How do you build muscle on a vegan diet?
November 8, 2020
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.
- 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.
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
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
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 Plant Nutrition and Wellness’s resident sports nutritionist 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.
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