The Ultimate Guide to Vegan Bodybuilding

A Practical Guide to Building Muscle & Shredding Fat on a Vegan Diet

A commonly held belief is that building muscle & looking and feeling great requires animal products, and lots of them. 

​This couldn't be further from the truth.

Putting on slabs of muscle and losing body fat on a plant-based diet is just as attainable as when eating animal products. 

When you apply the right principles of vegan nutrition that facilitates muscle growth and then train your ass off, you'll achieve the physique and level of fitness you desire.

It is definitely within the realm of possibilties. I've done it myself. 

vegan bodybuilding

Added something like 20 pounds to my frame, eating exclusively plants.

However I remember the initial pang of confusion of going plant-based.

What was I supposed to eat now and what should my macros look like? How many goddamn carbs should I fit into one day of eating? Is there a plant-based equivalent to lean chicken breast, brown rice and broccoli? Please? 

The internet provided helpful advice such as 'Gorillas are shredded and eat bananas and leaves, do that and become equally shredded'. Okay...

Hence why I decided to create this actionable comprehensive guide - so you won't have to do this the stumbling-around-trying-to-figure-things-out way like I did. 

Step 1 - Establish your fitness goal

fitness girl

The first step to take in order to become fit, lean and strong is to establish your primary fitness goal.

If you ask a random person at the gym what their current goal is they probably won't have an answer for you. Maybe some vague intentions of gaining a bit of muscle or losing a couple pounds with no particular set deadline.

This is part of the reason why many casual lifters you see at the gym don't look very good.

They're stuck in the vicious cycle of fuckaround-itis (shoutout to Martin Berkhan god of IF) and have no clue what they are doing or where they are heading.

If you want to gain vegan muscle and lose fat in the most efficient manner, you first need a clearly defined goal to align your training and nutrition with.

If you're already familiar with the concept of energy balance, cutting and bulking, you can skip ahead to the section Calculating your macros. 

Building muscle or losing fat

scale

Your body uses a certain amount of energy, or calories, per day. Eating at energy balance your weight stays the same.  

If you tip the scale to one side and eat more calories, a caloric surplus, you will gain weight.

If you tip the scale to the other side, a caloric deficit, you will lose weight.

In gym-speak, this is usually referred to as bulking or cutting. We define these phases as:

  • Bulking: a phase focused on building muscle where you eat above caloric needs. This promotes an optimal anabolic environment to allow for the fastest rate of muscle gain.
  • Cutting: a phase focused on fat loss where you eat below caloric needs. This will make the body tap into fat storages for energy which effectively causes you to lean down.

Building a lean and fit physique is most efficiently and reliably done by alternating between periods of bulking and cutting and not trying to chase both goals at the same time.  

The general idea is to vary between cycles of bulking (maximizing muscle gains while allowing some fat gain) and dieting (shedding of the fat without losing any of the muscle gain).

Rinse and repeat until you've got your dream body.

How do I know whether to cut or bulk?

The best method is to let your body fat percentage determine what you should do.

If you look at the chart below you should be able to roughly estimate your own body fat percentage. 

For men: Start by cutting down until you're at ~10%. From here you can begin bulking until you hit a bodyfat of approximately 15%.

At this point start over by cutting again. Rinse and repeat.

For women: Same thing basically but with different numbers.

Start by cutting down until you're at  ~19%. From here you can begin bulking until you hit a bodyfat of approximately 27%. Rinse and repeat.

body fat percentage chart

To contradict everything I've said already, the body is a complex system of chemical reactions and doesn't really like to be confined to man-made boxes.

Under some circumstances bulking and cutting aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. For example beginners, those who are overweight, or someone who was once fit but got detrained can actually gain muscle and lose weight at the same time.

This is called 'recomping' aka the unicorn of the fitness world. 

 Calculating your caloric intake

vegan pizza

Now you should know whether you should be bulking or cutting, great!

​Head over an online TDEE calculator (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) and estimate how many calories your body uses per day.

