How do you build muscle on a vegan diet?

Everything you need to know about meal timing, protein requirements, calorie needs and vegan food ideas by Vegan Sports Nutritionist Leah Higl

The core principals used to build muscle on a vegan diet is very similar to an omnivorous diet.

In my time working with a range of athletes and weekend warriors, there are a number of areas I see vegans struggle with. These, in turn, can reduce their ability to reach optimal performance.

These include:

  • Not eating enough calories to reach their athletic goals
  • Having lower protein intakes than what is optimal for building muscle
  • Not optimising what foods they are eating in and around their training.


Here are my three biggest tips to build muscle on a vegan diet!

1. To build muscle you need to eat sufficient calories

There are two major factors that are important for anyone (vegan or not) trying to get bigger and stronger. Without these, gaining muscle is near impossible or at the very most, extremely slow.

Firstly, it is essential to have a resistance training program that is targeted to muscle growth. Secondly, it is important to eat enough calories to promote physiological adaptations (muscle growth) from the program.

What are calories?

Calories are a unit of measurement that describes the energy in food. This is our energy input. The body also burns a certain number of calories through physiological processes keeping you alive. This is our energy output and is known as our basal metabolic rate or BMR.

Additional calories are burnt performing any kind of activity such as standing, walking, eating food and doing structured exercise. The more you move, the more calories you burn. The total sum of all the calories you burn daily is known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

In order to gain muscle on a vegan diet, it is recommended that you eat in a caloric surplus. This means, eating more calories from food than your TDEE.


Building muscle in a very energy-intensive process. Without consuming a sufficient amount of calories, your body will not have enough energy to build lean body mass.


How much more calories do I need to build muscle?

The amount of calories to help muscle synthesis (growth) differs from person to person. However, it typically falls around 300-500 calories or 10% above the individuals TDEE (1).


2. Optimise your protein intake

Meeting your protein needs is one of the most important nutrients to consider when building muscle on a vegan diet.

Protein is a macronutrient, alongside fats, carbohydrates and fiber.

Tofu is a rich source of plant based proteins

When I tell people that I am a powerlifter and that I am also vegan, I will immediately get the question “But where do you get your protein from?”.

When having a varied vegan diet, it is quite easy to meet your basic body requirements for protein. Vegan protein sources include legumes and beans, nuts and seeds, tofu, tempeh, seitan, textured vegetable protein and wholegrains.

However, getting enough protein to maximise muscle protein synthesis requires a lot more planning. In fact, I find that many vegan athletes and gym-goers are not meeting the recommended amount of protein to facilitate increases in lean body mass.


It is recommended that people looking to increase their muscle mass should consume anywhere between 1.6 and 2g of protein per kilo of body weight per day (2).


For an athlete that weighs 80kgs this would equate to 128-160g of protein daily. That’s a fair chunk of protein to consume every day as a vegan, but it is far from being impossible.

To meet these recommendations:

  • Incorporate a protein-rich food in every meal and snack throughout the day including tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame, textured vegetable protein (TVP), seitan, legumes, nuts and seeds
  • Aim for at least 30-40g of protein in main meals and 15-20g of protein in snacks
  • Utilise higher protein wholegrains such as a high protein bread and pasta with a higher protein content such as chickpea or soybean pasta.
  • Supplement with a vegan protein powder (if needed)
  • Eating enough protein to optimise muscle gain is a little trickier on a vegan diet than it is on an omnivorous diet but with some extra planning and knowing your way around a block of tofu it can become simple.


3. Fuel your training properly

Once you have managed to lock down your calorie intake and protein intake, it is time to take a look at what you are eating around your training.


Proper pre and post-training nutrition is essential for ensuring you are:

  • Going into every training session well-fuelled for optimal performance
  • Recovering adequately after each session to promote physiological adaptations (muscle growth) to training

We discussed the importance of the macronutrient protein above. However, when fuelling our training the macronutrient carbohydrates is also important to consider.

Carbohydrates are found in fruits, starchy vegetables (potato, corn, sweet potato), rice, pasta, quinoa, crackers and bread. Ideally, your pre-training meal should be 2-3 hours before your session with the option of having a small snack 1-2 hours prior to training.

For a pre-training meal go for something:

  • Rich in carbohydrates to prime your fuel stores
  • Moderate in fibre to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Low in fat (higher fat meals take longer to digest) (3)

Easy meal ideas include:

  • Soy yoghurt with muesli
  • Fried rice with tofu and vegetables
  • Sandwich with salad and seitan
  • Pasta with vegetables and chickpeas


A sandwich is an easy pre-training meal

Easy snack ideas include:

  • Rice cakes with hummus
  • Overnight oats
  • Dried or fresh fruit

After training, additional food should be consumed within the first couple of hours after finishing your session.

