With the amount of vegans on the rise dramatically in the last ten years, it’s long been clear on the health benefits of veganism. But a question I get asked a lot is can you build muscle optimally on a fully plant based diet. In this article I explore how you can build muscle on a plant based diet.

Yes

The answer is a resounding yes. A Vegan diet is just like any other diet when building muscle. It takes time, dedication, planning and getting a few scientific points right. To build muscle it’s generally been known you need to be in a calorie surplus over a sustained period of time, supplying your body with the correct split of protein, carbohydrates, fats and an array of micronutrients to form the foundation of your muscle building journey.

Calories

Plant based foods are generally more nutrient dense than animal based foods, so it’s a lot easier to eat in a calorie surplus. But just how many calories should you eat on a plant based diet?

You should be aiming for between 300-500 calories over your maintenance level.

How to balance your maintenance level:

Work out your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate)
2. Daily calories burned through activity

Your BMR is the number of calories your body burns at rest. These calories are essential to keep your body functioning and remaining alive; for example breathing. Up to 75% of your daily calories can come from your BMR so factors like your weight, height, age and gender make your BMR unique to you.

There are a few fantastic BMR calculators on the internet: http://www.bmi-calculator.net/bmr-calculator/

After you have worked out your BMR you will be required to add your activity levels through a Harris-Benedict equation.

Harris Benedict Activity Formula:

Sedentary (little or no exercise) – BMR x 1.2
Lightly Active (light exercise or sport 1-3 days per week) – BMR x 1.375
Moderately Active (moderate exercise or sport 3 – 5 days per week) – BMR x 1.55
Very Active (hard exercise or sport 6 – 7 days per week) – BMR x 1.725
Extremely Active (very intense exercise or sports plus a physically demanding job) – BMR x 1.9

So for example my BMR resulted in 1933, I have a moderately active activity level so my calculations will be as followed:

1933 x 1.55 = 2996

I now have accurate calorie levels just to maintain my bodyweight.

So to achieve a calorie surplus I now need to add 300-500 calories with my calorie intake at 3496.



Protein

Protein has been linked to animal products since the 19th century and still to this day people equate protein to animal based foods such as meat, dairy and eggs. To most people when they think of protein they think of beef for example. (1)

With Veganism on the rise more people are turning to this lifestyle, but because people assume protein comes from meat they’re worried they won’t be able to consume enough protein to keep up with their muscle building.

What is protein?

Protein is the building blocks for your body. It refers to a type of molecule in food that can be broken down into amino acids.

The body needs twenty amino acids. Eleven of them can be synthesised by the body, these are called ‘Non essential amino acids’ but nine of the amino acids have to come from food, they are called ‘Essential amino acids’ (2)

Animal protein Vs Plant based protein

The primary difference between animal protein and plant protein is the amino acid profiles and how these profiles that direct the rates at which the absorbed amino acids are put to use within the body. The most efficient food to form the building blocks for our replacement proteins would be human flesh! But since we can’t eat humans the next best thing is animal proteins which are very similar to human protein hence the term “quality” protein and are used up quicker than plant proteins.

Plant proteins are somewhat compromised by their limitation of one or more amino acids. When we restore the relatively deficient amino acid in a plant protein, we get a response rate equivalent to animal proteins. This has led to people planning each meal with fine detail to get all the amino acids to form a muscle building meal, but research has shown the human body has enormously complex metabolic systems which can derive all the essential amino acids without the laborious planning of meals. (3)

How much protein do you need to build muscle?

The RDA for protein assumes that adults need, on average, little more than 0.5 grams of protein daily per kilogram of body weight, but because individuals vary in their ability to utilise proteins, the RDA adds 0.3 grams per kilogram as a safety factor. (4)

With regards to how much protein, a good rule of thumb for a hard training bodybuilder is one gram per pound bodyweight.