This will give an accurate enough number to work with, at least for a start

  • When bulking eat 5-10% more calories than your TDEE. Aim for a weight gain of about 1-2 kg, or 2-4 pounds, per month if you’re a man. Women shoot for half of those figures.
  • When cutting eat 20-25% less calories than your TDEE. Aim for a weight loss of about 2-4 kg, or 4-8 pounds, per month. 
  • Content with your current physique? Eat at maintanence. 

For example my calculated TDEE is 2800 kcal. For bulking I should thus eat around 3000 kcal and for cutting the number would be 2200 kcal.

Calorie intake is the most important factor determining weight gain or loss. Even if you eat nothing but coke and fries you will lose weight if you eat below your TDEE (don't do that).

So your TDEE number outlines how much energy we should put in our body. The second most important factor for body composition after energy is macros.

We need to balance our intake of the three macronutrients protein, fat and carbohydrate. 

Step 2 - Calculating your macros

Protein

legumes

Where do you get your protein - the question that has haunted plant-eaters since the dawn of time.

So let's see exactly where we get our protein from.

The proteins in our body and the proteins we ingest are made out of 21 different amino acids.

9 of these amino acids cannot be synthesized in the body and so we have to get them from our diet.

These are called the essential amino acids and are found in varying ratios in different foods.

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine + Cysteine
  • Phenylalanine + Tyrosine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

Animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs are all sources of what is called 'complete protein'. These proteins contain an ideal ratio of the essential amino acids for the body to utilize in repairing the body and building muscle. 

Many plant proteins on the other handcontrary to animal-derived protein, have a shortage of one or several of these essential amino acids.

The labeling of plant protein as 'incomplete' is false as the overwhelming majority of plants contain all of the 21 amino acids to some degree, both non-essential and essential.

*A particular sub-group of the esssential amino acids, the branched chains amino acids (BCAA) isoleucine, leucine and valine, are especially important in triggering and allowing muscle growth to occur. Leucine in particular plays an important role in triggering muscle protein synthesis to occur. I'll elaborate on this further later.

The myth of "incomplete protein"

To demonstrate the false notion of incomplete protein below is a figure which compares the amino acid present in rice protein and lentil protein.

amino acid breakdown of rice and lentil protein

What becomes abundantly clear at a first glance is that neither of these are incomplete as all of the essential amino acids are present.

The amino acid breakdown is quite similiar with the exception for the two amino acids lysine and methionine + cysteine. 

Rice lacks in lysine but has more of methionine + cysteine, and the opposite being true for lentils.

These two foods illustrate the basis of the outdated rule of protein combining. ​

This theory was based on the fact that some plant proteins lacked in specific essential amino acids, while others had plenty of them.

  • Legumes as a group, lentils, beans and peas etc, are abundant in lysine but not so much in methionine + cysteine. 
  • Cereals as a group, rice, wheat, oatmeal etc, on the other hand contains less lysine but more methionine + cysteine. 

This hypothesis predicted that if you say only had beans for lunch, the protein would be rendered useless due to the relative shortage of methionine and cysteine. Or something like that.

Since the 1950's new information has surfaced and this has been proven to be absolute theoretical nonsense.

Protein combining is completely pointless in the context of a days worth of eating with different sources of plant protein - there is no need micromanage your diet in this manner.

Here is a quote from The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada paper on vegetarian diets on the subject

"Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults, thus complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal."

This excerpt sums up the issue of protein on a vegan diet very well; it's not that bloody complicated as some would have you believe.

Just eat enough protein per day and you'll be just fine.

calculator

Not what a vegan diet entails. 

A factor that further diminishes any potential validity of protein combining is that there is constantly a buffer of amino acids floating around in our bloodstream, available to be used. This amino acid pool, about 120-130 grams in an adult male, consists of dietary protein and degraded protein from body tissue.

Any small shortage of a specific amino acid in a meal will be completed from this pool of circulating amino acids.

Digestibility of plant protein

Another factor to consider when determining the overall quality of a protein is digestibility. 

Basically how well you absorb and utilize a protein.

Eating 100 grams of protein and then pooping out 7 grams of protein yields a digestability of 93/100=93%. You don't need to be Einstein to comprehend this.

Generally speaking, the human body is better at digesting animal protein than plant protein (with some exceptions).

