and water . . . toothpaste and coffee . . . Apple and Microsoft . . . anathema.
Well, they’re wrong. You absolutely can do both. But you have to know what you’re doing.
That’s because vegan bodybuilding diets are easier to mess up than the traditional omnivorous approach, and 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.
And that’s what this article is all about.
In it, you’re going to learn . . .
- What a vegan bodybuilding diet is
- How to make a vegan bodybuilding diet work (including how to set up your vegan macros, how to get protein as a vegan, and which supplements to include in your vegan bodybuilding meal plan)
- Whether or not you should avoid soy protein
- How to plan vegan bodybuilding meals (with some examples)
Table of Contents
The aim of any bodybuilding diet is to feed the body the nutrients it needs to maximize muscle growth and minimize fat gain. Since protein is the most important macronutrient for muscle growth, bodybuilding diets tend to include lots of high-protein foods, such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy.
A vegan bodybuilding diet is very similar, only instead of containing a lot of high-protein foods from animal sources, it contains a lot of high-protein foods from plant sources.
The main reasons people fail to make a vegan bodybuilding diet work are . . .
- They don’t know how to set up their vegan macros
- They don’t know how to get protein as a vegan
- They don’t know which supplements to take
Follow these five science-based tips, though, and you’ll avoid all the pitfalls associated with building muscle as a vegan.
There are many different ways to figure this out, but the easiest way is to enter your stats and goal in the Legion Calorie Calculator.
All you have to do is enter your gender, weight, height, age, activity level, and goal (“Lose fat,” “Build lean muscle,” or “Maintain the same weight”), and the calculator will estimate . . .
- Your basal metabolic rate (BMR)
- Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE)
- How many calories you should consume each day to reach your goal
These numbers are based on the fact that . . .
- If you want to lose weight, you should eat 75-to-80% of your TDEE, or 20-to-25% less energy than you’re burning every day.
- If you want to gain weight, you should eat 110-to-115% of your TDEE, or 10-to-15% more energy than you’re burning.
- And if you want to maintain your weight, you should eat 100% of your TDEE, or more or less exactly what you’re burning every day.
(And if you’d like even more specific advice about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz.)
Unfortunately, this is where many vegans die on the vine, because despite what vegans often preach, veggies aren’t a great source of protein.
Not only that, but the protein found in plants isn’t absorbed by the body as well as protein from animal sources.
This double whammy is one of the main reasons vegan protein sources aren’t as effective for building muscle as animal protein sources.
One way to help bridge the gap is to eat more protein on a vegan bodybuilding diet than you would if you were following an omnivorous bodybuilding diet.
Specifically, aim to eat at least 1-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.
Getting enough total protein is only one piece of the vegan-protein puzzle—you also have to eat foods that are high in the essential amino acid leucine.
Leucine directly stimulates protein synthesis via the activation of an enzyme responsible for muscle growth known as the mammalian target of rapamycin, or mTOR.
In other words, high-leucine meals have a higher muscle-building potential than low-leucine meals.
This is the other major reason vegan protein sources are inferior to animal protein sources for building muscle: they tend to be low in leucine and other essential amino acids.
To illustrate this point, 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:
The best solution to this problem is to eat plenty of vegan foods that are both high in easily-absorbed protein, and high in leucine, such as . . .
The Best Protein Sources for a Vegan Bodybuilding Diet:
- Plant-based protein powder
- Vital wheat gluten
- Soy beans
- Navy beans
- Kidney beans
- Black beans
- Mung beans
Setting up your vegan macros for building muscle isn’t just about protein—you have to eat enough fat and carbs, too.
That’s because . . .
- Dietary fat is an essential nutrient and part of many physiological processes ranging from hormone production to insulin sensitivity, cell turnover, satiety, muscle growth, and nutrient absorption.
- Carbs are the primary fuel source for intense exercise and can help you gain muscle and strength faster by keeping glycogen levels topped off. They also don’t get in the way of fat loss, and serve as a great source of various micronutrients and fiber.
Here’s how to make sure you get enough of both:
Fat: Eat around 0.3 grams of fat per pound of body weight per day. That’s enough to support general health and well-being, but not so much that you have to reduce protein and carbohydrate intake unnecessarily to stay within your calorie limits.
