Building muscle on a vegan diet is a much-discussed topic in the world of fitness and science and many people believe it is not possible to build muscle while being vegan. However, many athletes across the world including boxer David Haye and 2014 Mr. Universe Barny du Pessis have shown it is possible to be vegan and build muscle. Similar to all diets, athletes must ensure they are correctly tailoring their diet towards muscle building. In this article, we discuss how to build muscle while consuming a healthy vegan diet.
What is a Vegan Diet?
A vegan diet excludes all foods derived from animals, including meat, dairy, and eggs. Despite similarities, vegan and vegetarian diets are not the same. Both exclude meat, but, unlike vegans, vegetarians eat dairy and eggs.
A healthy vegan diet typically contains whole grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. However, not all vegan diets are healthy. A diet excluding animal-derived products can be full of junk food and still be classified as vegan. Therefore, don’t presume just because a diet is vegan it is automatically healthy.
How to Build Muscle
Building muscle requires a combination of optimal nutrition, training, and lifestyle. Within training, you will be required to practice progressive overload with resistance training. You will also need to sleep a sufficient amount and control stress levels. This article focuses on the nutritional aspect of muscle building, specifically for those following a vegan diet. As a note of caution, the advice we display below will help build muscle in addition to training and lifestyle, not solely nutrition.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
To build muscle you must eat enough protein. Scientific literature suggests you need 1.6-2.2g of protein for every kg you weigh. Evidence suggests protein ingestion should be spread across a day. The amount of amino acids (AA) required for muscle protein synthesis is finite, therefore, excess protein ingested will be wasted in the muscle-building process. Protein per meal should be between 0.25-0.4g of protein for every kg you weigh.
As an example:
- Bodyweight: 74kg
- Protein Per Day: 118-163g
- 74 x 1.6 = 118.4
- 74 x 2.2 = 162.8
- Protein Per Meal: 19-30g
- 74 x 0.25 = 18.5
- 74 x 0.4 = 29.6
I would then spread my meals across the day, dividing them to meet my protein per day and meal targets. Following on from my previous example, if I was shooting for the higher end, I would require ~5 meals per day, containing 29gof protein.
If your goal is to maintain muscle mass, your protein requirements will be reduced. The recommended daily allowance is 0.8g protein per kg body weight. However, literature suggests protein intake depends on your activity levels:
- Minimal Activity: 1g protein per kg of body weight
- Moderate Activity: 1.3g protein per kg of body weight
- Intense Activity: 1.6g protein per kg of body weight
Differences Between Vegan and Animal Protein Sources
Many scientific studies have been conducted on the differences between vegan and animal protein sources, and what impact this has on the ability to build muscle. Current research suggests vegan and animal protein sources often differ in terms of digestibility and AA composition. Note, when we talk about protein sources, we are referring to the majority of sources, there are exceptions as we will discuss later in the article.
To gain a better understanding of how protein sources differ, let’s first look at the structure of a protein, and how it is metabolized within the body.
Protein is a macronutrient used by the body to build and repair tissue, including muscle. Protein is made of twenty structurally unique building blocks called Amino Acids (AA).
AA can be classified as non-essential amino acids (NEAA), and essential amino acids (EAA). NEAA is made by the body, therefore we do not need to obtain them. However, EAA can only be consumed via the food we eat. Each AA has its unique structure and function; therefore, all twenty AA are needed for proper bodily functioning.
The amount of AA required to stimulate muscle protein synthesis is finite, therefore excess AA will either be converted to other AA or oxidized for fuel.
After ingestion, protein is broken down into AA in the stomach. AA move to the intestine where they are absorbed or transported to the liver. The liver extracts ~70% of AA, the remaining ~30% move into the circulatory system where they are delivered to the skeletal muscles. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) leucine, isoleucine, and valine are an exception as they are not extracted by the liver. In the skeletal muscle, AA are used for muscle building or repair.
Digestibility and Structure
Animal protein sources are generally more digestible than vegan protein sources. Therefore, a greater proportion of AA from animal protein sources are delivered to the skeletal muscles, compared to vegan protein sources. Consequently, a larger portion of AA are available for muscle building potential.
Vegan and animal protein sources typically differ in their AA composition. As shown in the graphs above, animal protein sources (grey bars) typically contain more EAA than vegan protein sources (white bars).
Additionally, greater levels of the BCAA leucine are found in animal protein sources, compared to vegan protein sources. Leucine is an important AA, due to its large role played in muscle protein synthesis, and anabolic signaling. Leucine content of animal protein sources typically ranges from 8-13%, compared to 6-8% of vegan protein sources. Furthermore, animal protein sources often contain all nine EAA, whereas vegan protein sources usually lack at least one EAA, mostly lysine or methionine.