  • Eggs: 97-98%
  • Milk and cheese: 95%
  • Meat and fish: 94-100%
  • Beans: 78%
  • Lentils: 85%
  • Fababean: 86%
  • Oatmeal: 86%
  • Rice: 88%
  • Wheat: 86-93%
  • Refined wheat, flour: 96%
  • Soy protein isolate: 95-98%

As you can see the plant proteins generally gets the shorter end of the stick in terms of digestability. Exceptions are refined foods such as flours and protein powders. 

According to these numbers 100 g of milk protein ingested would yield 95 grams of protein absorbed and utilized by the body compared to 100 g of lentil protein which yield 85 g.

As a rule of thumb, animal protein is digested about 10% better than plant protein.

BCAA in plant protein

bcaa product

I briefly mentioned the fact that BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, were especially important for the purpose of building muscle. This group includes leucine, isoleucine and valine.

They account for 35% of of the essential amino acids in muscle protein and are in contrast to other amino acids primarily metabolized in muscle tissue. The BCAAs, and in particular leucine, are powerful triggers of protein synthesis and allows for it to occur at the highest possible rate.

Generally BCAA content is a bit lower in plant protein compared to animal protein (soy protein being the one with the greatest concentration).

So with that in mind it would make sense to supplement BCAA in order to maximize protein synthesis as a vegan, right?

Maybe, and maybe not.

In the article Nutritional interventions to augment resistance training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy the authors state that

"​we find shockingly little evidence for their efficacy in promoting MPS or lean mass gains and would advise the use of intact proteins as opposed to a purified combination of BCAA that appear to antagonize each other in terms of transport both into circulation and likely in to the muscle "

Another recent review on the current body of research regarding BCAAs and protein synthesis by Robert Wolfe arrived at the same conclusion.

"We conclude that the claim that consumption of dietary BCAAs stimulates muscle protein synthesis or produces an anabolic response in human subjects is unwarranted."

Below I've includede the amino acid breakdown of a standard vegan bodybuilding meal: 2 cups of black beans, 2 cups of brown rice and 2 cups of broccoli.

As evident there's quite a bit of protein with the three BCAAs are all present in large amounts. You'll find that legumes, as in beans, lentils and tofu etc, provides a good amount of these muscle-inducing amino acids.

In light of these recent reviews that fail to find any benefits of BCAA supplements, and assuming a high-protein vegan diet with the occasional protein shake, I see no plausible benefit to supplementing BCAA.

amino acid breakdown of vegan meal

Stats pulled from cronometer.

Guideline for protein requirements

To provide some perspective on the subject of protein requirement I’ll start off with very modest figures.

According to U.S. and Canadian dietary reference intakes

They also state that “in view of the lack of compelling evidence to the contrary, no additional dietary protein is suggested for healthy adults undertaking resistance or endurance exercise”

For a person weighing 70 kg or 154 lbs this equates to 56 grams of protein.

These for some shockingly low recommendations also take into account that a normal diet includes plenty of plant proteins with lower digestibility values.

chicken eating grains

‘But mah PROTEIN!!!!’

Yes, research does seem to indicate that for individuals engaged in physical activity a higher protein intake might be beneficial.

No, still not a valid reason to eat the guy in the picture above. He is adorable and is not to be killed for completely trivial reasons.

What the scientific literature suggests is that an optimal intake of protein for a physically active person will be in the range of 1,2-1,8 g protein per kg (source 1,2,3).

Closer to the 1,2 g mark for endurance athletes and closer to 1,8 g for someone involved in speed/power/strength activities that wants to maximise muscle hypertrophy and retaining muscle when cutting.

There is some evidence suggesting that in some scenarios, such as an elite bodybuilder getting ready for a show, bumping protein up to 1,8-2,0 g protein per kg might be beneficial for retaining muscle mass in a caloric deficit. 

However keep in mind that this does not apply to most people as most people are not elite bodybuilders. And by most I mean 99,9%. 

kai greene

You're not this guy. Eat a grapefruit instead of worrying about protein.

As previously mentioned, and worth saying again, these numbers are not based on perfect diets consisting out of 100% digestable protein with flawless amino acid profiles.