Some of the best fat sources for a vegan bodybuilding diet are:
- Peanuts or peanut butter
- Almonds or almond butter
- Olive oil
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
Carbs: Allot any calories you haven’t used on protein or fat to carbs.
Once you know that a gram of protein and carbohydrate both contain about 4 calories, and a gram of fat contains about 9, figuring out your carbs is pretty easy. All you have to do is . . .
- Multiply your protein target by 4.
- Multiply your fat target by 9.
- Add these together and subtract the sum from your total calories (the number you got from the Legion Calorie Calculator earlier), giving you the number of calories you have remaining for carbs.
- Divide this remaining number by 4 to get the number of grams of carbs you should eat every day.
Let’s look at an example of how this plays out.
I weigh about 190 pounds and my TDEE is about 2,700 calories, which is roughly what I eat every day to maintain my weight and body composition.
I need to eat about 190 grams of protein and 60 grams of fat per day, and here’s how I figure out my carbs:
190 x 4 = 760
60 x 9 = 540
760 + 540 = 1,300
2,700 – 1,300 = 1,400 calories remaining for carbs.
1,400 / 4 = 350 grams of carbs per day.
Thus, my macros are:
- 190 grams of protein
- 60 grams of fat
- 350 grams of carbs
Some of the best carb sources for a vegan bodybuilding diet are:
- Potatoes (sweet and white)
- Rice (brown, white, wild)
- Whole-wheat pasta and bread
- Vegetables like broccoli, carrots, kale, mushrooms, and cauliflower
- Fruit like bananas, apples, berries, pineapple, and oranges
(And again, if you feel confused about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz to learn exactly what diet is right for you.)
It’s not uncommon for people who follow a vegan diet to be deficient in some vitamins and minerals such as . . .
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Riboflavin (B2)
- Essential fatty acids
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 must be consumed in large amounts.
Omega-3 fatty acids are primarily found in animal products, and the main vegan source of this vital kind of 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:
- Micromanage your diet to include generous amounts of foods high in the nutrients listed above.
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 B12: supplement, fortified cereals.
- Vitamin D: supplement.
- Calcium: edamame, tofu, sesame seeds, almonds, spinach, and bok choy.
- Riboflavin: almonds, mushrooms, fortified cereals.
- Iodine: seaweed (especially Kombu kelp), iodized salt.
- Iron: beans, prunes, fortified cereals.
- Zinc: soy products, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, and lentils.
- Essential fatty acids: ground flaxseeds and walnuts, but I’d recommend an algae oil instead (though this can be expensive).
- Creatine: supplement
- Anserine: supplement
- Taurine: supplement
- Carnosine: supplement
The other supplement that’s definitely worth inclusion in your vegan bodybuilding diet plan is plant-based protein powder.
Nowadays, there are a zillion different plant-based protein powders on the market, with some of the most popular options being soy, hemp, pea, rice, and quinoa protein powder.
Instead of going into the pros and cons of each, I’ll cut to the chase: the best plant-based protein powder for building muscle is a blend of rice and pea.
If you want a high-protein, all-natural, and nutritionally enhanced plant protein powder that’s also delicious to drink, check out Legion’s 100% natural plant-based protein powder, Plant+.
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.
Some studies show that regular intake of soy foods has feminizing effects in men . . . Other research shows that it does nothing to alter male hormone levels . . . And yet other studies show it helps normalize estrogen levels by either suppressing or increasing production as needed.
Thus, it’s difficult to say for certain whether or not soy-based products are a good addition to your vegan bodybuilding meal plan.
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 which causes testosterone levels to drop, and estrogen levels to rise . . . at least in men.
For women, research suggests it’s less likely to negatively affect hormones, regardless of equol production, so there’s no reason for concern here.
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 you want to learn more about the best sources of protein for vegan muscle building, check out this article:
At this point you’d probably like to see some well-planned vegan bodybuilding meals, 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 hit your macros while avoiding all animal products.
Here’s an example of a vegan bodybuilding cutting diet:
And here’s an example of a vegan bodybuilding diet plan for bulking:
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