If you are searching for a guide to vegan bodybuilding that will help you build muscle and burn fat without eating meat then this article is for you.
I always have to laugh when I hear the argument over which diet is best for building muscle.
Meat eaters bash vegans. Vegans bash meat eaters.
The funny thing is that regardless of your diet, there are perfect examples of people having success on both ends of the spectrum.
Keep in mind that I’m saying this as a meat eater.
Having worked with people from both ends of the spectrum I can say, beyond a shadow of any doubt, that a vegan can put on significant muscle if they take the time to understand how to maximize their diet.
But I will also say this – as a vegan, you must have your shit together.
It does take more work, regardless of what many vegan zealots will tell you.
So many people raving about the benefits of the vegan lifestyle would have you believe that it’s all sunshine and roses with absolutely no pitfalls.
This is simply not the case, though.
Which is why studies show that people who eat meat generally have significantly more muscle than those who do not.
And they also have an easier time gaining it while keeping the fat off.
However, I’m also not naive enough to believe that a vegan can’t have extraordinary success.
I can say this with confidence because I’ve seen it.
The reason why the vegan diet typically gets bashed when it comes to building muscle is that most vegans do it wrong.
In my experience, it’s incredibly rare to find a vegan who actually knows what they are doing when it comes to eating in a way that is conducive to muscle growth.
What you typically see is a lot of non-meat eaters who don’t know how to optimize the diet they profess to be the epitome of health.
That’s what we are going to discuss in this article.
Pretty much the only difference with vegan bodybuilding is the protein sources used.
Let’s be honest, if I were to compare vegan bodybuilding with bodybuilding on animal protein they are almost identical:
- You focus on lifting weights in a way conducive to maximum gains.
- You do cardio in a way that optimizes fat loss. No More
- You plan your meals to hit your carb, protein and fat totals. Along with calories.
- You take plenty of time to recover.
- You take the necessary supplements.
It is really not harder than that.
The place where almost all vegans who are serious about building muscle go wrong is when it comes to protein.
I mean, let’s face it, both meat eaters and non-meat eaters who are health minded are going to get their carbs from pretty much the same sources.
The fat sources are very much the same, also.
I mean, even a bodybuilder who consumes animal protein is not going to stuff their face with fatty cuts of meat and whole fat milk – at least they won’t if they know what they are doing.
Like a vegan, they will also focus on things like olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds and other healthy fat sources.
So what we are really talking about when it comes to building muscle on a vegan diet is protein.
That is simply the main place in the diet that differs from a bodybuilder who eats meat.
The Truth About Protein For Vegan Bodybuilding
I mean, it’s been proven beyond a shadow of any doubt, and yet you will still hear many vegans trying to argue the point.
They usually do this by perpetuating myths about high protein diets.
All this does is confuse other vegans who are trying to build muscle.
It’s really no different with meat eaters – if you are not getting an adequate amount of protein then you are not going to build muscle.
I don’t care whether you eat animal protein or not, high protein diets are safe and it’s the way you make bodybuilding actually work.
And the cold hard truth is that achieving this on a vegan diet is harder than it is for those who eat meat.
It boils down to amino acid profile and absorption.
The truth about protein is that not all sources are created equal.
Take absorption rate, for example. This is also known as bioavailability (BV). It’s basically a measure of a protein’s usability. Well, many of the typical powerhouse plant proteins like hemp are actually poorly absorbed.
The most accurate number I could find on the bioavailability score of hemp protein was around 50.
That means that you are only absorbing about 50% of the protein you take in from hemp.
Compare that with the BV of common animal proteins used for bodybuilding:
- Whey protein concentrate: BV = 104
- Whey protein isolate: BV = 100
- Milk: BV = 91
- Casein: BV = 77
- Egg White Protein: BV = 100
- Beef: BV = 80
- fish: BV = 83
- Chicken: BV = 79
I’m not saying that all plant-based proteins have the poor absorption rate of hemp. There are actually some that have very high BV values:
- Rice protein: BV = 83
- Pea protein: BV = 65
However, many of them just are not even close to the same bioavailability of animal protein:
- Hemp: BV = 50
- Soy: BV = 59
- Beans: BV = 49
- Peanuts: BV = 43
- Wheat: BV = 54
This is not the end of the world, it simply means that you have to plan accordingly and also, more importantly, you need to consume more of them to equal the same amount as far smaller portion sizes of animal proteins.
