Many people have the misconception that meat = muscles. While chicken breast and other types of animal flesh are classic lean muscle-building proteins, they’re not necessary for building muscle. If you’ve recently jumped on the vegan bandwagon, you’ll be glad to know that you can achieve a strong, toned bod without eating meat.
Let’s start by discussing what exactly a vegan diet consists of. In general, a vegan diet is made up of only plant-derived foods. This means no milk, no honey, no eggs, and especially no animals or animal products (on land or sea).
Building muscle on a plant-based or vegan diet is possible, but requires a little forethought. You need to take in more protein from sources that don’t interfere with your vegan lifestyle. You also need to create a calorie surplus, which is tricky when your food options are limited and consist mostly of low-calorie plant-based foods.
Plant-eaters rejoice. You CAN build strength, muscle and health. Here’s how it’s done:
Up Your Protein Intake
Protein is the foundation of muscle building. Without it, the human body is not able to function normally. Too little protein can cause symptoms like fatigue, depression, anemia, low sex drive, and muscle loss.
Protein is made up of amino acids, and amino acids are the building blocks of muscles. If you don’t get enough protein in your diet, your body is not able to adequately build, repair or maintain muscle tissue. While animal sources are ideal as they contain all 20 of the amino acids needed by our cells to build proteins, a carefully planned vegan diet can provide the body with adequate amounts of protein for muscle-building.
Exactly how much protein you need will depend on how strenuous your workouts are. According to Men’s Fitness, the average male with a sedentary desk job requires just 0.36 grams of protein for each pound of body weight per day. If you exercise, these requirements can actually double. If you’re looking to build strength, aim for between 0.7 and 0.8 grams of protein for each pound of body weight.
So what vegan-friendly foods offer the most protein bang-for-your-buck? These plant-based proteins are healthy and deliciously satisfying:
- Black beans
- Soy milk
- Green peas
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Hemp milk
- Black eyed peas
- Green Beans
Another easy way to ensure you’re getting enough daily protein is to add a scoop of protein powder to your water. Create a yummy and nutritious shake or smoothie by adding fresh spinach, fruit, unsweetened almond milk, and a few ice cubes.
Take Your Vitamins
Vegan or not, vitamin supplements can be a crucial component in fat loss, muscle building, and all-around better health. Nutritional supplements can also help bridge those nutritional gaps that some vegans experience.
Here are several key vitamins you need to build muscle and strength:
Vitamin D: This fat soluble vitamin is found naturally in few foods. It is, however, synthesized in the body during exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D is responsible for regulating neuromuscular functioning. Some studies show that people with serum vitamin D levels below 30 nmol/l have lowered strength, muscle wasting and weakness.
Vitamin C: Also known as ascorbic acid or L-ascorbate, vitamin C is an essential nutrient necessary for growth and development. It’s especially important for athletes and bodybuilders as it protects the immune systems and promotes recovery from training.
Vitamin E: Vitamin E cannot be produced naturally by the body. Therefore, it must be obtained from dietary sources. This fat soluble vitamin and antioxidant promotes muscle growth and inhibits muscle breakdown.
B Vitamins: Of all the vitamins required for muscle gain, the B-complex is one of the most important. The B-complex consists of eight B vitamins that help boost energy and improve cardiovascular and nervous system health, as well as mental well-being.
Create a Calorie Surplus
When losing weight, you generally aim for a calorie deficient. You can create a calorie deficit by eating fewer calories then you burn. When you’re trying to build muscle, you want to create a calorie surplus, which occurs when you eat more calories than you burn. Sound counterproductive? It really isn’t.
When you create a calorie surplus, your body uses the extra energy to do one of two things: store fat or build muscle. Extra calories are needed to build muscle tissue, so don’t think you can get ripped while on a strict diet. You need to eat.
Creating a calorie surplus can be complex. The surplus needs to be big enough to effectively build muscle, while small enough to prevent gaining unnecessary weight. So how do you find a balance?
