You’d probably expect a bodybuilder’s diet to be centred around meat, and in a lot of cases, this is true. For many, animal proteins are the cornerstone of their food plan.
It’s not the be all and end all, though.
Vegans have to look elsewhere for a protein fix, and contrary to what you might have heard, it is more than possible for you to reach maximum gains with a plant-based diet. Ignore the naysayers!
With a bit of homework and some creativity, you can rev up your muscle-building efforts, eat clean and reap the benefits.
Here are 10 muscle-building tips for vegans...
1) Read the small print
Keeping an eye on the ingredients list when you’re shopping is extra important; being informed on what’s going into your body isn’t just for vegans or vegetarians, it should be a practice for everyone.
This goes for general health and wellbeing, as well as muscle building. For vegans and vegetarians, deficiencies can develop once your body realises it’s not getting a certain vitamin or mineral it once took from meat.
*Tip* - eat some pumpkin seeds to ensure you’re not low on zinc, and for calcium and iron content you can throw some spinach or kale into your veggie salad.
2) Keep an eye on calories (but don’t get too hung up on them)
If you’re transitioning from meat to veganism or vegetarianism, it’s easy to overcompensate for the calories that you assume will now be missing from your diet.
This isn’t always the case, though. If a predominantly veggie diet was good enough for Roman Gladiators, then it’s hearty enough for us!
Getting hung up on calorie counting can be a really bad thing, but it’s always worth having a rough idea of what you’re eating. Avocado, for example, may have a host of health benefits, but remember that a medium-sized one will carry around 240 calories.
3) Eat plenty of essential fatty acids
As we said earlier, the main concern for a lot of vegans and vegetarians is that they’ll miss out on essential nutrients. This is easily solved, however, and shouldn’t pose too much of an issue.
You can get essential fatty acids from nuts, flaxseed oil and the aforementioned avocado. Omega 3 is a vital acid largely found in fish, so taking it from other natural sources is a must.
You can read more about “good fats” and how they can affect muscle building here.
4) Think about supplements
Some people feel that turning to veganism will leave them feeling lethargic and fatigued. While everyone is different, this isn’t necessarily the case.
To avoid tiredness, make sure you get sufficient amounts of zinc and iron. Supplements can help, though in an ideal world you’ll get all of your nutrients from natural foods. Also, it’s best to consult your doctor before going big on the additives.
Tiredness is a common reason for people missing workouts. If you’re going to make those gains, you’ll need to be on top form.
5) Greens are your friend (obviously!)
While we don’t need to tell vegans and vegetarians to eat green, there are massive benefits that you might not be aware of. Because protein is a priority, you need to be looking for natural sources that are full of it. Here’s where leafy greens come in…
We spoke to Ben Barker, MD of Total Health Clinics, on why leafy greens are the unsung hero of natural protein.
“Although we only look to vegetables for fibre and essential vitamins – green veg also contains protein. Broccoli contains 4.5g of protein per 30 calories – that’s more than beef; kale contains 4g per 2 cups, and spinach has 2g.”
Broccoli is a protein champion – who knew?!
6)…and so are nuts
As well as being a great supply of omega 3, nuts are also full of natural protein. They can be carried around all day, and their high calorie content will help you reach your calorie quota if you feel you’re missing out.
According to Ben Barker, nuts are an ideal food for vegans and vegetarians. In a ‘nutshell’ (sorry!), he said:
“Nuts and nut butters are a great blend of protein and fats, there is a huge range of nut butter options now too – nut milks are often used as a dairy alternative and these contain protein too.”
A word of caution, however: a lot of first-time vegans and vegetarians will chow down on nuts throughout the day to make up calories – while this will help you feel full, you shouldn’t overdo it!
7) Don’t forget about beans!
As you can already tell, there are so many alternative protein sources that vegans and vegetarians can go for. And, with a wide selection of beans, peas and lentils, you won’t be missing out on your protein needs at all.
Beans are a great way to supplement protein in a vegan or vegetarian diet, according to Ben Barker.
“In the UK, we massively overlook foods such as beans, peas and lentils – but they are all great sources of protein. For instance, most varieties of bean offer (on average) 15 grams of protein, while lentils boast about 18g.”
Beans are also versatile – you can cook them in a curry, put them in a delicious veggie wrap or even throw them in a salad.
8) Be savvy with smoothies – guava is good!
Timing is important as far as your muscle-building diet goes (as we discussed in point 9 of this post). Unless you plan on carting around half a fruit n’ veg stall all day, you’ll want to master your smoothie maker so you can get your nutrients in at once.
Smoothies are so easy to make, once you’ve thrown in all your ingredients it takes just one push of a button and you have a (healthy) cocktail right there. Of course, cow’s milk is off the menu for vegans, and while there are excellent alternatives (soya or almond milk), it helps if you know which fruits offer the most protein.
This resource from HealthAliciousNess.com is a good place to start. It looks like guava should be at the top of your next shopping list!
9) Exercise smart
Of course, diet is only one facet of the muscle-building process. You need to get in the gym too!
We asked Ben Barker about how you can boost your recovery time and get back in the gym.
“It is possible to stimulate the growth of muscle using low reps and heavy weights and I would recommend limiting training to between 30-45 minutes so as not to deplete the body of its resources. I would also recommend low-intensity cardio such as biking, jogging or cross trainer for 15-20 minutes at a maximum of three sessions per week.”
Be as smart in the gym as you are in the kitchen. With low reps and heavy weights (not so heavy that you injure yourself), you’re still challenging your body without it feeling like a slog.
10) Play the long game and never give up!
Gaining muscle mass as a vegan, vegetarian or meat eater isn’t easy, but it is totally doable. If it feels like you’ve got an uphill battle on your hands, then dig in and savour the challenge.
The end results, and the confidence that you’ll gain, make all of the effort in the gym and kitchen completely worthwhile.