- You absolutely can build muscle without eating animal products, but you have to be careful about choosing the right vegan protein sources.
- Although it’s harder to eat enough protein to build muscle on a vegan diet, you can overcome this problem by eating high-protein plant foods at every meal and as snacks in between meals.
- Keep reading to learn the 10 absolute best vegan sources of protein, 10 on-the-go high-protein foods that work great as snacks, and 10 special protein sources that will add variety to your diet.
Many people think building muscle as a vegan is an uphill battle, if not an unwinnable one.
Once you understand how much protein you need to build muscle, and how much is in animal foods and how little in plant foods, it’s natural to wonder if you can build any muscle to speak of following a vegan diet.
Well, you can, though it’s more difficult than it is for omnivores.
The truth is you absolutely can build muscle eating nothing but vegan protein sources—you just have to be more careful about what foods you eat.
Let’s kick off this discussion by looking at why it’s usually more difficult for vegans to build muscle than omnivores (and what to do about it!).
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Unfortunately, this is where many vegans looking to bulk up come a cropper, because despite what vegans often preach, veggies aren’t a great source of protein.
The first problem with many vegan protein sources is that they don’t actually contain much protein.
For example, here’s the protein content of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and spinach (which are often touted in vegan circles as being high in protein):
- Broccoli contains about 13 grams of protein per pound.
- Brussels contains about 15 grams of protein per pound.
- And a cup of boiled spinach contains a measly 5 grams of protein.
Let’s compare the protein content of these veggies with several 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.
In other words, most animal products contain about six to seven times as much protein as plant products. Not only that, but the protein found in plants is not as effective for building muscle as the protein found in animal products.
If you want to know all the details of why this is, check out this article, but the long story short is this:
Animal protein is superior to vegan protein for building muscle because it’s better absorbed by the body and contains much larger amounts of an amino acid called leucine, which directly stimulates muscle growth.
So, what are you supposed to do about this if you’re a vegan?
One solution is to simply eat more total protein, but this can be impractical and unpleasant (you can only get so much protein from peas before your bowels cry uncle).
A better approach is to try to work high-protein plant foods into most of your meals, especially foods that are high in the amino acid leucine. Although no plant food contains as much protein as animal foods, you can easily meet your daily protein targets if you include high-protein plant foods at every meal.
Let’s look at some of the best options.
The following foods are cheap, easy to prepare, and versatile, which makes them easy to incorporate into almost any meal.
They’re also higher in protein and leucine than most other vegan protein sources, making them particularly helpful for building muscle.
Any legumes, such as black, pinto, or kidney beans are cheap and easy to add to almost any dish. What’s more, you can also buy these beans canned, which reduces prep time and ensures you always have high-quality protein on hand.
All of these beans are also packed full of vitamins and minerals, like iron, magnesium, and vitamin B6.
Spelt goes well in breads, salads, and nut roasts, and can be used as a rice alternative in risotto.
Also known as garbanzo beans, chickpeas are a mainstay of Mediterraenean and Middle Eastern cuisine, where they’re normally found in salads or stews, roasted as a side, or mashed into dips like hummus.
In addition to being high in protein, chickpeas are also a great source of nutrients like potassium, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, and selenium.
There are several different types of lentils, such as brown, green, red, yellow, black, and Lentilles du Puy, and they all have slightly different tastes and textures.
Regardless of the variety you prefer, dried lentils are easy to prepare, and if that’s too much trouble, you can buy them pre-cooked. They’re also versatile enough to be used in a range of different dishes, like soups and stews.
Seitan is a meat replacement made from wheat gluten that’s quickly becoming a vegan favorite because of its high-protein and low-carb content.
Because of its texture, it works well for making meat-free burgers. You can also coat it in breadcrumbs to make meat-free “chicken” nuggets or “chicken” Milanese.
Regular pasta isn’t exactly known as a “superfood,” but variations made from whole wheat, beans, or lentils can be surprisingly healthy and high in protein.
Not only are these alternative pastas high in protein, they’re also the perfect vehicle for your favorite pasta sauces like vegan ragù, tomato and basil, or garlic, olive oil, and chili.
Oats are the perfect vegan breakfast no matter the season—they can be soaked overnight in the fridge during the summer months, or boiled and eaten hot in the winter. Either way, they’re a fantastic source of protein, dietary fiber, B vitamins, and minerals such as manganese.
Quinoa is a complete protein source, which makes this ancient South American seed a particularly valuable addition to any vegan diet.
It’s also a rich source of manganese and phosphorus, and a good source of dietary fiber, folate, iron, zinc, and magnesium.
The humble green pea is fast becoming the protein source of choice for many vegans, and for good reason—they’re cheap, tasty, and can be added to a ton of dishes, whether fresh, frozen, or from a can.
Although peas don’t have quite as much protein as some other plant foods, they’re particularly high in the amino acid leucine, which makes pea protein one of the best vegan protein sources you can eat.
While rice isn’t as high in protein as other grains like quinoa, it’s higher in protein than most people think and easy to integrate into almost any dish (especially wild rice).
Since getting sufficient protein can be such a bear on a vegan diet, it’s also smart to have some portable, high-protein foods on hand.
The following 10 suggestions are perfect protein-packed snacks for when you need to boost your protein intake between meals.
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+.
Hemp seeds have grown in popularity in recent years because they contain all nine of the essential amino acids, and gram for gram, have almost as much protein as many animal-based products.
Again, hemp seeds are perfect as a grab-and-go snack, but can also be used to add a little extra protein to cookies, cereal, or oats.
