Many people think being vegan and gaining muscle are oxymorons, they are opposites, you can’t pursue one and the other at the same time.
We also find more and more people ‘going vegan’, simply because they think cutting out animal products is all they need to do in order to lose weight, regardless of how many calories they consume.
Both of these perceptions have been disproven many times and are simply wrong.
Yes, animal protein is more bio-available than plant-protein and it more easily absorbed and digested by the body. However, fact is, while it might be harder from a planning perspective to fit enough protein in your diet as a vegan, as long as calories, protein and micronutrients are accounted for, plant-based athletes can still gain roughly the same muscle mass and strength as omnivores (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition).
The funny thing is, that over all the basic principles to follow if you want to get jacked (or lose weight for that matter) as a vegan are not that different from the principles you should follow if you want to do the same as an omnivore, pescitarian or vegetarian. Nonetheless, there are a few things that plant-based athletes need to pay special attention to and take into consideration with their diet.
With my recommendations today I am solely going to focus on the topic ‘nutrition’ and going to assume your sleep and stress management are on point and you follow the standard training principles when it comes to the goal of gaining muscle or losing fat (because without proper training you can follow the best diet and you are still not going to get jacked).
|Rather listen to this article in podcast form? Perfect, we recorded an episode called “Optimizing a Vegan Diet” for you – it’s available on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, and via the plater below:|
So let’s dive in. What do I really need to do if I want to gain muscle as a vegan?
1. Set your calories:
In order to see some muscle gains you are going to have to be in a caloric surplus, meaning more calories going in than out. This might seem rather basic, but it is absolutely crucial and a principle often overlooked. We would often like to focus on sexier topics like supplements or meal frequency and forget to consider the most important thing. Food quantity.
On the other hand, no matter how ‘clean’ of a vegan you are, if you are not in a caloric deficit, you are not going to lose weight on a vegan diet if you are not in a caloric deficit (more calories going out than in).
2. Set your macros:
Matt Ruscigno, R.D., co-author of the No Meat Athlete says “Protein is absolutely important for fitness and building muscle no matter if you are keto, paleo, raw, vegan, or something between”.
It might be a little harder to accumulate, but even as a plant based athlete your protein should still be set at at least 0.7/0.8g per pound of bodyweight, ideally even closer to 1g if that is manageable for you. Many vegans will tell you that you only need about 10% of your total daily calories to come from protein. Generally speaking, this is simply not true if you want to build muscle and lean body mass.
Although fat and carb ratio is highly dependent upon individual preference, most vegan diets are rather high in carbs, roughly between 45% and 60% of your overall calories, as most plant based protein sources also contain carbs (e.g. beans, quinoa and even tofu). Getting 50% of your overall calories might sound a bit scary, but bare in mind that most of those should come from whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruit and also supply you with tons of micronutrients.
The high carbohydrate content is also going to allow you to perform and recover well from you workouts. This means fat percentage is usually no higher than 30% of overall calories, but should be kept above roughly 0.3g per pound of body weight to avoid hormonal issues.
3. Eat these foods:
→ Primary Protein Sources: Tempeh, Tofu, Seitan, Edamame and Soy products, Lentils, Chickpeas, Nutritional yeast, Quinoa, Hempseed, Peas, Amaranth, Teff, Oats, Vegan “meats”
If you decide to try some of these vegan ‘mock meats’ it is a good idea to take a peak at the nutrition panel before you buy them to make sure they are not packed with tons of additives and fillers (just like with non-vegan processed products as well). There are actually some decent tasting veggie burgers and soy dogs out there (not that I am vegan, but I have tried them), but just like with protein powders or a greens drink it takes a while to find the ones that don’t have the texture and taste of rubber :).
Lots of the vegan high protein options are soy based. It is a good idea to buy these organic, since the non organic ones can be heavily laid with pesticides and/or GMO modified. It is also a good idea to limit yourself to 2-3 soy based servings per day, not because you get ‘man boobs’ or anything like that (a myth which was believed to result from eating “too much soy” because of its estrogen mimicking abilities), but because it is good to get your protein from multiple different protein sources.
If you have heard things about pairing your plant proteins to create “complete proteins”, food pairing is really normally nothing to worry about, because your muscles pull from the collective pool of protein sources throughout the day and not just one individual meal, so as long as you eat a good variety of protein sources (tofu, lentils, quinoa, leafy greens…) and a sufficient amount of total protein in each meal, you are good. This refers to “leucine threshold”, meaning we need to consume a certain amount of protein in one sitting before we actually stimulate muscle synthesis. While there is no exact value where you can say “now synthesis starts”, most people should probably consume at least 20-25g of protein with each meal in order to hit that threshold. It is also important to know that this threshold goes up as we age. More on leucine and which supplements can help with muscle synthesis later on.
→ Primary Carb Sources: Rice, Sweet potatoes/ Potatoes, Quinoa, Oats (processed carbs like pasta, bread etc. as always only in moderation so about 10% of your overall caloric intake)
Of course all kinds of vegetables. Dark leafy greens are particularly important as they also contain protein and help deliver oxygen to the muscle, which is super important for strength training. And of course all kinds of fruit, especially fibrous ones like berries and kiwi fruit.