Not taking this into consideration is one of the primary reasons why so many vegan bodybuilders are protein deficient.
There is another score that is used to measure proteins digestibility. It’s called the PDCAAS (protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score). This is a score that takes into account the amino acid profile of the protein as well as the digestibility.
It’s like the BV score only more comprehensive.
It’s also a newer measure that is becoming more popular.
Here are some examples of proteins PDCAAS (1 indicates a perfect score. It is the highest a food can get):
As you can see, there are several plant-based proteins that do quite well.
Another major factor when it comes to protein, aside from its digestibility, is the amino acid profile.
Amino acids are simply the building blocks of protein.
There are 21 amino acids.
12 of those amino acids are manufactured by the human body (they are called non-essential). 9 are not.
That means that you must get those other 9 from the food you eat. These nine are called essential amino acids. You need them or you die.
The reason animal sourced proteins are typically viewed as superior is for the simple fact that they contain all nine of the essential amino acids. In other words, animal proteins are complete proteins.
Those essential aminos are:
Of all of those essential amino acids, research shows that it is the leucine content of the protein that is most responsible for muscle growth.
In fact, studies show that when you consume a meal it is the leucine content of that meal that determines the amount of protein synthesis that takes place.
And this is where most vegans tend to go wrong.
Many commonly sourced plant proteins are not complete (specifically lacking in leucine) and most vegans simply believe that if they just eat a variety of food sources they will be fine.
However, if you are serious about building muscle as a vegan you simply cannon follow this advice or you will not get the results you are looking for.
You must place an emphasis on obtaining your protein from high-quality sources as opposed to low-quality sources.
Things like broccoli, spinach and many other typical powerhouse foods do contain protein but are not complete proteins.
They also do not contain a lot of protein per serving.
What you typically hear coming out of the vegan community is that if you just eat a variety of greens, nuts, seeds, and grains you will get adequate protein.
Their reasoning is that even though many of these protein sources are not “complete” as individuals – as a whole they do contain all of the essential amino acids.
And that is a valid argument.
Rice and beans is a prime example.
Seperate they is not complete. Together they are.
However, if you are serious about bodybuilding it is not quite that simple.
We’ve already discussed the amount of protein that a bodybuilder who is actually serious about building muscle should be consuming.
Research (research, research) has consistently shown that for an individual who is training hard (athletes, bodybuilders) that a very solid number to shoot for is .8 – 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
It makes no difference if you eat meat or not, if you are lifting hard and doing your cardio with an emphasis to gain quality muscle while keeping the fat off, then violating that number is simply going to lead to struggles.
Here’s the point:
Best Sources Of Plant-Based Protein
If I am a vegan bodybuilder and I subscribe to the notion that I can simply just eat a variety of plant food to get all of my essential amino acids and that will be enough – I would be fooling myself.
You must focus on the higher quality sources – many of which we named above.
The reason is simple, in order to hit your .8 – 1 gram of protein per pound mark you would have to eat a truckload of food unless you are focusing on the complete sources and specifically the ones that are much higher in protein.
For example, things like
- Chia Seeds – 17 grams protein per 100 grams
- Buckwheat – 13 grams protein per every 100 grams
- Ezekiel Bread – 8 grams protein per two slices
- Soy Beans – 29 grams protein per cup cooked
- Chickpeas – 14 grams of protein per cup
As a vegan bodybuilder, it’s a hell of a lot easier to hit my .8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight if I am including these protein sources in my meals.
100 grams of broccoli, for example, has roughly only 3 grams of protein.
The same 100 grams of steak has roughly 34 grams.
It takes 4 cups of broccoli to equal 100 calories and you are only getting 8 grams of protein there.
Spinach is roughly the same, as are many other vegetables.
You’re going to run into similar issues with many grains, seeds and nuts.