As a general rule of thumb, men looking to build muscle should add an additional 250 calories per day, while women should add 125 extra calories. For example, if you’re a guy with a daily calorie maintenance level of 2,500 calories, you should now eat 2,750 calories per day to build muscle.
Drink Enough Water
We all know the importance of water for overall health, but did you know that dehydration can seriously affect your muscle building progress? Water is needed to transport nutrients to your cells, as well as transport waste out of the body.
Without water, you couldn’t flex or even move your muscles. When the body becomes dehydrated, your muscles become depleted of electrolytes, which can cause cramping. Without the proper amount of water in the body, strength is also impaired.
Now that we’ve covered why water is so important when building muscles, let’s talk about exactly how much we need. The standard eight glasses a day is not enough for serious muscle builders. To keep up with the greater demands on your body, you need to significantly increase your water intake.
Opt for 1 liter of water for every 1,000 calories expended per day. For example, if you burn 2,000 calories per day, try to consume at least 2 liters of fluids daily.
Eat More Frequent Meals
Yes, it’s true. Eating more frequently can aid in fat loss and muscle gain. This means eating six or seven small meals instead of the usual three larger ones.
Eating small, more frequent meals offers a wide range of benefits. When you eat, you stimulate your metabolism which helps to burn more calories. More frequent meals also allows your body to use the foods’ nutrients more efficiently as the body has to deal with only small portions at a time instead of a large meal.
Chowing on six smaller meals a day also promotes a steady stream of essential nutrients, such as amino acids. This helps the body maintain a positive nitrogen balance, which is the difference between the amount of protein you have in your system and the amount excreted. When you have a positive nitrogen balance, you’ve achieved a net surplus of protein in your body.
Of course, this option is not for everyone. It’s best to experiment with different meal frequencies to see what works best for your unique needs and lifestyle.
Work Out Your Body
If you search the internet, you’ll find thousands of workouts and training programs designed to build muscle. While there’s no one best workout, it’s crucial to integrate the right types of exercise into your daily routine to see optimal results.
Before you can build muscle, you must first understand that muscles burn both fat and sugar. Activities that require quick bursts of energy, such as weight lifting, use sugar as fuel. When you engage in longer bouts of exercise, your body uses fat as fuel.
If you are overweight or your body is not used to exercise, you’re likely not burning fat effectively, which can result in loss lean body mass. To see results faster, you want to improve your body’s ability to burn fat through two main types of exercise, aerobic conditioning and weight lifting. As you gain muscle, your body will be able to burn sugar and fat more easily.
Consume Enough Fats
You need fat to build muscle. No, we’re not talking about devouring Big Macs or demolishing a piece of cake after every meal.
Your body stores fat if you don’t eat fat. Therefore, you must consume some fats if you wish to control your weight and build muscle. Dietary fat provides energy in which the body uses to fuel exercise. It also aids your body in vitamin absorption and promotes healthy growth and development.
The American Heart Association suggest eating between 25 and 35 percent of your daily calories from dietary fat. Unsaturated fats such as omega-3 fatty acids can improve heart health and promote muscle gain. Limit your saturated fats, as these can increase your cholesterol levels.
If you’re a vegan, you’ll need to seek plant-based fats. Here are a few great options to try.
- Seeds (saviseeds, hempseeds and chia seeds are all great options)
- Nuts (try almonds, walnuts or Brazil nuts)
- Coconut oil
- Olive oil
- Cacao nibs (yes, you can eat chocolate!)
Muscle building and a vegan diet don’t always go hand-in-hand. It can be tough to bulk up when your diet is limited to plant-based grub. Gaining muscle mass as a vegan comes down to getting enough protein and essential nutrients, and maintaining a strict exercise regimen that caters to muscle building. Ready to get in shape? Grab a protein bar, your gym bag, and start building muscle.