→ Primary fat sources: Avocado, Seeds, Nuts, Nut butters, Coconut and Coconut products, Olives and Olive products…
4. Take these supplements:
These are more important in the vegan diet than they are for omnivores, since some things are just harder or impossible for vegans to come by
→ Protein Powders: Soy, Hemp, Rice, … there are lots of different kinds of vegan protein powders. These plant based powders are inferior to whey or egg white protein, mostly because they are lower in leucine (one of the essential amino acids), which is a key driver for muscle synthesis (as mentioned above). But in the larger scheme of things that will only contribute to a small percentage and evidence suggests that you can build nearly as much muscle with vegan varieties like soy and brown rice. Lots of vegan protein powders have leucine added to them and but adding a good EAA supplement to your diet can bridge any gaps (more below).
If you include a variety of different powder sources (for example rice protein powder in your post workout shake and hemp in your breakfast oats) in your diet you easily use 2-3 servings of protein powder to help out reaching your daily protein target.
→ Omega 3s: For vegans and non vegans alike, omega 3s are super important for overall health and recovery and hence muscle growth. Many vegans think if they include flax seeds in their diet this will be enough omega 3. However, this is usually not the case (just like eating a moderate quality fish once a week is not enough). Therefore, supplementing with a good quality algae oil is a great way of meeting your needs. It’s also good idea to bump up your daily intake to at least 2-3 EDP+DHA combined per day, since the regular lower recommendations are based on the assumption that you eat fish and meat every now and then.
→ Vitamin B12: The need to include this supplement is something most vegans are actually aware of. Vitamin B 12 can only be found in animal products, this is why it is necessary to supplement. Vitamin B 12 keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA, helps prevent a type of anemia that makes people tired and weak. You can also buy many Vitamin B 12 fortified vegan products these days like nutritional yeast.
→ Essential Amino Acids: Since the amino acid profile of plant proteins is less optimal than in animal proteins supplementing with EAAs can help ensure we are really absorbing and utilizing the protein we are consuming in the best possible way. Most of the time these products are non-vegan unless stated otherwise, so make sure to take a close look at the product description. If you are really serious about building muscle you could drink an EAA shake as often as with 2-3 meals a day, but in any case at least one drink around your workout.
→ Creatine: All athletes can benefit from taking creatine, the most studies supplement out there. But vegans and vegetarians even more so, since creatine derives from the muscle of animals. Even non active vegans could benefit from taking creatine, since recovery aside, it also has lots of neurological benefits. “Real” creatine is non vegan, but you can buy “synthetic creatine” which is made in a lab by mixing three amino acids together.
→ Consider other supplements: Just like a non-vegan depending on your lifestyle, health and genetics, you might also benefit from other supplements like Vitamin D (especially in winter and if you work inside), Magnesium (better recovery and sleep), Vitamin C…
5. Ease into Veganism:
Switching over to veganism does not just have implications for your life and the people around you, but also importantly for your digestive system. Bloating and gas is one of the main side effects when people switch radically from a “regular” diet to veganism. Your gut is not used to digesting so many whole grains, legumes and vegetables and sudden increase in fibre is actually hard on our digestive system. This often also leads to increased tiredness and lack of energy, because the digesting is literally all that your body wants to focus on. Chewing your food for longer or eating more mashed things like hummus or bean paste is a good start, but the best way to go about it is simply to build up the fibre tolerance slowly.
Also, all your go-to meals your pre-logged recipes, favorite restaurants will change. A radical change is usually super stressful and a better way to ease into it would be by just transitioning to vegetarianism at first for a few weeks before fully going vegan.
You could also start by preparing your “regular” meals and simply swapping out your steak for a tofu steak or your whey protein for plant based protein.
→ Consider meal frequency
Eating all your calories in 2-3 meals might be substantially harder for vegans for a couple of reasons. One being the high food “volume” of plant based foods. Sure, you can cut the volume down by including more nutrient dense foods like rice or nuts, but the overall volume and fibre intake is still usually higher and therefore takes longer to eat and digest than for non-vegans. So for some people it might be easier to change up their meal frequency slightly to allow for better digestion and steadier energy levels. Otherwise, as usual if you want to reduce food volume, things like smoothies and pureeing food can be helpful.
→ Tracking macros, the perfect tool for vegans!
Just like Keto or Paleo, Veganism can be easily combined with tracking macros. In fact it actually is an amazing tool for vegans (like anybody else) to actually ensure you are getting enough protein, your macros are right and you are fueling your workouts right.
This blog is written by Lisa Franz, a Boom Boom Performance Nutrition Coach. Lisa has her BEXSc (Bachelors of Sports and Exercise Science), CF-1, NCI (Nutrition Coaching Certification), Hormone Specialist Certification, Yoga, Massage, and still working on more. She’s forever engulfed in the science and study of the human body, which shows in her passion filled coaching and writing. Click Here Now to Apply For Coaching, With Lisa.