Many people think that veganism and bodybuilding are mutually exclusive.
Well, they’re wrong. You absolutely can.
You have to know what you’re doing, though.
One of the reasons why vegan bodybuilding faces a bum rap these days is it’s easier to mess up than the traditional omnivorous approach.
This is why studies have shown that omnivores tend to have more muscle than vegetarians and vegans.
There are also several nutrition myths prevalent among vegans that make it particularly hard to build muscle, which we’ll fully debunk in this article.
The bottom line is this:
If you don’t understand and address the downsides and limitations of the vegan diet in the context of bodybuilding, you’ll get disappointing results.
And that’s what this article is going to be all about.
In it, you’re going to learn the most common mistakes that vegans make when trying to build muscle and how to get the most out of your plant-fueled training.
Let’s start with the first hurdle that trips up so many would-be vegan bodybuilders:
(And if you prefer a 9-minute video overview, just click below.)
When it comes to building muscle, decades of anecdotal and scientific evidence have proven that certain elements of your diet and training are more important than others.
For example, if you want to maximize muscle growth…
This last point is vitally important.
In terms of an exact amount, research shows that optimal protein intake for bodybuilding is between 0.8 grams and 1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day.
And this is where many would-be vegan bodybuilders die on the vine.
Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.
Macronutritionally speaking, the main difference between a vegan and omnivorous diet is protein intake.
Most people eating an even halfway “healthy” diet are already getting a large percentage of their carbs and fats from plant foods like grains, fruits, veggies, and nuts and oils.
Going vegan doesn’t change this.
What it does change, though, is protein intake, simply because you replace your favorite high-protein animal foods like meat, eggs, and dairy with lower-protein plant foods like beans, grains, and nuts.
Not only that, but many people replace these protein sources that are particularly suited to muscle building with ones that aren’t.
(More on all this in a minute.)
Instead of acknowledging the fact that getting enough protein on a vegan diet takes a bit more thought and planning than an omnivorous one, though, many vegans chose to propagate myths instead.
That is, instead of admitting their diet isn’t perfect and peerless in every way, they whitewash.
And they usually rely on several falsehoods to do it:
Low-protein dieting is popular among vegans and is almost single-handedly responsible for the misconception that they can’t build muscle like meat eaters can.
Here’s how the dictionary defines protein deficiency:
“Reduced ingestion or inadequate digestion of dietary protein and/or essential amino acids, or excess elimination of protein due to compromised renal function.”
Veggies are a great source of carbs and micronutrients, but protein?
Not so much.
As you can see, if you need to eat around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, it’s going to take a couple buckets of these types of vegetables to get you there.
Not all proteins are made equal, and especially not for building muscle.
To understand why, we first need to talk about amino acids.
Amino acids are the “building blocks” of protein and tissues in the body, including muscle tissue.
The body needs 21 amino acids to stay alive, and 9 of them must be obtained from food.
These are known as “essential amino acids,” and one in particular is especially related to muscle building. It’s called leucine and it directly stimulates protein synthesis via the activation of an enzyme responsible for cell growth known as the mammalian target of rapamycin, or mTOR.
This is why research shows that the leucine content of a meal directly affects the amount of protein synthesis that occurs as a result.
In other words, high-leucine meals have a higher muscle-building potential than low-leucine meals.
Now, when it comes to evaluating a source of protein, we need to consider two things:
This point of bioavailability is important because eating 100 grams of hemp protein isn’t the same as eating 100 grams of rice and/or pea protein. The former has less muscle-building potential than the latter.
To understand the importance of amino acid profile, let’s compare the protein found in broccoli to the protein found in beef.
Here’s what 275 calories of each (4 ounces of steak vs. just over 9 cups of broccoli) will get you in terms of essential amino acids:
|Essential Amino Acids||Steak||Broccoli|
As you can see, it’s not even close.
You’d have to eat a 18 freaking cups of broccoli to get the essential amino acids found in just 4 ounces of steak.
