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Following a vegan diet can be tricky at times, let alone a vegan bodybuilding diet. Trust.
Luckily for you, we have all the information to make sure you have a solid basis for jumpstarting your vegan diet and working your way up through each level of veganism.
In this post, we’ve boiled this entire process down to three steps. Each step serves to help you reach the optimal macro nutritional targets and with it, bring you closer to your vegan bodybuilding goals - so pull out your reading glasses and let's get cracking!
A meal plan is essential to building muscle, especially when bulking and cutting as a vegan bodybuilder. We talk more about this in this Vegan Bodybuilding guide.
Here's what you need to get right in order to design a highly effective vegan bodybuilding diet plan:
This doesn't seem to be too hard if there are only three steps involved, right? Well, yes and no.
People usually fall prey to various vegan diet misconceptions, such as:
Especially number three on the list above seem to trip people up, especially vegan diet beginners.
Without enough protein (which you would otherwise get from traditional bodybuilding staples such as chicken breast and ground beef), it can be a bit challenging to find adequate plant protein sources to balance your macronutrient and calorie intake.
Your body simply doesn't care what labels mainstream media or vegan diet 'gurus' have chosen to put on different foods.
Your body only cares about the amount of energy you consume, and the simple science behind weight gain and loss boils down to one thing:
Calories in and calories out. Here's how it works:
Not only do we know this to be true from countless case studies of people employing CICO to get in shape, but scientific consensus and the laws of thermodynamics also agree that the most effective way to lose those extra pounds is to eat fewer calories than you burn on a regular basis (1).
Naturally, this will be the first thing to figure out for your vegan bodybuilding meal plan. In order to determine what your energy intake should be, use our total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) calculator below and input your own data.
For men - If your body fat is at ~15% or above you should start by cutting down (fat loss), until you're at ~10%. At this point begin a bulking phase (muscle building) until you hit a body fat of around ~15% again. Start over the process by cutting. Rinse and repeat.
For women - The same rules apply only with different numbers. From wherever you're starting, cut down (fat loss) until you're at about ~19% body fat. At this point begin bulking (muscle building) until you hit a body fat of approximately 27%. Rinse and repeat.
Now take your TDEE and increase or reduce this number depending on what your body composition goal is:
Say for instance an 80 kg, or 176 pounds, vegan lifter plugs in his or her stats into the TDEE calculator which estimates the maintenance calories to be 2800 calories.
The three macronutrients proteins, fats and carbohydrate are the big nutrient groups that make up the calories we eat. While the calories we consume have a profound effect on the way your body looks - the macronutrient split is perhaps equally as important in our vegan bodybuilding quest to create an eye-catching body.
'A calorie is a calorie' may be true for mere weight gain and weight loss, but how these calories break down into each of the macronutrients will dictate how well your body builds and repairs muscle tissue, as well as how much muscle you retain during weight loss.
For anyone interested in more in-depth information about optimal vegan macros I urge you to check out this article later.
For now the short and sweet version will do. To maximize improvements in body composition here's the optimal vegan diet macro split:
Managing this part of the equation is possibly what many struggle with the most. And I won't lie and say this is the easiest thing in the world, especially not if you're a beginner to the vegan bodybuilding diet.
For instance, one aspect where difficulties may arise is that plant foods typically are lower in protein - which can make it really difficult balancing your macros and reaching adequate amounts of protein in the range of 1.6-2.2 g protein per kg.
Furthermore, It's absolutely crucial that your plant-based diet also delivers all the essential micronutrients:
Here is where I see many proclaimed 'fitness gurus' make a fatal mistake. Nailing your macros day after day is not the be-all and end-all solution for overall health.
Yes, eating at McDonald's and maintaining a caloric deficit can induce weight loss and even improve markers of health. But if we look past the caloric deficit, is it a healthy way of eating? The answer is hell no (2).
While keeping track of your macros is important - you should also stay on top of your micros too: Zinc, iron, vitamin B12, omega-3, iodine, calcium, fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, carotenoids, anthocyaninsphenol. Also, you will likely have to supplement yourself with Vitamin B12 since a vegan diet has very few sources.
To help you track your macros without the hassle, I recommend using a macro tracking app on your phone. While the food databases on these apps aren’t as complete and accurate to a T, they’re still very useful for documenting your meal plans and vegan bodybuilding journey.
The nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrients it contains per calorie of energy.
For instance, if a banana has 50 nutrients per calorie and a french fry has 3 nutrients per calorie, we can obviously say that the banana is more nutrient-dense.
Let's look at an example of how not to do things: the standard American diet. Highly processed and refined foods such as ice cream, candy, cakes, cookies, pizza, burgers and junk food provide tons of energy throughout the day, yet have poor nutritional density.
On the opposite side of the spectrum we're looking at whole and unprocessed plant foods:
Starches, root vegetables, whole grains, legumes i.e beans and lentils, soy protein, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds - all the plant foods as close to 'as grown in nature'.
My recommendation is to include a minimum of 80% whole plant foods in your vegan diet, allowing the remaining 20% to come in the form of less nutrient-dense and refined/processed foods - they may not be the healthiest foods, but we all need a little treat sometimes.
Of course, if you so desire it's perfectly fine to stick to 100% unprocessed plant foods. This is what I personally tend to lean towards as I feel fantastic when fueling myself with whole plant foods.
If you eat a diet consisting of nothing but lentils, oatmeal, and peanuts, you may indeed hit all of your macro goals - there's a good amount of high-quality vegan protein sources from lentils, complex carbs in the oatmeal and healthy fats from the peanuts.
The solution is to make sure you're eating an assortment of many different whole plant foods - this'll ensure that your body is getting the entire spectrum of nutrients, aka 'eating the rainbow.'