They are based on what a diet usually looks like. A bit of complete protein, a whole lot of ‘incomplete’ protein lacking some of the essential amino acids, some digestable and some not as digestable protein.

Which means that the slight advantage animal protein has in terms of digestibility likely does not warrant compensating with more plant protein. 

Awesome sources of vegan protein

Whole grains, starchy roots and vegetables all contain protein. At the end of a day's worth of vegan eating you'll be surprised how much protein you get from foods such as rice and broccoli, traditionally seen as carb sources. 

400 grams of broccoli is more than 10 grams of protein! All hail the broccoli!

broccoli

Our lord and saviour: King broccoli.

The true kings and queens of plant protein however are legumes. 

Lentils and beanstofu and tempeh etc. They are packed with protein, but furthermore as shown above they pack a powerful BCAA punch which is all-important important for muscle growth.

soy beans

Get these in you. 

While the animal products are most often used as examples of complete protein, there are a couple few complete plant proteins. 

Soybeans, and everything soy-derived such as soy milk, tofu, tempeh etc, have an amino acid profile that is very close to optimal.

The pseudo-grain quinoa also boasts an impressive amino acid profile.

Then there is also the option of vegan protein powder, rice, pea, hemp etc.

Below is a list of some of my favorite (I firmly believe they should be everyone's favourite) sources of plant protein. Feel free to eat all of these in copious quanitites.

  • Red lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Black beans
  • leaf
    Tofu
  • leaf
    Tempeh
  • leaf
    Vegan protein powder
  • leaf
    Oatmeal
  • leaf
    Quinoa
  • leaf
    King broccoli

Fats

walnuts

There might not be a one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to dietary fat on a plant-based diet.

Let's first establish that not all fat is created equal. 

Fatty acids differ from each other in structure, coming in the form of either saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Or transfat which you definitely want to avoid.

Some of these fatty acids are crucial to our survival and health. You have to get in at least the required amount of essential fatty acids every day, and in most cases a bit more if you're not looking for a diet deprived of all pleasure. 

Essential fatty acids requirements

Basically there are only two polyunsaturated fatty acids that are truly essential. All of the other fatty acids needed the body can create from any excess energy or any other fatty acid.

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a short-chain omega-3 fatty acid.

Alpha-linolenic acid

Linoleic acid (LA), a short-chain omega-6 fatty acid.

Linoleic acid

The Food and Nutrition Board of the U.S. Institute of Medicine has established adequate intakes for omega-6 and omega-3.

  • Adequate daily intake of omega-3 (ALA) is 1.6 g for men and 1.1 g for women.
  • Adequate daily intake of omega-6 (LA) is 17 g for men and 12 g for women.

Recommendations from other government and nutritional panels differ quite a bit though. Especially the numbers for omega-6 intake.

The European Scientific Committee on Food established a population reference intake (PRI) for EFA based on total daily energy intake. The PRI for omega-6 and omega-3 is set at 2% of dietary energy and 0,5%, respectively.

  • Assuming an average intake for active men to be 3000 kcal, this would equate to 1.5 g of ALA and 6.5 g LA.
  • Assuming an average intake for active women to be 2000 kcal, this would equate to 1 g of ala and 5 g LA. 

With these recommendations we are in the ballpark of about 2 g omega-3 and 10 g omega-6 per day. Probably quite a bit lower than what you are used to.

12 g of fat per day will result in a rather lack-luster diet and is most likely not be enough for most people. These numbers should be viewed as the absolute minimal amount needed per day and not as recommended intakes.

However this does explain why some of the more extreme low-fat plant-based approaches such as raw fruitarian or all potato diet could work.

Guideline for fat requirements

Make sure to get at least the minimum required amount of fat in per day.

  • ~1.6 g omega-3 (ALA) & 6.5-17 g omega-6 (LA) for men. 
  • ~1.1 g omega-3 (ALA) & 5-12 g omega-6 (LA) for women.  

Most normal human beings don't think in terms of individual fatty acids.

So for a more practical number shoot for around ~0.6 grams of fat per kg, or ~0.3 g fat per pound.

