Vegan Bodybuilding the Smart Way
Many people think that veganism and bodybuilding are mutually exclusive.
That you simply can’t build a great body without eating animals and animal products.
Well, they’re wrong. You absolutely can.
You have to know what you’re doing, though.
One of the reasons why vegan bodybuilding faces a bum rap these days is it’s easier to mess up than the traditional omnivorous approach.
This is why studies have shown that omnivores tend to have more muscle than vegetarians and vegans.
There are also several nutrition myths prevalent among vegans that make it particularly hard to build muscle, which we’ll fully debunk in this article.
The bottom line is this:
If you don’t understand and address the downsides and limitations of the vegan diet in the context of bodybuilding, you’ll get disappointing results.
If you do, though, and plan and adjust accordingly, then you’ll have no problem building muscle, losing fat, and getting strong.
And that’s what this article is going to be all about.
In it, you’re going to learn the most common mistakes that vegans make when trying to build muscle and how to get the most out of your plant-fueled training.
Let’s start with the first hurdle that trips up so many would-be vegan bodybuilders:
The Truth About Protein and Vegan Bodybuilding
When it comes to building muscle, decades of anecdotal and scientific evidence have proven that certain elements of your diet and training are more important than others.
For example, if you want to maximize muscle growth…
- You want to ensure you’re not in a calorie deficit.
- You want to progressively overload your muscles.
- You want to focus on compound exercises.
- You want to limit your cardio.
- You want to eat plenty of carbs.
- And you want to eat enough protein.
This last point is vitally important.
Dozens and dozens of well-designed and well-executed studies have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that a high-protein diet is superior for building muscle and losing fat than a low-protein one.
In terms of an exact amount, research shows that optimal protein intake for bodybuilding is between 0.8 grams and 1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day.
And this is where many would-be vegan bodybuilders die on the vine.
Where Many Vegans Go Wrong With Protein Intake
Macronutritionally speaking, the main difference between a vegan and omnivorous diet is protein intake.
Most people eating an even halfway “healthy” diet are already getting a large percentage of their carbs and fats from plant foods like grains, fruits, veggies, and nuts and oils.
Going vegan doesn’t change this.
What it does change, though, is protein intake, simply because you replace your favorite high-protein animal foods like meat, eggs, and dairy with lower-protein plant foods like beans, grains, and nuts.
Not only that, but many people replace these protein sources that are particularly suited to muscle building with ones that aren’t.
(More on all this in a minute.)
Instead of acknowledging the fact that getting enough protein on a vegan diet takes a bit more thought and planning than an omnivorous one, though, many vegans chose to propagate myths instead.
That is, instead of admitting their diet isn’t perfect and peerless in every way, they whitewash.
And they usually rely on several falsehoods to do it:
1. You don’t need much protein to maximize muscle growth.
This is categorically false.
Low-protein dieting is popular among vegans and is almost single-handedly responsible for the misconception that they can’t build muscle like meat eaters can.
2. There’s no such thing as a “protein deficiency.”
Here’s how the dictionary defines protein deficiency:
“Reduced ingestion or inadequate digestion of dietary protein and/or essential amino acids, or excess elimination of protein due to compromised renal function.”
3. All/most vegetables are a great source of protein.
Veggies are a great source of carbs and micronutrients, but protein?
Not so much.
- Broccoli contains about 13 grams of protein per pound.
- Brussels sprouts are slightly better, providing about 15 grams of protein per pound.
- A cup of green peas contains just 8 grams of protein.
- And a cup of boiled spinach contains a measly 5 grams.
As you can see, if you need to eat around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, it’s going to take a couple buckets of these types of vegetables to get you there.
4. All plant proteins are equally good for muscle building as animal proteins.
Not all proteins are made equal, and especially not for building muscle.
To understand why, we first need to talk about amino acids.
Amino acids are the “building blocks” of protein and tissues in the body, including muscle tissue.
The body needs 21 amino acids to stay alive, and 9 of them must be obtained from food.
These are known as “essential amino acids,” and one in particular is especially related to muscle building. It’s called leucine and it directly stimulates protein synthesis via the activation of an enzyme responsible for cell growth known as the mammalian target of rapamycin, or mTOR.
This is why research shows that the leucine content of a meal directly affects the amount of protein synthesis that occurs as a result.
In other words, high-leucine meals have a higher muscle-building potential than low-leucine meals.
Now, when it comes to evaluating a source of protein, we need to consider two things:
- How well the protein is absorbed by the body.
- Its amino acid profile.
