How do you build muscle on a plant based diet?

In my time working with a range of people who are wanting to cut down their meat intake or ask me how I run on a plant-based diet – it has taken me a while to find the right balance, there are several areas I see new vegans struggle with. These, in turn, can reduce their ability to reach optimal performance and reach their health goals.

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 / training.

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.

Any additional calories are burnt performing any kind of activity such as standing, walking, eating food and doing 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 number 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 number of calories to help muscle grow differs from person to person. However, it typically falls around 300-500 calories or 10% above the individuals TDEE.

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 personal trainer – who likes to lift weight and that I am also plant based with an intolerance to gluten, 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 / plant based protein sources include legumes and beans, nuts and seeds, tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein and wholegrains.

However, getting enough protein to maximize muscle protein synthesis requires more planning. In fact, I find that many vegan 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.

To meet these recommendations:

Incorporate a protein-rich food in every meal and snack throughout the day including tofu, tempeh, any plant milk, edamame, textured vegetable protein, legumes, nuts and seeds

Aim for at least 30-40g of protein in main meals and 15-20g of protein in snacks.

Utilize higher protein wholegrains such as a high protein bread and pasta with a higher protein content such as chickpea or soybean pasta. Or supplement with a vegan protein powder (if needed). 

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-fueled for optimal performance
  •     Recovering adequately after each session to promote physiological adaptations (muscle growth) to training.
  • 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 fiber to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort

Low in fat (higher fat meals take longer to digest)

Easy meal ideas include:

Yoghurt with muesli

Fried rice with tofu and vegetables

Sandwich with salad, hummus and roasted veggies

Pasta with vegetables and chickpeas

Easy snack ideas include:

Rice cakes with hummus with extra virgin olive oil

Overnight oats

Banana & Nut Butter

Dried or fresh fruit

This meal should be rich in:

Carbohydrates to replenish energy stores

Protein to promote muscle protein synthesis

Post-work-out meal ideas include:

Smoothie with soy yoghurt or protein powder and fruit

Tofu stir fry with brown rice

Lentil dhal with rice

Take-home tips

To maximize 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.

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