This will cover EFA needs assuming a good whole food plant-based diet with plenty of legumes, grains, fruit and vegetables and some nuts and seeds thrown in. Basically making sure there are multiple good sources of plant-based fat in your diet

Not mandatory by any means but highly, highly recommended is to also include one tablespoon or more of flax seeds per day. This is a very convenient way of making sure you get enough of the precious omega-3s per day as one tablespoon provides 1.6 g of ALA.

flax seeds

Flax seeds go well together with oatmeal.

Another alternative is to supplement with some algae-based omega-3. This will provide longer chain omega-3s in the form of EPA and DHA which might offer some additional health benefits that ALA does not.

Awesome sources of vegan fat

nuts and seeds

For dietary sources of fat your best bet is nuts and seeds.

However what many don't realize is that whole grains, legumes and fruits and vegetables actually contribute with essential fatty acids. 

As an example 100 grams of black beans provides 278 mg omega-3 (ALA) and 100 grams of spinach 92 mg. 200 grams of oatmeal provides a whopping 5,4 grams of omega-6 (LA).

For more concentrated sources of plant fat you will want to include nuts and seeds in your diet such as

  • Cashew nuts
  • Almonds
  • Peanuts
  • leaf
    Avocado
  • leaf
    Chickpeas
  • leaf
    Macadamia nuts
  • leaf
    Flax seeds
  • leaf
    Chia seeds
  • leaf
    Walnuts
  • leaf
    Algae based omega-3 supplement 

Omega-6 concerns

While it is highly unlikely you will suffer any consequences from overeating nuts and seeds, except for gaining some unwanted weight, you may want to keep an eye on your omega-6 intake.

Omega-6 in the form of linoleic acid is very abundant in plant foods, especially oils, too the point where it can become harmful. 

For the purposes of disease prevention, reducing inflammation and in general having good health it is desirable to keep the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio low, close to 4/1 or 3/1.

Refined oil is notoriously high in omega-6 + calories and terribly low in nutrients hence why I recommend total exclusion of that particular "food".

Carbohydrate

sweet potato

Get rid of any fears you have for carbs and start embracing starchy foods and fruits.

They are not your enemy, or anyone elses, and no they won't make you fat.

Carbohydrate is the macronutrient that fuels your brain and body and provides you with the energy needed to perform in the gym.

To quote the great bodybuilder and philosopher Arnold Schwarzenegger

"I am like getting the feeling of cumming in the gym; I’m getting the feeling of cumming at home; I’m getting the feeling of cumming backstage; when I pump up, when I pose out in front of 5000 people I get the same feeling, so I am cumming day and night."

Sorry if you thought that quote would bring something more ehm insightful. But it is important to keep in mind that carbs gives you a pump. And pump is like cumming!

Guideline for carbohydrate intake

After having filled up on enough protein and fat for the day, you add carbohydrate until your caloric goal for the day is met. 

Depending on your total daily caloric intake, and especially if you adopt a low-fat diet, you may end up with a rather substantial amount of carbs in your diet.

In a bulking phase eating upwards of 4000 kcal could produce a carbohydrate count of around 800 grams.

800 g of carbs?! Surely that’ll make me fat as hell.

arnold schwarzenegger-

Arnold distraught by your lack of dietary carbohydrates.

Does carbs lead to fat gain?

This part might be slightly tangential but should be a good read for any carbo-phobe. 

Tl;dr carbs in 99.9% of cases do not contribute to fat gain in any significant amount.

The process where dietary carbohydrate is converted into and deposited as fat is called de novo lipogenesis. Because this metabolic pathway is very energy demanding, it doesn’t really happen at all in any scenario where excess dietary fat can be stored as body fat instead.

In the case of an excess of calories coming from carbs, the body can take care of them by storing up to 500 g carbs as muscle glycogen i.e our fuel storage.

When glycogen energy stores are filled to the brim, the carbs will then lead to an increased rate of carbohydrate oxidation as well as total calorie expenditure.

At this stage carbohydrates not oxidized or expended will finally be converted to body fat in the de novo lipogenesis process. And as an absolute last resort this isn’t a terribly efficient pathway (150 g lipid using approximately 475 g carbohydreate).

Overeating fats on the other hand, contrary to carbs has minimal impact on fat oxidation and calorie expenditure.