This meal should be rich in:

  • Carbohydrates to replenish energy stores
  • Protein to promote muscle protein synthesis (4)

Post-work-out meal ideas include:

  • Smoothie with soy yoghurt or protein powder and fruit
  • Tofu stir fry with brown rice
  • Lentil dal with rice
  • TVP bolognaise with pasta

Take-home tips

To maximise building muscle on a vegan diet make sure to keep a note of the following:

  • Consume 300-500 calories or 10% above your total daily energy expenditure
  • Consume 1.6-2g of protein per kilo of bodyweight per day
  • Have a carbohydrate rich meal or snack 1-3 hours before training
  • Have a protein and carbohydrate rich meal within 2 hours after training

This article was written by dietitian Leah Higl. If you’re following a plant-based or vegan diet and want to make sure you’re meeting all your nutritional needs, take control and apply to work with one of our expert plant-based dietitians.



1. Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training.

2. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers.

3. Sports Dietitians Australia: Eating and Drinking Before Exercise .

4. Sports Dietitians Australia:Recovery Nutrition .


#vegan #proteinneeds #sportsnutrition #veganprotein

Vegan Zinc – Sources, Absorption, and Deficiency

Why zinc is important for vegans

Zinc is an essential nutrient to consider when following a vegan or vegetarian diet. It is a mineral that is distributed throughout all our body tissues and fluids. It is necessary for our body to perform a variety of important functions (1).

Some of these include:

  • Immune support and wound healing
  • Metabolism
  • Regulation of gene expression and DNA synthesis
  • Supports normal growth and development during childhood, adolescence, and pregnancy


Zinc requirements for vegans

Those following a vegetarian or vegan diet have higher requirements for certain vitamins and minerals than those specified for the general healthy population. These include the minerals iron and zinc.

Zinc is one of these nutrients as plant-based sources have a lower bioavailability than animal-based sources such as red meat and dairy. In other words, it is harder for our bodies to absorb this nutrient from plant-based foods.


It is recommended that those following a vegan/vegetarian or predominantly plant-based diet consume 150% of the recommended daily intake for the general population to ensure requirements are met.


Below is a summary of the daily requirements for vegetarians/vegans based on 150% of the values provided in the Nutrient Reference Values for Australians and New Zealanders(2).

Zinc RDI for Vegans

There is no difference in the RDI between older adults (70 years+) and those in their early stages of adulthood. See zinc requirements for those following a non-vegetarian or vegan diet here (4).


Want to make sure that you’re always getting enough zinc in your diet? Why not try one of our male or female vegan meal plans!

Cashews are a fantastic source of zinc

Best vegan sources of zinc

Zinc is present in a variety of plant-based foods. A well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet is more than adequate to meet your requirements.

It can be found in high concentrations in the outer layers of grains. As such, the best plant-based sources are minimally refined wholegrain products such as rolled oats, brown rice, and wholegrain bread and cereals.

Vegan zinc sources include nuts and seeds, legumes, soy products such as tofu and fortified breakfast cereals(1).


The following table lists the amounts found in different plant-based foods (3):

Zinc content of plant based foods

It is recommended that you include a variety of these foods in your diet on a daily basis.


This may look like:

Breakfast: ~4mg

½ cup oats + 1 cup soymilk + 30g pumpkin seeds + berries

Lunch: ~6mg

2 slices wholegrain bread + 2 tbsp hummus + ½ cup salad + 15g sundried tomato + 100g sliced tempeh

Dinner: ~6.5mg

Tofu stir fry (with 150g tofu, 30g cashews, 2 cups mixed vegetables) + ½ cup brown rice

Snacks: ~5mg

30g pecans, 1 apple, hot chocolate (2tbsp cocoa, 1cup soymilk, 1tsp sugar), 4 wholegrain crackers + 2tbsp tahini + tomato

TOTAL: 21.5mg total


Optimising zinc absorption

Plant-based sources of zinc are not as readily absorbed by the body. This is due to the presence of inhibiting compounds in foods that reduce absorption.

The main inhibitors are phytates which are commonly found in wholegrains and legumes.

This effect can be overcome by food-processing techniques such as the fermentation of whole grains and soaking legumes and sprouting seeds and grains.