I’m often asked where I get the majority of my calories on a plant based diet and the simple answer is food. If you’re reaching your calorie goals for the day, you’re bound to get enough protein unless you’re only consuming one food source. Plant based food has protein in everything including nuts, legumes, vegetables, grains and even fruits! How lucky are we? By default we also consume a lot more calorie dense foods, so it’s a lot easier to hit your calorie goals. A few of my staple protein sources are:

Lentils: Per 100g = 12g Protein.
Tofu: Per 100g = 11g Protein
Peas: Per 100g = 6g Protein
Kidney Beans = 15g Protein

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are sugars that break down inside the body to create glucose. Glucose is moved around the body in the blood and is the primary source of energy for the brain, muscles, and other essential cells. (5)

One way to choose foods is with the glycemic index (GI). This tool measures how much a food boosts blood sugar. (6)

The glycemic index rates the effect of a specific amount of a food on blood sugar compared with the same amount of pure glucose.

Low glycemic index: Most fruits and vegetables, beans, minimally processed grains, pasta and nuts.

Moderate glycemic index: White and sweet potatoes, corn, white rice, couscous, breakfast cereals such as Cream of Wheat and Mini Wheats.

High glycemic index: White bread, rice cakes, most crackers, bagels, cakes, doughnuts, croissants, most packaged breakfast cereals.

Carbohydrates should be your main fuel source every single day on a plant based diet because as default you will get more calories from carbohydrates. You can get plenty of carbohydrates to hit your calorie needs for the day by eating a wide variety. Many people don’t struggle to consume enough carbohydrates because they’re still the same sources as what someone would be eating on a meat diet.

Don’t be afraid to eat your carbs! Especially on a big workout day. Try and limit your processed carbohydrates to a cheat day, when your body has depleted a lot of glycogen from exercise.

My favourite Carb sources:

Oatmeal: Per 100g = 60g Carbs.
Brown Rice: Per 100g = 37g Carbs
3. Quinoa: Per 100g = 60g Carbs
4. Banana’s: Per 100g = 25g Carbs

Fats

Fats are so important in your muscle build quest because they are crucial for many functions and hormone production and thus increasing muscle. Using good fats such as the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, along with omega three essential fatty acids, it is an important way to improve health and reduce disease, while sculpting the body of your dreams. Conversely, bad fats such as saturated, trans and cholesterol types can cause major health problems which will not just effect your health but also your gains!

Because a lot of animal protein is also high in cholesterol and saturated fats, Vegans are by default very low on many saturated and processed fats. Saturated fat, a type of fat that is solid at room temperature, can be found in some plant foods (for example, tropical plant oils like coconut oil) (7)

Fats are very calorie dense so you have to be careful not to over eat,


Micronutrients

The good news to Vegans is that by default we tend to eat a lot more nutrient rich foods.

A video on Nutrient-Dense Approach to Weight Management: Dr Michael Gregor provided an analysis of the diets of 13,000 people, comparing the nutrient intake of those eating meat to those eating meat-free.

They found that those eating a vegetarian diet were getting higher intakes of nearly every nutrient: more fibre, more vitamin A, more vitamin C, more vitamin E, more of the B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, & folate), more calcium, more magnesium, more iron, and more potassium. At the same time, they were also eating less of the harmful stuff like saturated fat and cholesterol. And yes, they got enough protein. (8)

Micronutrients form the foundation for a healthy body, for muscle to build off. You don’t want to give your body any excuse not to build muscle. So eat your greens!


In conclusion, as long as you plan your meals in advance, track your macronutrients and micronutrients and train just as hard, you should be in a great place to keep reaching your goals on a plant based diet.


(1) The China Study - T.Colin Campbell
(2) http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/310118.php
(3) The China Study
(4) http://nutritionstudies.org/protein-puzzle-picking-pieces/
(5) http://www.skillsyouneed.com/ps/carbs.html
(6) http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/a-good-guide-to-good-carbs-the-glycemic-index
(7) http://nutritionfacts.org/topics/saturated-fat/
(8) http://nutritionfacts.org/2014/09/09/the-healthiest-diet-for-weight-control/

- Tom Cotterill
theveganmind.com