In conclusion: animal protein sources typically stimulate a greater muscle protein synthesis stimulus compared to vegan protein sources due to differences in digestibility and structure.
Despite most animal protein sources having more desirable protein digestibility and structures compared to vegan protein sources, there are exceptions. The vegan protein source maize has a leucine content of 12%, more than most animal proteins. Quinoa also contains 7% lysine and 3% methionine. Therefore, vegans can consume all required EAA through a varied diet of high-quality vegan proteins. It is arguably easier to consume the amount of protein and required EAA through an animal-based diet, compared to a vegan-based diet. However, this is not to say you cannot achieve the desired amount of protein and EAA on a vegan-based diet, it might just require a little bit more planning and caution.
Vegan Protein Sources
As discussed, achieving protein requirements on a vegan diet can be difficult, but not impossible. With each meal, you should prioritize a high-quality protein source. Ideally, vary the protein source with each meal to enhance your EAA intake. However, EAA will only be acquired through plant-based food, a vegan diet lacking in proper food risk EAA deficiencies, and thus the ability to build muscle. Here are some examples of good vegan protein sources and their protein density per 100g:
- Quinoa – 14g
- Chia Seeds – 17g
- Soy – 36g
- Beans – 22g
- Nuts – 26g
- Chickpeas – 19g
Protein Considerations for Vegans
We’ve now covered how much protein you should be consuming per day and per meal for maximal muscle building potential, as well as the importance of varying protein sources, to meet our EAA requirements. Another key consideration for vegan athletes is their total daily macronutrient requirements and their aesthetic and performance goals.
Shown above, there are plenty of vegan protein sources available, however high protein vegan sources are also high in the other macronutrient’s fats, and carbohydrates. Take the examples above and add in their respective protein, fat, and carbohydrate density per 100g:
- Quinoa – 14g, 6g, 64g
- Chia Seeds – 17g, 31g, 42g
- Soy – 36g, 20g, 30g
- Beans – 22g, 1.4g, 62g
- Nuts – 26g, 16g, 49g
- Chickpeas – 19g, 6g, 61g
Building muscle requires a calorie surplus, therefore meeting your macro-nutrient and protein goals on a vegan diet can be achievable. However, problems can occur when protein goals are high, and fat and carbohydrate goals are lowered, for example when prepping for a bodybuilding show. While potentially achievable, it would require eating some very questionable meals.
On a carnivorous diet, bodybuilders plan meals carefully and limit their food options. However, cutting on a carnivorous is arguably easier than on a vegan diet, due to the more appealing macro-nutrient profiles of animal protein sources. Compare the vegan protein sources above with the macro-nutrient profile of 100g of chicken breast containing 30g protein, 0g carbohydrates, and 0g fat. Protein supplementation can aid a vegan diet, especially if their goal is weight loss.
Vegan Protein Supplements
Protein supplements are a quick and convenient way to hit your protein targets. Popular protein supplements contain whey protein. Whey is a derivative of milk, therefore not vegan. However, there is a range of vegan protein powders available:
- Rice Protein: 78g protein per 100g.
- Pea Protein: 75g protein per 100g.
- Hemp Protein: 48g protein per 100g, however, has a strong nutrient profile.
- Blended Protein: 73g protein per 100g, with a strong nutrient profile.
Protein supplements can be taken as a shake or within recipes. We recommend them to help reach your macro-nutrient requirements.
Similar to protein, the recommended number of vitamins and minerals can be consumed on a vegan diet, but particular caution, variety, and planning is required. Since vitamins and minerals are more difficult to track, compared to protein, supplements may be used to do exactly what they say, supplement the diet. Common deficiencies in vegan diets include iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. Each has important functions within the body:
- Iron: Involved in creating red blood cells to transport oxygen around the body. Men over 18 and women over 50 need 8.7mg of iron per day. Women aged 19-50 need 14.8mg per day.
- Calcium: Builds strong teeth and bones, regulates muscular contractions, and blood clots. Adults aged 19-64 need 700mg per day.
- Vitamin B12: Involved in creating red blood cells, regulating the nervous system, using folic acid, and releasing energy from food. Adults aged 19-64 need 1.5micrograms per day. Vitamin B12 is not found in naturally occurring food, therefore the most recommended supplement for vegans.
- Vitamin D: Regulates calcium and phosphate in the body, aiding regulating bones, teeth, and muscles. People over the age of 1 require 10micrograms per day.
