In the realm of fitness and strength, the idea of building substantial muscle on a vegan diet was once met with skepticism. Traditional beliefs centered around the necessity of animal-based proteins for muscle growth and strength. However, as plant-based lifestyles gain traction and scientific research evolves, it’s becoming increasingly evident that achieving significant muscle gains on a vegan diet is not only feasible but advantageous for overall health and athletic performance.

Christopher Gardner, a Stanford University professor and senior author of You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment (a twin study and Netflix documentary on the power of veganism) stated that “anyone who chooses a vegan diet can improve their long-term health in two months” (Time, 2024). Another study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that those most closely following plant-based diets had a 23% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Vegan athletes have surged into the forefront of various sports, debunking the myth that a plant- based diet lacks the necessary nutrients to fuel even elite athletic performance. These individuals, across disciplines ranging from endurance running and weightlifting to professional soccer and mixed martial arts, are redefining what it means to excel in sports while adhering to a vegan lifestyle. Notable vegan athletes like ultra-endurance runner Scott Jurek, strongman champion Patrik Baboumian, and tennis champion Venus Williams showcase the incredible potential of plant-powered athleticism: “Not only does [veganism] help me on the court, but I feel like I’m doing the right thing for me” (Venus Williams, Business Insider, 2018).

The achievements of these athletes not only highlights the physical prowess attainable on a vegan diet but also underscores the positive impact on overall health, recovery, and longevity, inspiring a growing community to adopt and thrive on plant-based nutrition.

Any vegan can effectively build muscle by prioritizing a well-structured diet rich in plant-based proteins, carbohydrates, healthy fats, and adequate overall caloric intake. Numerous plant sources offer ample protein necessary for muscle growth and repair. Read on to learn 6 important tips for building muscle on a vegan diet.

Building muscle with plants: the protein myth

The most pervasive concern surrounding veganism and muscle building is the perceived lack of protein sources. Contrary to this belief, various plant-based foods offer abundant protein content necessary for muscle synthesis:

Legumes (approximately 1 cup cooked)

  • Lentils: 18 grams of protein
  • Chickpeas: 15 grams of protein
  • Black beans:15 grams of protein
  • Kidney beans: 15 grams of protein
  • Pinto beans: 15 grams of protein
  • Navy beans: 15 grams of protein
  • Split peas: 16 grams of protein

Whole Grains (approximately 1 cup cooked)

  • Quinoa: 8 grams of protein
  • Brown rice: 5 grams of protein
  • Barley: 4 grams of protein
  • Bulgur: 6 grams of protein
  • Millet: 6 grams of protein
  • Oats: 6 grams of protein
  • Whole wheat pasta: 7-8 grams of protein
  • Farro: 8 grams of protein

Nuts & Seeds (per 1 approximate ounce)

  • Almonds: 6 grams of protein
  • Pistachios: 6 grams of protein
  • Cashews: 5 grams of protein
  • Walnuts: 4 grams of protein
  • Peanuts: 7 grams of protein
  • Pecans: 3 grams of protein
  • Brazil nuts: 4 grams of protein
  • Hazelnuts: 4 grams of protein
  • Macadamia nuts: 2 grams of protein
  • Chia seeds: 4 grams of protein
  • Flaxseeds: 5 grams of protein
  • Pumpkin seeds: 5 grams of protein
  • Sunflower seeds: 6 grams of protein
  • Hemp seeds: 9 grams of protein

Vegetables (per 1 approximate cup)

  • Spinach: 5 grams of protein
  • Broccoli: 2.5 grams of protein
  • Brussels sprouts: 3 grams of protein
  • Kale: 3 grams of protein
  • Peas: 8 grams of protein
  • Corn: 5 grams of protein
  • Potatoes: 4 grams of protein
  • Sweet potatoes: 2 grams of protein
  • Asparagus: 3 grams of protein
  • Cauliflower: 2 grams of protein

STRATEGIC MEAL PLANNING

To optimize muscle growth on a vegan diet, strategic meal planning is essential. Adequate protein intake spread throughout the day ensures a steady supply of amino acids necessary for muscle repair and growth. Incorporating a variety of plant-based proteins into meals, along with nutrient-dense carbohydrates and healthy fats, forms the foundation of a well-rounded vegan muscle-building diet.

Most individual vegetables and grains do not contain all the essential amino acids required by the body, making them incomplete protein sources. However, some plant-based foods, when combined strategically, can provide all essential amino acids, thus forming complete proteins. These are often referred to as complementary proteins.

Legumes and grains are examples of complementary plant-based proteins. Legumes are typically lower in methionine and cysteine but rich in lysine. On the other hand, grains are lower in lysine but contain more methionine and cysteine. By combining legumes with grains or seeds, the amino acid profiles complement each other, resulting in a complete protein source.

For instance, a typical day might include oatmeal topped with nuts and seeds for breakfast, a quinoa and mixed vegetable salad with tofu for lunch, and a dinner comprising lentils, brown rice, and a generous serving of leafy greens. Snacks like hummus with whole-grain crackers, a fruit smoothie with added plant-based protein powder, or a handful of almonds can help meet nutritional goals between meals.

SUPPLEMENTS

While a well-planned vegan diet can adequately cover most nutritional needs, supplements can serve as supportive tools for optimizing muscle growth. Plant-based protein powders derived from peas, hemp, or brown rice can supplement daily protein intake, especially for those striving to meet higher protein requirements.

MACRONUTRIENTS

In addition to adequate protein intake, balancing macronutrients—proteins, carbohydrates, and fats—is crucial for effective muscle building. Carbohydrates serve as the body’s primary energy source during workouts, enabling individuals to perform optimally and support muscle recovery. Healthy fats from sources like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil contribute to overall health and hormonal balance.

TRAINING AND RECOVERY

No muscle-building regimen is complete without a well-structured training program. Resistance training, including weightlifting, bodyweight exercises, and functional movements, forms the cornerstone of muscle development. Progressive overload—gradually increasing the intensity, volume, or resistance of workouts—stimulates muscle growth over time.

Equally vital is prioritizing adequate rest and recovery. Muscles repair and grow during periods of rest, emphasizing the importance of quality sleep, active recovery sessions, and sufficient time between workouts targeting the same muscle groups.

CONSISTENCY

Patience and consistency are paramount when pursuing muscle growth on a vegan diet. Building substantial muscle mass is a gradual process that requires dedication, discipline, and a long-term approach. Results may vary based on individual factors such as genetics, training intensity, and overall lifestyle habits.

Embracing a vegan lifestyle while striving for muscle growth not only aligns with ethical and environmental considerations but also showcases the adaptability and effectiveness of plant- based nutrition in supporting athletic endeavors.

FINAL WORDS

In conclusion, the ability to build muscle on a vegan diet is evident. With a well-planned nutrition strategy, including adequate protein intake from plant-based sources, strategic meal planning, appropriate supplementation, balanced macronutrient distribution, focused training, and prioritizing recovery, achieving significant muscle gains is not only achievable but also sustainable on a vegan diet.

Remember: everyone’s journey is unique, so finding what works best for your body and aligns with your ethical choices is key. Stay committed, stay consistent, and embrace the power of plant-based nutrition to sculpt your physique and achieve your muscle-building goals.

If you’d like more support to talk through your nutritional and/or fitness goals,  book your free assessment and first workout here. We work with clients in several locations – including Toronto, Ottawa, London, Hamilton and Collingwood. Not in those service areas? We also train offer virtual personal training. We’d be delighted to help you!