Additionally, taking iron supplements close to meals can also inhibit the absorption of zinc as the two nutrients compete for uptake (1,4).

Foods that contain high amounts of protein are also a good choice to consider as protein binds to zinc and increase zinc absorption.


Read about meeting your protein needs on a vegan diet here


Some simple ways to improve vegan zinc absorption include:

  • Opting for yeast-leavened or sourdough bread
  • Pre-soak and rinse legumes before cooking

  • Opting for sprouted grains and seeds

  • Consume iron supplements away from meals

  • Include foods high in both zinc and protein such as legumes, tofu, tempeh and nuts


Signs of a zinc deficiency

Cases of deficiencies are rare in developed countries due to our abundance of access to zinc-rich foods however they are still possible.

The main reasons for developing a deficiency include poor dietary availability paired with an increased requirement during periods of growth and development or periods of stress, infection and acute trauma(2).


Signs of a deficiency to look out for include:

  • Reduced growth rate in children

  • Suboptimal pregnancy outcomes

  • Increased susceptibility to illness and infections

  • Poor wound healing

  • Impaired taste perception


Is being vegan a risk factor for developing a zinc deficiency?

No, despite differences in food choices, vegetarians and vegans tend to have similar blood levels of zinc to non-vegetarians.

Over time, the body is able to adapt to the lower bioavailability of zinc in plant-based diets by increasing the efficiency in which it is able to absorb this mineral and reducing losses out of the body. Therefore, those following a plant-based diet are at no greater risk (1).

If you are concerned you may have a zinc deficiency it is important to discuss any concerns with your GP.


Should vegans supplement zinc?

It is absolutely possible to meet your requirements from solely food sources when following a plant-based or vegan diet. This is always preferred over supplement use.

Whilst there is no evidence of adverse effects from consuming high amounts of zinc naturally occurring in food, excess zinc intake from long term high doses of zinc supplements may result in negative side effects. This includes negatively affecting the immune system , lowering HDL (also known as good cholesterol) levels and copper deficiency.

There are a variety of forms of zinc available in supplements. These include zinc acetate, sulfate, picolinate, monomethionine, gluconate, glycinate, orotate and citrate.

There is an upper limit of total zinc intake of 40mg/day from food and supplements (including fortified foods) and any supplementation should proceed with caution(2).

To reduce the risk of having excess zinc supplementation, it is important to seek medical advice from your GP before commencing and supplements.



  1. Medical Journal of Austral – Zinc and Vegetarian Diets

  2. Australian Nutrient Reference Values – Zinc

  3. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand

  4. Considerations in planning a vegan diet: Children


If you’re following a plant-based or vegan diet and want to make sure you’re meeting all your nutritional needs, take control and apply to work with one of our expert plant-based dietitians. .

This blog was co-written by student dietitian by Georgia D’Andrea. You can connect with Georgia on Linkedin.

Lectins Myths: Are They Harmful To Your Health?

Lectins are an “anti-nutrient” that have received a lot of media attention recently. Fad diet books cite this food component as one of the central causes of obesity, chronic inflammation, and autoimmune conditions.

I actually find this slightly ironic, because when we look at where lectins come from, they’re all from plant-based foods. But if we actually look at the statistics of how much Australian’s eat plant-based foods, 95% of adults aren’t actually meeting the fruit and vegetable recommendations.

So the claims that lectins are the cause of all of these diseases already isn’t making sense (1).

In this article we take a look at some of the lectins myths – are they harmful, should we avoid them and do they cause inflammation.

What are lectins?

Lectins are a protein found in plant foods that bind to carbohydrates. They resist being broken down in the gut and are stable in acidic environments (such as our stomach). This is actually a feature that helps to protect lectic-containing plants in nature (2).

What foods contain lectins?

Lectins are found in varying amounts in most plants. This includes beans, pulses, grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, coffee, chocolate some herbs and spices. Pulses (think chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans) and grains (like rice and quinoa) contain the highest amount compared with other foods.


Why are they a problem?

When consumed, lectins can cause negative side effects. One of the most commonly reported reaction is found when eating raw or uncooked kidney beans. Kidney beans contain a type of lectic called phytohaemagglutinin. Ingestion of this can cause red blood cells to clump together as well as nausea, vomiting, stomach upset and diarrhea (3).

Lectins have also been shown to interfere with the absorption of minerals including iron, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.

Some research has also indicated that they may bind to the cells lining the digestive tract. Over time, this may effect the intestinal flora and is theorized to play a role in inflammatory conditions such as type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis (3,4).