Differences Between A Vegan Diet and Animal Diet for Athletic Performance
Vegan athletes from all sporting backgrounds have shown you can be an elite-level athlete while consuming a vegan diet. In a recent review article, scientists identified vegan athletes can benefit from the following:
- Reduced Risk of Heart Disease: 44% of endurance athletes had coronary plaques. Vegan diets promote heart strength by reversing plaque, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, and controlling body weight.
- Anti-Inflammatory: High consumption of cholesterol and meat can increase inflammation, leading to pain and impaired performance and recovery. Vegan diets can have an anti-inflammatory effect.
- Improved Oxygen Transport: Vegan diets are often low in saturated fat and cholesterol. This can help improve blood thickness, enabling more oxygen to be delivered to the working muscles, thus improving athletic performance.
- Improved Blood Flow: Vegan diets can increase arterial flexibility and diameter, causing improved blood flow.
- Antioxidants: Vegan diets are usually full of fruit and vegetables. Fruit and vegetables contain antioxidants that neutralize free radicals. Free radicals can lead to muscular fatigue, and impaired performance and recovery.
- Improved Aerobic Capacity: Vegan diets are typically low in fat and high in fiber, leading to reduced body fat. This can increase aerobic capacity, and thus athletic performance in endurance-based sports. Studies have shown vegan athletes increase the maximum amount of oxygen they can use during exercise.
So, a vegan diet looks highly appealing if you want to improve your athletic performance. However, caution should be taken from these studies. Often, vegan diets are balanced and contain little macro- or micro-nutrient deficiencies. In addition, a typical comparable carnivorous diet is one high in meat, and lacking in essential nutrients.
Veganism is an ever-evolving topic in the scientific community, and a lot more work is required. There might be merit to vegan diets for athletic performance and health, but one can never be 100% sure. There are so many variables influencing nutritional studies that can result in mixed messages being formed. Health and athletic performance span far from just diet, but also genetics, training, and lifestyle to name a few. Controlling all variables over a significant time period is impossible, therefore we need to remain open-minded when referring to scientific literature within nutrition.
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to build muscle on a vegan diet. True for both vegan and carnivorous diets, you need a certain amount of protein to build muscle. Vegan athletes should consider eating a range of protein sources to meet the amino acid requirements. Supplementation can be used to help hit protein targets, and eliminate any deficiencies.
As a general rule, scientists agree the best diet for health and athletic performance is a varied diet meeting macro- and micro-requirement within a targeted calorie range. This need can be met, and disregarded by vegan and carnivorous diets alike, both can be healthy and unhealthy, depending on how you as an individual structure and plan it. To say one diet is better than the other for athletic performance and health is wrong, as there is not enough concrete scientific literature to support these claims. You are free to choose whichever diet you want, but ensure you are eating enough macro- and micro-nutrients, and having fun while doing it.
- A vegan diet excludes all foods derived from animals, including meat, eggs, and dairy.
- A healthy vegan diet consists of a variety of nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
- Building muscle requires a combination of optimal nutrition, training, and lifestyle.
- To build muscle you need to consume 1.6-2.2g of protein per kg body weight, per day.
- Protein ingestion should be spread across the day, with each meal containing 0.25-0.4g of protein per kg bodyweight.
- To maintain muscle, you need to consume 1-1.6g of protein per kg body weight, per day, depending on your activity levels.
- Protein is a macronutrient used to build and repair muscle.
- Protein is made of building blocks called amino acids. Eleven amino acids are made by the body, nine need to be consumed via food.
- Vegan and animal protein sources often differ in terms of digestibility and amino acid composition.
- ~70% of amino acids are absorbed by the liver, apart from branched-chain amino acids, which are sent straight to skeletal muscles.
- Animal protein sources are typically more digestible than vegan protein sources.
- Vegan and animal protein sources differ in amino acid composition.
- Animal protein sources typically contain all nine essential amino acids, vegan protein sources usually lack one, typically lysine or methionine.
- There are exceptions, as some vegan protein sources have a strong nutrient profile, such as quinoa.
- Vegans should aim to consume a variety of protein sources to ensure they ingest all nine essential amino acids.
- Vegan protein sources typically contain high amounts of other macronutrients such as carbohydrates or fats, this may cause problems if athletes are trying to lose weight.
- Protein supplementation offers a quick and convenient way to hit your protein goals.
- There are many vegan protein powders available, however, a blended protein is best in terms of protein and nutrient profile.
- Vegan should be cautious about lacking in certain deficiencies such as iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D. Acquiring these vitamins and minerals from vegan food sources is difficult, therefore a supplement might be useful.
- Vegan athletes may benefit from reduced risk of heart disease, anti-inflammatory, improved oxygen transport, improved blood flow, antioxidants, and improved aerobic capacity.