All of these factors contributes to excess calories from carbs not being stored as body fat as efficiently as excess calories from fat. The study linked above comparing overfeeding of carbs versus fats came to this exact conclusion.

“Excess dietary fat leads to greater fat accumulation than does excess dietary carbohydrate”

tomato

Wait so the global obesity epidemic isn't caused by tomatoes?

Another study specifically looked at the effect of carbohydrate/fat ratio on body composition and muscle mass gain. Basically all the stuff bodybuilders care about.

One group ate a carbohydrate/fat ratio of 4.0 and the other a carbohydrate/fat ratio of 8.0. Both groups fed a high-protein diet at 1.5 g protein/kg.

Results were that the group with higher carbs and lower fat gained more muscle and less fat in a pretty aggressive surplus.

Does this mean we should eat 0 grams of fat and 1 kg of carbs? No.

But it means that any fear of carbs leading to fat gain (FOCLTFG) is completely unfounded.

Awesome sources of vegan carbohydrate

man eating pumpkin

Wild vegan bodybuilder in a bulking phase spotted in a pumpkin field.

What's kind of neat is that many of the awesome high-protein plant foods such as legumes and grains are also high in complex carbs. Essentially killing two birds with one stone (that came out a bit more morbid than what I anticipated, sorry)

Ideally shift your focus away from "foods" such as refined table sugar, cakes and cookies. These are the foods that have tainted the holy name of carbs.

Base your carb intake around predominantly complex and fibrous carbs from whole foods. Here is a list of awesome carb sources that you can indulge in. 

Refined higher-calorie foods such as breads and pasta are usually fine in moderate amounts for most people. If you struggle with overweight you might want to limit those as well.

  • Sweet poatoes and yams
  • Oatmeal
  • Legumes such as bean and lentils
  • leaf
    Brown rice
  • leaf
    Quinoa
  • leaf
    Whole wheat pasta.
  • leaf
    Oatmeal
  • leaf
    Quinoa
  • leaf
    Every conceivable fruit and vegetable

In conclusion: guidelines aimed at optimal vegan bodybuilding

Based on what we have thus far established about the three macronutrients, guidelines for a vegan bodybuilding diet can be summarized into the following 4 paragraphs.

  • Protein: Aim for between 1.2-1.8 g protein per kg, or 0.54-0.82 g protein per lbs, leaning towards the higher end of the spectrum for muscle building and retaining muscle when cutting.
  • Fats: Men should get at least 1.6 g omega-3 (ALA) and between 6.5-17 g omega-6 (LA). Women should get at least 1.1 g omega-3 (ALA) and 5-12 g omega-6 (LA). This can be achieved with around ~0.6 grams of fat per kg, or ~0.3 g fat per pound. 
  • Carbohydrate: When protein and fats needs are met, fill the rest of your calories out with mostly complex carbohydrates. 
  • Eat a good whole food plant-based diet with an assortment of plant foods to get the full spectrum of nutrients required.

If you are new to the plant-based muscle journey a guideline such as "Eat a good whole food plant-based diet with an assortment of plant foodsmight be a bit too vague to be useful.

What are you actually supposed to eat to hit your macros?

Step 3: Create a vegan bodybuilding meal plan

vegan food

By now you should know 1. how many calories you should eat and how to 2. balance your macros.

To do this and become both healthy, strong and fit we have to the eat the right kind of plant foods that will nourish our bodies.

Which might be easier said than done if you are not acquainted with a whole food plant-based diet. 

So let's find out what a vegan bodybuilding diet ought to look like, or more specifically a whole food plant-based diet.

For more information on a WFPB diet read the article How to Set Up an Optimal Plant-Based Diet.

Balancing macros, nutrients and diet

Focusing solely on and simplifying an entire diet into the macronutrients protein, fats and carbs can be potentially detrimental to health, muscle growth and performance. 

Foods are so much more than these three things.

Equally as important is fiber, phytonutrients, antioxidants, phenols, carotenoids, vitamins, minerals, beneficial plant compounds such as sulphorophane, anthocyanins and the list goes on.

Furthermore within the groups carbs, fat and protein there is a tremendous amount of variation. "Carbs" range from simple sugars to fiber, poptars to sweet potatoes. Fats range from harmful saturated fats to essential omega-3's.

