There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding veganism. The notion that those who practice it are lacking in protein and therefore muscles is the most common (*eyeroll*). The stereotypical “bodybuilding” or “athlete” diet is one full of eggs, cow milk, whey and a variety of meats. However, the times they are a changin'.
Studies now show that you do not need to eat an animal-based diet in order to effectively build and maintain muscle. In fact, it’s not only possible to lean on plant-based foods to achieve your fitness goals, but it’s also a great way to care for your overall health while doing so. This is because vegan foods are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that have long-reaching, long-term benefits.
Why follow a vegan diet for building muscle? The benefits of a vegan diet are widely confirmed by research to provide the body with a variety of nutrients that help build and strengthen muscle. And, yes, this includes protein which is the most important factor to focus on when it comes to bulking up. Sure, foods like meat, dairy and eggs contain a significant amount of protein (and maybe more per serving), but they are often deficient in other key nutrients like fiber, vitamin C and folate. A vegan diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, on the other hand, can provide everything the body needs for optimal health and growth. Piggy-backing off of that, many plant-based foods have been shown to prevent and reduce inflammation (because of the additional nutrients provided), resulting in faster recovery after a grueling workout which can lead to reaching your objectives sooner. Is protein so important for building muscle on a vegan diet? What’s the right kind of protein? As already noted, protein consumption is extremely important when looking to build muscle. Here’s why. After a solid sweat sesh, your muscles go through a breakdown process. They actually often tear. That’s where protein comes in, as the building block for tissue growth and repair. So without enough of it, you won’t be providing your body with the tools it needs to bounce back and flourish. But know that not all proteins are equal. We’re talking about amino acids here. While protein is the building block of life, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. So, without amino acids, we don’t have protein. That's why it’s important to focus on protein sources that provide all 9 “essential” types. How much protein is needed to build muscle on a vegan diet? The specific amount of protein each person needs in a day or to build muscle depends on several factors. This includes gender, weight, height and how much and how often you exercise. Hormone levels and body composition also play a role in determining your recommended intake. It's generally accepted that for optimal muscle growth to occur, protein intake should be rather high at around 0.7–1.0 grams per pound (1.6–2.2 grams per kg) of body weight per day. If you lead a very active lifestyle and/or depending on your fitness goals, you may need up to double that intake. This is why it’s of course always best to consult a registered dietician or nutritionist to get the most accurate and personalized answer. What are sources of vegan protein? Contrary to popular belief, vegans have many sources of protein to choose from. Here are a few of our favorites:
- Beans and legumes. Beans and legumes are rich in protein, fiber, B-vitamins, iron, folate, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and zinc. They're are also high in fiber, which is effective in reducing visceral fat. A few all-stars include lentils, black beans, pinto beans and chickpeas. Try your hand at some homemade hummus or snack on a handful of soybeans next time you’re craving chips.
- Nuts and Seeds. Little but mighty, nuts and seeds are loaded with protein as well as zinc, which helps boost the body's ability to grow, build and repair muscle tissue. A few all-stars include hemp seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds and almonds. Check out our Simple Protein line if you’re looking for an easy way to incorporate more seeds into your daily routine.
- Leafy greens. Surprised by this one? Most are! But vegetables like spinach, kale and broccoli have as much as 8 grams of protein per cup. You can easily incorporate more leafy greens into your diet (even if you don’t enjoy the taste) by throwing a handful of them into your favorite smoothie or pasta sauce - we promise you won’t even notice the difference!
- Nut Butters. Nut butters of all kinds have become hugely popular. It’s hard to pick a favorite with such a variety of options available these days. Peanut, almond, pistachio, almond… Packed with fiber, protein and healthy fats, even just one spoonful packs a powerful punch. Use nut butters to thicken up a bowl of oats or a creamy salad dressing. Just be sure to avoid the ones with added sugars and oils.
- Tofu and Tempeh. Both tofu and tempeh are made from soybeans and are fantastic sources of plant protein and great meat substitutes (in texture and taste). In fact, they’re very versatile. Add one or the other to stir-fry dishes, curries, sandwiches and salads or simply eat them loosely next to a portion of vegetables and grains.
- Vegan protein powder. Of course, if you struggle to consume enough of these foods into your daily diet, you can always look to a vegan protein powder to supplement. Make sure it’s a clean one, free of additives and complete with all 9 essential amino acids - like our Epic Protein blends! Add a scoop or two to water, nut mylks, smoothies or baked goods. The possibilities are really endless.
The point? Building muscle on a vegan diet IS possible. And it's actually an even healthier (and more sustainable) alternative to an animal-based diet. That’s why several world-renowned professional athletes are making the switch. This includes the likes of tennis hotshot Venus Williams, NFL superstar Cam Newton, soccer queen Alex Morgan and ultraman ironman Rich Roll among many many others. They’re all powered by plants (#plantlifetothrive) and muscle swear by it playing a big part in their many successes. So, keep crushing those veggies, crushing those PRs and defying outdated social stereotypes.