That sounds pretty bad, should I be worried?

Unsurprisingly, these theories have fuelled the profits of books and enzyme supplements from the anti-lectin movement. There is very limited research in humans about the number of active lectins consumed in the diet and their long term health effects.

Lectins in foods are most often studied in developing countries where there is high levels of malnutrition, limited cooking facilities and lack of dietary variety (5,6).

There are different forms of lectins found in different foods. The reactions people have to them vary significantly.

Some people with digestive conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome may be more likely to experience some negative symptoms from lectins and other anti-nutrients. However, a reasonable suggestion is simply to eat less of the food causing the digestive problem (ps. see a dietitian to help you with this).


Do they have any benefits?

Lectins can also act as a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants help to protect cells from damaging unpaired electrons known as free radicals. This antinutrient can also help slow down the digestion and absorption of carbohydrates. This helps to stabilise blood sugar levels and keeps you fuller for longer.

Emerging research has also looked into the beneficial effect low amounts of lectins on stimulating gut cell growth in patients who are unable to eat for long periods (3,7)

Researchers are also investigating the effects that lectins may have in the treatment of cancer and even could be used in antitumor drugs in the future (8).

In addition to this, research time and time again continues to show the benefits of eating whole grains and legumes. People who consume more whole grains have improved cardiovascular health outcomes. Eating legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans are linked with supporting healthy body weight and reducing CRP inflammatory markers.


Preparing food to minimise lectins

It is quite rare to eat foods with a high amount of lectins. This is due to them being most potent in the raw state of foods and these foods not typically consumed raw.

When foods are cooked, especially at high heat using a liquid such as cooking, stewing, boiling or soaking, this inactivates most lectins. They are also water-soluble and found on the outer surface of the food. This means, when these foods are cooked, the exposure to water removes the lectins.

The body also has a fantastic ability to produce enzymes during digestion that helps to break them down.

When cooking beans in a crock pot, use canned beans or boil them for at least 30 minutes before putting in the crockpot.


The bottom line

Just don’t eat grains and legumes raw.

Lectins are certainly harmful when consumed. However, given that they are denatured during cooking and the evidence against limiting these foods from our diet is very weak, it is definitely not something to be concerned about. Just make sure to cook your food!

There is strong evidence supporting the health benefits of pulses, grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables (i.e even in foods where lectins are found). If removed in a “lectin-free” diet, this could potentially lead to nutritional deficiencies.

If you’re following a plant-based or vegan diet and experiencing digestive upset, take control and apply to work with one of our expert plant-based dietitians. .



1. 4364.0.55.001 – National Health Survey: First Results, 2014-15. (2020). Retrieved 3 February 2020, from

2. Peumans, W., & Van Damme, E. (1995). Lectins as Plant Defense Proteins. Plant Physiology, 109(2), 347-352. doi: 10.1104/pp.109.2.347

3.Vasconcelos, I., & Oliveira, J. (2004). Antinutritional properties of plant lectins. Toxicon, 44(4), 385-403. doi: 10.1016/j.toxicon.2004.05.005

4. Freed, D. (1999). Do dietary lectins cause disease?. BMJ, 318(7190), 1023-1024. doi: 10.1136/bmj.318.7190.1023

5. Gibson, R., Bailey, K., Gibbs, M., & Ferguson, E. (2010). A Review of Phytate, Iron, Zinc, and Calcium Concentrations in Plant-Based Complementary Foods Used in Low-Income Countries and Implications for Bioavailability. Food And Nutrition Bulletin, 31(2_suppl2), S134-S146. doi: 10.1177/15648265100312s206

6. Roos, N., Sørensen, J., Sørensen, H., Rasmussen, S., Briend, A., Yang, Z., & Huffman, S. (2012). Screening for anti-nutritional compounds in complementary foods and food aid products for infants and young children. Maternal & Child Nutrition, 9, 47-71. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-8709.2012.00449.x

7. Liu, Z., Luo, Y., Zhou, T., & Zhang, W. (2013). Could plant lectins become promising anti-tumour drugs for causing autophagic cell death?. Cell Proliferation, n/a-n/a. doi: 10.1111/cpr.12054

8.Sarup Singh, R., Preet Kaur, H., & Rakesh Kanwar, J. (2016). Mushroom Lectins as Promising Anticancer Substances. Current Protein & Peptide Science, 17(8), 797-807. doi: 10.2174/1389203717666160226144741