You run into the same problems with many other plant sources of protein (bioavailability and amino acid profile), which brings us to our first big takeaway on how to make vegan bodybuilding work:
You must ensure you’re getting enough protein that is both absorbed well and rich in essential amino acids.
This is the main reason why vegan bodybuilding is easier to mess up than omnivorous bodybuilding.
The average Western omnivore’s favorite sources of protein (meat, eggs, and dairy) also happen to be very well absorbed by the body and very rich in essential amino acids (and leucine in particular).
This in itself makes their diets very conducive to muscle growth.
And based on my experience speaking with hundreds of people that have had trouble building muscle on a vegan diet, I’ve found that the average vegan eats too little “high-quality” protein to gain muscle efficiently.
This makes it much harder to gain muscle as a vegan than it should be.
Many don’t realize this, though, and think that vegan dieting as a whole is to blame–that you simply can’t get big and strong without animal foods.
Well, they’re wrong.
You just need to know how to make a proper vegan bodybuilding meal plan…
Meal planning is very simple. There are just four steps:
If you’re not familiar with any of that, check out this article on meal planning before continuing here.
What we’re going to focus on in this article is step number four, because this is what trips many vegans up.
Specifically, they run into two problems:
1. Eating enough protein.
To many, 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day seems impossible.
2. Balancing their macros.
The wrong food choices can make it very hard to not only meet protein needs but carbohydrate and fat needs as well.
For example, many vegans struggle to get anywhere near the standard “bodybuilding calorie split” of 40% of daily calories from protein, 40% from carbs, and 20% from fat.
They often find that meeting one macronutrient target makes another hopelessly high or low.
Fortunately, these issues are fairly easy to overcome.
First, let’s talk protein.
As you know, the best sources of vegan protein are those that are both well absorbed and rich in essential amino acids, with special attention given to leucine.
There are quite a few protein sources that fit that bill:
It’s as simple as this:
If you get the majority(70%+) of your daily protein from high-quality sources like these, you’re going to do well.
If, however, you get the majority of your protein from lower-quality sources, you’re going to struggle.
Now, there’s one food conspicuously missing from this list: soy.
Soy protein is a mixed bag.
It’s an all-round good source of protein for building muscle, but it’s also a source of ongoing controversy.
According to some research, regular intake of soy foods has feminizing effects in men due to estrogen-like molecules found in soybeans called isoflavones.
For instance, a study conducted by scientists at Harvard University analyzed the semen of 99 men, and compared it against their soy and isoflavone intake during the 3 previous months.
What they found is that both isoflavone and soy intake were associated with a reduction in sperm count. Men in the highest intake category of soy foods had, on average, 41 million sperm/ml less than men who did not eat soy foods.
On the other hand, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph had 32 men eat low or high levels of isoflavones from soy protein for 57 days, and found that it didn’t affect semen quality.
There’s even evidence that isoflavones can help normalize estrogen levels by either suppressing or increasing production as needed.
What gives, then?
Well, there isn’t a simple answer just yet.
What we do know, though, is the effects can vary depending on the presence or absence of certain intestinal bacteria. These bacteria, which are present in 30 to 50% of people, metabolize an isoflavone in soy called daidzein into an estrogen-like hormone called equol.
This can be seen in a study conducted by scientists at Peking University, which found that when equol-producing men ate high amounts of soy food for 3 days, their testosterone levels dropped and estrogen levels rose. These effects were not seen in women, regardless of equol production or lack thereof.
Now, that’s an overview of soy and men. What about women?
Well, research shows it’s even less likely to negatively affect their hormone levels. There are other things to consider, however.
And to the contrary, studies have shown that soy can even stimulate the growth of cancer cells.
So, all things considered, I’d say that completely avoiding soy protein is probably unnecessary.
That said, if I were vegan, I would limit my intake to no more than 30 to 40 grams of soy protein per day (and, if I’m going to be completely honest, would probably just choose a rice or pea protein powder instead).