Introducing the concept of nutrient density

Simply put nutrient density in a food is the ratio of nutrients per calorie. By nutrients I mean life-sustaining things such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, amino acids, various phytochemicals etc.

The standard American diet has a total nutritional density close to zero. Highly processed and refined foods such as ice cream, candy, cakes, cookies, pizza, burgers, junk food provides tons of energy but minor amounts of nutrients. 

On the opposite side of the spectrum, whole plant foods such as starches, root vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruits & vegetables, nuts & seeds will result in a wildly different nutritional profile.

These foods provide not only the energy needed to live an active lifestyle - but also the nutrients needed to support muscle growth, recovery, fat loss and overall health.

Now some people that go plant-based make the mistake of switching out all foods for salads, exclusively. Cause that's what vegans eat, right?

The problem with this approach is that while you get tons of nutrients, you have no substantial source of energy in the form of complex carbohydrates or fats. 

Make sure your diet revolves around an assortment of unprocessed whole plant foods, including both salads and starches, and you'll hit the sweet spot between energy and nutrient needs.

What do I eat then?

In the previous sections discussing the three different macronutrients I gave some examples of good whole plant foods to base your diet around. You can go back and look at those lists for inspiration.

Another way of categorizing plant foods is into the following 4 broad groups.

Starches

  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Bulgur
  • leaf
    Oatmeal
  • leaf
    White potatoes
  • leaf
    Sweet potatoes and yams
  • leaf
    Whole wheat pasta
  • leaf
    Etc.

Legumes

  • Red, green, brown lentils
  • Kidney beans
  • Navy beans
  • leaf
    Black beans
  • leaf
    Edamame
  • leaf
    Tofu
  • leaf
    Tempeh
  • leaf
    Etc.

Fruits & vegatables

  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Bell peppers of all colors
  • leaf
    Kale, spinach and dark leafy greens
  • leaf
    Apples
  • leaf
    Bananas
  • leaf
    Pineapple
  • leaf
    Blueberries
  • leaf
    Etc.

Nuts & seeds

  • Cashew nuts
  • leaf
    Almonds
  • Peanuts
  • Avocado
  • leaf
    Chickpeas
  • leaf
    Macadamia nuts
  • leaf
    Flax seeds
  • leaf
    Chia seeds
  • leaf
    Walnuts
  • leaf
    Etc.
sweet potato
legumes

Starches and legumes are calorie and nutrient-dense foods that will provide the bulk of your energy needs along with fiber, minerals and vitamins etc.

As previously mentioned legumes, beans and lentils, are especially high in protein so make sure to devour plenty of these.

fruits

Fruits & vegetables are delicious and provide fiber as well as many micronutrients that are essential to our being: minerals such as magnesium and iron, vitamins such as vitamin A and D along with beneficial phytochemicals.

Vegetables are as a rule of thumbs very low in calories and are perfect for adding lots of food volume with a negligible amount of calories. If you want to lose weight, make sure to fill up your plate with veggies.

On the other hand if you're having a hard time gaining weight, you could instead cut back just a bit on the vegetables and favor the starches or nuts and seeds instead.

nuts and seeds

Nuts & seeds provide valuable nutrients and the essential fats we require. These are extremely calorie dense and are great for adding easy calories when bulking. 

Flax seeds are especially great as they contribute with heaps of omega-3 as well as a special compound called lignan which has been proposed to have anti-cancer properties.

Struggling with putting on weight? Check out 10 Tips for Bulking Up As a Vegan.

The plant-based plate model

vegan plate model

I swear I totally did not create this in Paint.

A good whole food plant-based diet should include all of the aforementioned food groups.

To ensure adequate energy intake it is advisable to make some sort of starch and/or legume the center piece(s) of meals. 

For a generic vegan plate model I would go with 1/3 each of starches, legumes and vegetables as depicted above with a side of fruit and some nuts and seeds.

Also keep in mind that the plate model is exactly that, a model. It doesn't take into account individual needs or preferences and should be viewed as a guideline, or even advice.