This even includes complete protein sources like:
- Quinoa = 8 grams protein per cup
- Buckwheat = 6 grams protein per cup
- Rice and Beans = 7 grams protein per cup (again, you can combine rice and beans to make a complete protein)
These are complete proteins that many vegans focus on.
However, the protein content is very low.
You will be stuffed if you try to use them as your major staple of protein.
The typical vegan is going to stuff themselves with vegetables for many meals and by the end of the day, their calorie count is ridiculously low and so is the protein count.
Again, the point is simple, each meal should be focused on protein intake because that is the major factor that is lacking in the diets of most vegans.
It’s not hard to get enough protein, but you certainly need to place an emphasis on high-protein vegan sources.
You also want to place an emphasis on complete protein sources so you are optimizing your leucine content.
Vegan Bodybuilding Meal Planning That Works
Your meal planning will make or break your results regardless of if you are vegan or eat meat.
The truth is that in both instances it all boils down to four main things:
- Track your macros (protein, carbs, fats)
- Track your calories
- Plan your meals
- Rinse and repeat
Again, the major difference between vegan bodybuilding is simply found in the way you are getting your protein.
The carbs and fats tend to be the same.
You simply need to calculate your numbers.
To do this you need to determine your average daily calorie expenditure. This is not an exact science and will take some trial and error regardless of what anyone will tell you.
The best way to do it that I’ve found is to approximate your basal metabolic rate.
This is simply the minimum amount of calories you burn in a day while at rest.
It takes into account your age, height, and weight. There is actually a good BMR calculator over at bodybuilding.com
Take me for example, at 6’2″ and 220 pounds my BMR comes out to be 2,200 calories per day.
That would be the minimum I would need to maintain my weight if I were just doing nothing.
However, if I am lifting weights and doing my cardio it will certainly be much higher to maintain my weight.
So while my BMR is 2,200 calories per day, my total caloric needs are roughly right around 3,200 to maintain my weight.
Again, this is not an exact science. (I discuss it in more depth in my article on effective weight loss meal planning.)
The idea is to get an approximation of your BMR and then factor in your exercise.
I’ve found that I personally burn an extra 1,000 calories on an average day through exercise and activity.
If you are doing 5 days or more of fairly intense weight lifting with some cardio a couple of days a good number to shoot for is 500 to 1000 calories above your BMR – depending on your weight.
The heavier you are and the more muscle you have the more calories you will usually burn.
You get the idea.
It’s not an exact science. It’s just a matter of you becoming familiar with your body.
Calculating Your Macronutrients
Going back to my BMR + activity calories = 3,200.
That is the minimum I need to maintain my weight at 220 pounds.
If I want to build muscle I’m going to have to add calories onto that. I’ve found that 10 – 15% above your BMR + activity calories is a good number to shoot for.
Again, I could go higher but that would result in too much excess fat. I prefer to gain slowly without a lot of excess fat.
If you want faster gains just bump it up.
So, taking 10% of my total daily caloric needs would be:
10% x 3200 = 320 extra calories per day.
So my new daily caloric needs to build muscle will now be:
3200 + 320 = 3,520 calories per day.
As we discussed above, you want to aim for .8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Let’s call it 1 gram per pound for the sake of this calculation. (as long as you are within .8 – 1 gram per pound of bodyweight you are going to be just fine in my experience).
My bodyweight is 220 which means I need to aim for around 220 grams of protein.
- Protein = 4 calories per gram
- Carbohydrate = 4 calories per gram
- Fat = 9 calories per gram
My protein will take up 220 x 4 = 880 calories
As a general rule of thumb, I shoot for around 20 – 25% of my calories from fat sources. Research shows that this is a very solid number when it comes to bodybuilding.
That calculation would be:
.25 X 3,520 = 880 calories
I now have a total of:
880 protein + 880 fats = 1,760 calories taken up in protein and fats.
The remainder that I need would be:
3,520 – 1,760 = 1,760 calories will be taken up in carbs.
See how this works out? My total daily caloric muscle building target is 3,520 calories.