Yet another nut that’s high in protein, healthy fat, and nutrients is the walnut.
Walnuts work well as a snack on their own, but they’re also great as an addition to salads, breakfast foods, and baked goods for an extra protein kick.
Despite the deceptive name, peanuts are actually a legume, though they contain considerably more fat than chickpeas, lentils, and peas (which is why they’re considered more like nuts).
Whether consumed on their own or as peanut butter, peanuts are a fantastic snack with a good amount of protein, healthy fat, dietary fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, and dietary minerals, such as manganese, magnesium, and phosphorus.
Not only are almonds packed with protein, they’re very nutrient-dense, providing a rich source of riboflavin and niacin, vitamin E, and the minerals calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc.
As far as nuts go, pistachios are one of the lowest calorie options there are.
What’s more, they’re relatively high in protein, and a good source of fiber, B vitamins, thiamin, vitamin B6, calcium, riboflavin, vitamin B5, folate, vitamin E, and vitamin K.
Cashews have a delicate flavour that works well in stir-fries, curries, and deserts.
As with every other seed on this list (yep, you read that right—cashews are actually seeds), cashews are a delicious, high-protein snack all on their own, especially when roasted and topped with caramel, maple syrup, or honey. You can also incorporate blended cashews into sauces, vegetable purées, and stews as a cream replacement.
Like most other seeds, sunflower seeds are rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and in particular linoleic acid. What’s more, these seeds contain phytosterols which may contribute toward lower levels of blood cholesterol.
Pumpkin seeds are a nutritional powerhouse and when roasted and topped with salt, they’re an delectable snack, too.
Be warned, though, pumpkin seeds are calorie-dense—about 570 calories per 100 grams—so don’t go too crazy if you’re cutting.
Chia seeds are packed full of fiber and are another great source of omega-3 fat.
Chia seeds are normally made into pudding (due to their ability to absorb large amounts of water), though they’re also great as part of smoothies and juices, mixed into breakfast cereals like yogurt and oatmeal, or sprinkled on top of salads.
Eating the same high-protein meals and snacks can become boring, so it’s nice to branch out and have a few less-obvious options up your sleeve.
That’s where these unusual protein sources come in handy.
Textured vegetable protein (TVP) is a vegan alternative to ground meat that works well with dishes like tacos, meatloaf, meatballs, and chili, or in vegan versions of pasta sauces like ragù alla bolognese.
Peanut flour is made from crushed peanuts that have had their fat partially or fully removed, and can be used for baking, as a topping for cereal or oatmeal, and in smoothies, sauces, and dips.
While it’s extremely low in fat, it’s still a rich source of dietary fiber, thiamin, folate, potassium zinc, niacin, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, manganese, and, of course, protein.
Amaranth is a gluten-free and protein-rich grain that hails from Peru. Like many other grains, it has a nutty flavour that works well in breakfast oats, puddings, and as an alternative to rice.
Sasha inchi seeds, also known as sacha peanuts, jungle peanuts, or Inca peanuts, are the seeds of the Plukenetia volubilis plant, and are rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, protein, and vitamin E.
While they’re normally eaten roasted, they can also be added to cereals, cookies, and homemade vegan protein bars.
Although it may sound like some kind of waste product from beer or bread making, nutritional yeast is a tasty, vitamin-B-packed vegan alternative to Parmesan cheese. This makes it a perfect addition to pastas, risottos, salads, or any other dishes that benefit from a sprinkling of cheesy goodness.
Freekeh is a grain made from green durum wheat that has twice as much protein and three times as much fiber as white rice. It has a nutty, smoky flavor, and a chewy texture that’s best enjoyed as part of salads, stews, and soups.
Unlike white bread which is made from refined wheat flour, Ezekiel bread is made from a variety of sprouted whole grains, like wheat, millet, barley, and spelt.
Sprouted grains are low in phytate (which can keep the body from absorbing vitamins and minerals) and help the body absorb folate, iron, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin C.
Spirulina is a type of algae that’s so rich in vitamins, it’s used by NASA as a dietary supplement for astronauts on space missions.
Unfortunately, it’s benefits come at a price: It’s far from the best looking, smelling, and tasting food on this list. For this reason, it’s best mixed with other foods, as in a smoothie.
Tahini is a Middle Eastern condiment made from hulled, toasted, and ground sesame seeds. It’s probably best known as an ingredient in hummus and baba ghanoush, though it can also be served by itself, or as part of salad dressings, salads, and glazes.
Originally, salting and drying tomatoes in the sun was a way to preserve ripe fruit so that it could provide valuable nutrition in the winter months.
Nowadays, sun-dried tomatoes are eaten for their intense sweet and tart flavor all year round, though if you’re a vegan, they also provide some valuable extra protein.
Eating enough protein to build muscle on a vegan diet doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated if you eat the right foods.
The real key to making this work, is to start including some of these high-protein vegan foods into each of your daily meals and snacks. This way, eating a higher-protein diet becomes a habit you can easily maintain.
Here are the 10 best vegan protein sources:
- Black, Pinto, and Kidney Beans
- Whole Wheat or Bean and Lentil Pasta
- Wild Rice
Here are the 10 best on-the-go protein sources:
- Plant-Based Protein Powder
- Hemp Seeds
- Sunflower Seeds
- Pumpkin Seeds
- Chia Seeds
And here are the best unique vegan protein sources to add some variety to your meals:
- Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
- Peanut Flour
- Sacha Inchi Seeds
- Nutritional Yeast
- Ezekiel Bread
- Sun-Dried Tomatoes
What’s your take on the best vegan protein sources? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
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