Can you build muscle on a plant-based diet?

You don’t need to eat meat to be strong and athletic – and here’s why


Demmy James—When you tell people you’re on a plant-based diet, some may have a pre-conceived picture in their heads.

Picture a pale, skinny, feeble person, who eats mainly kale and does nothing more strenuous than the odd bit of meditation. However, that cliché is old news.

These days, plenty of people on a plant-based diet live very active, athletic lives. Building muscle when you don’t eat meat might take a bit of extra planning, but it’s still worth doing.

Let’s take a closer look at what you should be thinking about.

It’s not all about the veggies!

You already know you need protein in your diet if you want to bulk up; according to a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, you need to be eating 0.8g of protein for every kg of body weight, just to build muscle mass.

But being on a plant-based diet doesn’t mean you can only eat veggies, and one reason that lots of people use this term rather than ‘vegan’ or ‘veggie’ is that it takes the emphasis away from vegetables, and lets us start thinking about the other foods that come from plants.

So what are the other fantastic foods that you should be getting excited about to boost your workout?

Legumes – Beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils are all delicious, nutritious ways to boost your protein intake: whizz them up in delicious soups or knock up a sizzling curry.

Nuts and seeds – Go for toasted versions to add an extra zing of flavour to your snacks, or use nut butters as a base for an irresistible satay sauce.

Tofu – Ridiculously versatile. Marinated; it will absorb a host of scrumptious spicy flavours, and silken tofu can be transformed into a host of irresistible puds. 

Whole wheat pasta and rice – Higher in protein than the white alternatives, and packed with nutty, satisfying flavour.

Quinoa – Technically a seed, not a grain, and very high in protein.

The right balance

When you’re working out a lot, it’s more important than ever to keep a close eye on the balance of nutrients in your diet. This is what’s called fitness nutrition.

Iron – Ensure you eat lots of leafy green veg, beans and lentils, and dried fruit.

Calcium – Green veg including spinach, kale and broccoli are good sources, as are almonds.

B12 – The B12 in plant based foods isn’t absorbed as easily as the animal source, so consider a supplement.

Zinc – Boost your intake of nuts and seeds and fortified cereals.

Get creative with creatine

Creatine monohydrate is produced naturally by your body. It stores phosphocreatine, which releases energy during times of stress. So when you’re strength training, this extra energy is released, giving you the boost you need to put in the extra work and build more muscle.

It’s pretty clear that plant-based diet followers have a lower amount of creatine in their diets than those who eat meat and fish.

However, what you may not know is that research – including this study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – shows that the true benefits for strength and fitness can only be achieved by taking a supplemental dose, much higher than anyone could get from their diet, no matter how much meat they eat!

And what about prohormones? These substances, which are converted into hormones once in your body, are synthetic, and not derived from animals. But I’m not saying this means they’re a good thing – they can mess with the balance of the delicate and vital levels of hormones in your body, and I’d advise approaching them with extreme caution.

Are you getting enough?

As you increase your muscle mass, you’ll also need to increase the number of calories you take in each day.

Your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR, is the rate at which your body burns calories while it is completely rested. Put simply, it’s the amount of energy you need just to keep your organs functioning.

Your BMR decreases with age, which is one reason many people find that they gain weight as they get older, even if they don’t increase the amount they eat. Your BMR also increases if you up the amount of cardiovascular exercise you do, and if your body gains muscle.

You can find out your BMR with a BMR calculator, and keep checking it as you gain muscle so that you can increase your calorie intake accordingly. 

In summary, It’s pretty clear that the days when building muscle meant chowing down on bloody steaks are over.

The more we learn about diet and nutrition, the more we realise that a balanced, plant-based diet can help you lead a strong, healthy and energetic life.

The key is to make sure you’re well informed and take a balanced approach, both to what you eat and to how you train. And remember – it’s not all about the veggies!

Demmy James is a fitness buff as well as strength and conditioning specialist. He is also a content contributor for Muscle & Strength.

More readings: 

What Do Probiotics Really Do and Do You Need Them?

The Best and Worst Foods for Your Thyroid

Pros and Cons of Vegetarian Diets