The dictionary defines “macronutrient” in the following way:
Any of the nutritional components of the diet that are required in relatively large amounts: protein, carbohydrate, fat, and minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous.
(Most people think of “macros” as just protein, carbohydrate, and fat, but technically it includes the macrominerals as well.)
When it comes to diet and meal planning, the macronutrients you want to pay the most attention to are protein, carbohydrate, and fat.
When it comes to building muscle, getting your “macros” right is extremely important.
This is true regardless of whether you’re vegan or omnivorous.
Now, the standard baseline diet I recommend for bodybuilding looks like this:
This can be slightly lower when maintaining and bulking and slightly higher when cutting.
This can be slightly lower when cutting and slightly higher when maintaining and bulking.
The amount of carbs varies based on your protein and fat intake, but generally speaking, the more carbs you can eat, the better it is for your weightlifting and body composition.
If you want to learn more about these recommendations and how to adjust them based on your needs, check out this article on figuring out your macros.
Now, hitting macro guidelines like those above is fairly easy as an omnivore, mainly because of the amount of low-carb and low-fat sources of protein that are available to us.
As a vegan, however, you might find that you need to raise your fats and lower your carbs to hit both your protein and caloric targets (and especially when you’re cutting).
(This is primarily because most forms of “good” vegan protein also come with carbs and/or fats.)
And that’s fine because, as you know, eating enough calories and enough protein are of paramount importance when you want to build muscle.
A high-carb diet is more conducive to muscle growth than a low-carb one, but this is secondary in importance to the above.
So if you have to “sacrifice” some of your carbs to make sure you get enough protein without eating too many calories, you should do it.
I wouldn’t recommend that reduce your carbohydrate intake more than necessary, though. If you’re not sedentary and very overweight, you have no reason to follow a low-carb diet.
Otherwise, balancing your macros is just a matter of familiarizing yourself with the calories and macros of the foods you like to eat and then using that knowledge to create a proper meal plan.
Again, you can read more about the whole meal planning process here, but all it takes is a bit of trial and error and you’ll get the hang of it.
I should also mention here that a good vegan protein powder can help with this tremendously because it allows you to add large amounts of protein to your diet without adding much in the way of carbs and fats.
As I mentioned earlier, my go-to would be a rice protein or, ideally, a rice and pea protein blend (their amino acid profiles are complimentary and, when combined, look a lot like whey protein).
You’ve probably heard that excluding animal products from your diet increases the risk of various nutritional deficiencies.
This is true.
For example, studies show that many vegans have low levels of…
You’ve probably also heard that these common deficiencies among vegans can be avoided by simply adding certain foods to your diet.
This is true to point, but it’s also easier said than done.
For example, the calcium in some vegetables isn’t as bioavailable as the calcium in dairy products (and in any case, multiple servings of veggies are needed to equal a single serving of dairy).
Many plant sources of iron and zinc are also inferior to animal sources and require rather large amounts to be eaten.
The omega-3 fatty acid problem boils down to the fact that a vegan’s primary source of this vital fat is alpha-linolenic acid, which is poorly absorbed by the body.
All this means that you have two options if you want to optimize your health and performance on a vegan diet:
And in some cases like vitamin D and EPA and DHA, supplementation is the only viable choice.
Personally I would choose door number two because it’s easy and fairly inexpensive, but if you’re a staunch anti-supplement guy or gal, you’ll need to put extra time into your meal planning to ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of the many vital nutrients your body needs.
At this point you’d probably like to see some well-made vegan bodybuilding meal plans, so here are a few that we’ve made for our custom meal plan clients.
As you can see, with a little work and creativity, you can do just fine.
You can build plenty of muscle and strength as a vegan…if you know what you’re doing.
If you’re not willing to plan and/or track your calories and macros and eat a handful of staple foods regularly, you’re going to struggle.
The biggest problem is you’re not going to eat enough high-quality protein, and that will inevitably stunt muscle growth.
If you are willing to be deliberate with your meal planning, though, you’re going to have no trouble gaining muscle.
And I hope this article helps you do just that.