880 fat calories + 880 protein calories + 1,760 carb calories = 3,520 total calories per day.
As a general rule of thumb, I would eat this way for a week or two and then examine my results.
I like to split my calories up into at least five meals per day.
It’s all about how fast you want to put on mass. If faster, then simply eat more. If slower, then simply eat less.
The faster you put on muscle the faster you also usually put on fat.
It’s simply because accelerated muscle building requires an accelerated calorie surplus unless you are taking steroids or something.
That is for building muscle.
If you are cutting fat for competition or something then simply drop your calorie intake until you hit the point where you are comfortable with how quickly the weight is coming off.
A good cutting number is 10% fewer calories per day than your BMR + activity calories.
That puts you in a slight calorie deficit.
That calculation becomes:
3200 x 10% = 320 fewer calories per day. (2,880 calories)
You want to maintain muscle, though, so don’t cut out too many calories. Research has shown that when cutting you can get away with a 20% reduction in calories without seeing negative hormonal changes. (I discuss this in my guide to reverse dieting.)
Understanding Vegan Bodybuilding Supplementation
On the supplementation front, it really is no different if you are a vegan bodybuilder or you eat meat – when it comes to building muscle, burning fat and constructing the best possible body you can, supplements play a vital role.
The purpose of supplementation is to fill in the gaps in your diet.
This includes both macronutrient gaps (typically protein) and micronutrient gaps.
The main supplement for bodybuilders who eat animal protein is, by a wide margin, whey protein.
Whey simply makes for a very quick and easy high-quality source of protein for situations when you need it most. Post workout, for example. A lot of bodybuilders overuse whey, in my opinion.
I’m of the opinion that you should get the bulk of your macros from whole food sources.
The same thing goes for vegans.
Protein is going to be a very important supplement for the vegan bodybuilder for the simple fact that it is more difficult to hit your protein needs.
But this doesn’t mean that your entire protein intake is taken up by protein shakes.
You are buying a protein supplement for the protein so it only makes sense to buy one that is the most bioavailable that you can find. Rice and pea protein powders are great choices here.
However, you can go with protein mixes that contain various amounts of other protein forms that come together to create a complete protein.
Soy protein is also an excellent plant-based protein for building muscle.
In fact, research has shown that it is on par with many of the typical animal sourced protein supplements you get when it comes to building muscle.
However, there can be issues when consumed in large quantities. I bring this up because it’s probably the most popular vegan bodybuilding protein and one of the most common types to get in supplement form.
The research is conflicting, though.
These properties directly impact male bodybuilders by raising estrogen counts and lowering testosterone counts. Obviously, not a good thing if you are trying to build muscle.
As with any protein source, or food source for that matter, in my opinion, it’s best not to rely on any one too heavily so that it dominates your diet. Soy is just one of those products that this directly applies to.
On the micronutrient level, there are some key vitamins and minerals that vegans are often deficient in for the simple fact that they exist in animal sourced foods:
- Vitamin B12 is a must for vegans. Many studies show they are deficient.
- Omega 3 fatty acids. Again, an important supplement for all but especially for vegans.
As a general rule of thumb, you can obtain these two and other micronutrients from a solid multivitamin.
Regardless of whether you eat meat or not it’s just something you should be doing anyway.
A solid multivitamin will have your b12 (get it in methyl form as opposed to cyanocobalamin) and all other b vitamins, plus your other micro’s that are a little more difficult to obtain from a diet that does not include animal sourced foods:
Micronutrients are vital for your body.
There are so many deficiencies that are caused by diet and they will prevent you from not only obtaining optimal health but also from building the body needed to compete.
It’s a total myth that a vegan bodybuilder can’t build muscle as well as an individual who consumes animal protein.
However, with that said, in my experience, it does take some extra work.
The cold hard truth is that a vegan bodybuilder must put more time into planning and optimizing their protein intake.
Regardless of what so many in the vegan community believe, a low protein diet is not going to be effective for building the muscle you desire.
However, it’s not as complicated as some would have you believe.
In my experience, a vegan bodybuilder who has built an awesome physique is completely on top of his or her game.