And while it’s not true that plant proteins are “incomplete” (missing essential amino acids), it is true that some aren’t absorbed as well as and are lower in certain vital amino acids than others.
For example, hemp protein is absorbed rather poorly by the body whereas rice and pea protein are absorbed quite well.
This point of bioavailability is important because eating 100 grams of hemp protein isn’t the same as eating 100 grams of rice and/or pea protein. The former has less muscle-building potential than the latter.
You must ensure you’re getting enough protein that is both absorbed well and rich in essential amino acids.
This is the main reason why vegan bodybuilding is easier to mess up than omnivorous bodybuilding.
The average Western omnivore’s favorite sources of protein (meat, eggs, and dairy) also happen to be very well absorbed by the body and very rich in essential amino acids (and leucine in particular).
This in itself makes their diets very conducive to muscle growth.
And based on my experience speaking with hundreds of people that have had trouble building muscle on a vegan diet, I’ve found that the average vegan eats too little "high-quality" protein to gain muscle efficiently.
This makes it much harder to gain muscle as a vegan than it should be.
Many don’t realize this, though, and think that vegan dieting as a whole is to blame–that you simply can’t get big and strong without animal foods.
Well, they’re wrong.
You just need to know how to make a proper vegan bodybuilding meal plan…
How to Create a Vegan Bodybuilding Meal Plan
Meal planning is very simple. There are just four steps:
- Work out your calories.
- Work out your macros.
- Work out your meal timing and sizing.
- Work out your foods for each meal.
If you’re not familiar with any of that, check out this article on meal planning before continuing here.
What we’re going to focus on in this article is step number four, because this is what trips many vegans up.
Specifically, they run into two problems:
1. Eating enough protein.
To many, 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day seems impossible.
2. Balancing their macros.
The wrong food choices can make it very hard to not only meet protein needs but carbohydrate and fat needs as well.
For example, many vegans struggle to get anywhere near the standard “bodybuilding calorie split” of 40% of daily calories from protein, 40% from carbs, and 20% from fat.
They often find that meeting one macronutrient target makes another hopelessly high or low.
Fortunately, these issues are fairly easy to overcome.
First, let’s talk protein.
What Are the Best Sources of Vegan Protein?
As you know, the best sources of vegan protein are those that are both well absorbed and rich in essential amino acids, with special attention given to leucine.
There are quite a few protein sources that fit that bill:
- Grains like wheat, rice, and oats.
- Vegetables and legumes like peas, beans, and potato.
- Nuts like almonds, peanuts, walnuts, and pistachios.
- Seeds like quinoa and buckwheat (unfortunately most other seeds are poorly digested unless ground up into a flour).
It’s as simple as this:
If you get the majority(70%+) of your daily protein from high-quality sources like these, you’re going to do well.
If, however, you get the majority of your protein from lower-quality sources, you’re going to struggle.
What About Micronutrient Deficiencies?
You’ve probably heard that excluding animal products from your diet increases the risk of various nutritional deficiencies.
This is true.
For example, studies show that many vegans have low levels of…
- Vitamins D and B12
- The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA
(Many omnivores have various micronutrient deficiencies as well, so eating indiscriminately doesn’t necessarily make for a healthier diet.)
You’ve probably also heard that these common deficiencies among vegans can be avoided by simply adding certain foods to your diet.
This is true to point, but it’s also easier said than done.
For example, the calcium in some vegetables isn’t as bioavailable as the calcium in dairy products (and in any case, multiple servings of veggies are needed to equal a single serving of dairy).
Many plant sources of iron and zinc are also inferior to animal sources and require rather large amounts to be eaten.
The omega-3 fatty acid problem boils down to the fact that a vegan’s primary source of this vital fat is alpha-linolenic acid, which is poorly absorbed by the body.
All this means that you have two options if you want to optimize your health and performance on a vegan diet:
- Micromanage your diet to include generous amounts of foods high in the nutrients listed above.
And in some cases like vitamin D and EPA and DHA, supplementation is the only viable choice.
Personally I would choose the 2nd option because it’s easy and fairly inexpensive, but if you’re a staunch anti-supplement guy or gal, you’ll need to put extra time into your meal planning to ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of the many vital nutrients your body needs.
The Bottom Line on Vegan Bodybuilding
You can build plenty of muscle and strength as a vegan…if you know what you’re doing.
If you’re not willing to plan and/or track your calories and macros and eat a handful of staple foods regularly, you’re going to struggle.
The biggest problem is you’re not going to eat enough high-quality protein, and that will inevitably stunt muscle growth.
If you are willing to be deliberate with your meal planning, though, you’re going to have no trouble gaining muscle.