We can break down a plant-based diet into 4 major food groups, each contributing in a unique way towards your macro and nutrient goals (with some overlap):
You should ideally try to consume vegan foods from each and every one of these categories. And why not start with addressing the question that has haunted every vegan since the dawn of mankind:
Plants traditionally viewed as 'sources of carbohydrate' actually tend to have quite enough protein within them, which is terrific for a vegan bodybuilding diet.
For instance, veggies and whole grains are chock-full of protein, with 400g of broccoli having more than 10g of protein and a 100g serving of oatmeal containing over 17g of the stuff - not bad!
Nonetheless, the most protein-packed plant foods by far are legumes: lentils, beans, and peas, as well as more usual suspects like tofu, tempeh, and more.
Such food is absolutely bursting with vegan protein (lentils contain ~25% protein), and does wonders when building muscle!
Furthermore, they’re teeming with precious BCAA (branch-chained amino acids) which may significantly help build muscle and improve recovery (3). Vegan diet or not, we need amino acids so our bodies can create proteins.
Here’s a bunch of my personal favorite high-protein legumes which you should eat at large amounts whenever possible:
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If you're struggling to meet your protein requirements, you can supplement with vegan protein powders to make yourself a nice protein shake. If you vegan bodybuilding diet needs a leg up, a protein powder can be quite a convenient alternative source of high-quality vegan protein.
A good base for your carbohydrate intake is complex carbohydrates and starches such as whole grains and tubers e.g. rice, quinoa, potatoes.
These are such a great choice because they are high in starch and both soluble and insoluble fiber, which means they help with satiety and digest slowly without causing any blood sugar spikes.
Here's a list of healthy complex carbs that are awesome:
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Packed full of healthy protein, minerals, fiber, vitamin E and essential fatty acids, nuts and seeds are just absolute champions of the nutrient world.
If you’re unfortunate enough to have a nut allergy, then you’re missing out! Eating a lot of nuts is now correlated with a reduced risk of heart disease, all-cause mortality, and cancer (4).
Now it's important to be aware that these foods are also quite high in calories. You will find there are 9 calories per gram of fat compared to a gram of carbohydrate or protein having 4 calories.
That means that nuts and seeds are great for putting on body weight.
But on the contrary, they can be a detriment to weight loss too, as even an innocent large handful of nuts can contain hundreds of calories. One food I suggest everyone should include in their vegan diet is the almighty flax seed.
These are so nutrient-dense that it hurts: one tablespoon provides a vegan with 1.6 grams of omega-3, in addition to lignans which are known for their anti-cancer properties. Healthy vegan fats can come from many places, though, including the following (5):
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Read my full guide on fat sources on the vegan diet and everything you need to know.
Bulking on a vegan diet is pretty easy. With many calories to play with, getting in the right amount of protein is a breeze, and you don't have to carefully consider food choices.
Cutting, however, that's an entirely different dragon to slay (shoutout to Jordan!). During a weight loss phase where calories creep down lower and lower, you need to make sure that these few calories are used efficiently to hit your protein and micronutrient needs. We go more in-depth on this in our 7-Day Vegan Diet Plan For Weight Loss.
For this reason, when cutting, you often have to devote most of your calories to high-protein foods such as lentils, tofu, chia seeds, and vegan protein powders.
If you're looking to pack on a few pounds of solid muscle and increase your body weight, you might also like Organic Protein & Greens from Vega.
Also, it's certainly not a bad idea to throw in some huge salads with dark leafy greens to get your vitamin K, vitamin A, calcium and so on.
Pro Tip: Struggling to get enough calories into your vegan diet? You can supplement with vegan mass gainers.
Or if you are looking for more meal plans and ideas, check out this video by Brian Turner:
Turns out, it doesn’t matter how frequently you eat, whether it’s 1 meal a day or 7 - the difference is negligible. As a result, you should eat at a frequency that suits you and your habits.
Can’t get enough calories in when you’re bulking up?
Consider starting the day with a large breakfast and then eating 4 or 5 smaller meals throughout the day. Or, incorporate vegan mass gainers into your diet.
Can’t keep the calories down when you’re shredding?
Perhaps try out intermittent fasting - this is when you eat solely during a 6-8 hour window, leaving you with about 2 or 3 meals each day if you plan carefully.
Becoming the Gordon Ramsay of plant-based foods and vegan bodybuilding cuisine isn't something that happens overnight.
It takes a bit of time and practice to get the hang of it, but after a while, you should have built up your own repertoire of delicious, high-protein and macro-friendly go-to meals.
One piece of advice for beginners that are getting started is to “veganize” your previous omnivorous meals:
If you really want to avoid cooking, check out Fresh n' Lean where they deliver fresh, ready-to-eat organic meals straight to your door.
Here's another idea, come up with any iteration of the legume with a starchy carb and a vegetable combination. Just take any favorites from each vegan diet category and combine them into a meal:
Try this: Go to your fridge and cupboards and take stock of what ingredients are there. Then take those exact ingredients and put them in google or youtube together with 'vegan recipe.'
The search query might end up looking like 'Sweet potatoes and chickpea brown rice pepper vegan recipe' and then you pick the result that seems the most appetizing.
But, if you're in a rush, then check out Fresh n' Lean's meal plans, our #1 recommended plant-based meal delivery service.
There are also vegan apps that will ensure you stick to eating vegan meals even if you're outside your home, traveling, or doing your groceries.
What else can I do to help maximize my gains?
Our suggestion is to learn more about the essential vegan bodybuilding supplements, which will support your muscle mass gains, performance in the gym, and most importantly, your health.