There are many ways of structuring your specific plant-based diet so feel free to tweak to your heart's content. Does you digestion not tolerate fruit? Swap it our for starches. Does grains make you feel bloated? Eat more fruit and legumes. 

So piecing the plant muscle puzzle (?) together, below is a sample day of plant-based eating for someone weighing about 77 kg or 170 lbs. 

This is what a day's worth of eating usually looks for me in order to meet my calories, macros and nutrient requirements while bulking. 

Sample bodybuilding bulking meal plan

Breakfast

Oatmeal - 120 g

Banana - 120 g

Frozen mixed berries - 200 g

Milled flax seeds -  4 tbsp

820 kcal: 23.8 g protein, 20.0 g fat, 143.3 g carbs

Lunch

Sweet potato -  400 g

1 can chickpeas - 230 g

Red cabbage - 200 g

1 small onion

1 carrot

2 tbsp tahini

949.7 kcal: 32.0 g protein, 21.5 g fat, 167.3 g carbs

Dinner

Red lentils (uncooked weight) - 200 g

Spinach - 150 g

Mixed frozen veggies - 500 g

874.4 kcal: 63 g protein, 6.0 g fat, 155.9 g carbs

Snack

2 kiwi fruits

Walnuts - handful, roughly 28 grams 

248.3 kcal: 7.6 g protein, 14.9 g fat, 26.3 g carbs

Total of 2893 kcal with 126.4 g protein, 62.4 g fats and 492.8 g carbs.

Or 14 % protein, 18% fat and 68 % carbs.

Below are the stats on micronutrients for these foods pulled from cron-o-meter.

carbs and fats
minerals
vitamins

This is what a day of malnourished vegan eating looks like - all of the RDIs are being completely blown out of the water.

Vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin E are all present in ample amounts.

The only two exceptions being vitamin B12 and vitamin D since I didn't include any fortified products. This is completely normal and I will mention how to remedy this later in the part discussing supplements. 

Protein at 126,4 grams is at the higher end of 1.2-1.8 grams of protein per kilo bodyweight for me, where is right where it should be for optimal muscle growth.

Complex carbs and fiber are nice and high so I have the energy needed to kill workouts and the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio is close to 1:2 which is pretty ideal in terms of health.

Getting started creating plant-based meals

tofu scramble with sweet potato

One of my favorite breakfasts, tofu scramble. 

Creating tasty and nourishing vegan meals isn't a skill that develops over night. As with any drastic diet change it takes a bit of practice to learn a couple of go-to meals. 

With time you will build up a repertoire of delicious, high-protein, macro-friendly meals. 

Some advice for beginners to get started is to try and veganize your previous favorite meals.

Swap out the ground beef in spaghetti bolognese with red lentils.

Make your chili con carne a chili sin carne, putting emphasis on the beans instead.

Lentil meatballs, burgers, falafels etc.

Or come up with any iteration of the legume/starch/vegetable combo.

Tofu with brown rice and veggies.

Black beans with sweet potato and broccoli.

Chickpea salad with quinoa and red cabbage.

Vegan protein powder with oatmeal and berries. 

And so on and so forth. 

When I'm lacking inspiration google and youtube usually succeeds in conjuring up some tasty plant-based recipes.

If you need more help in this regard check out the article "How to Cook Simple & Nutritious Vegan Meals to Fuel Your Body" or receive your free copy of our vegan recipe e-book.

Step 4 - Enhance your diet with supplements

vitamins and supplements

A whole food plant-based diet will provide the overwhelming majority of nutrients your body demands

For this reason it makes most sense to devote your energy towards eating whole plant foods, and not nibbling at pills and snorting pre-workout powders. 

Having said that, there are circumstances where supplements can be used to fill in any nutritional gaps and give a slight edge when it comes to performance and muscle gain. 

With the appropriate vegan supplements you can reap further health benefits, add more muscle mass and increase performance in the gym.

For general health

First of all, it is vitally important to take a B12 supplement.

There are no reliable natural sources of B12 on a strict plant-based diet and it must be 'artificially' supplied in some manner. Either in the form of fortified foods or as a sublingual or oral supplement.

Seriously just get your B12.

Besides B12 there are a couple more dietary supplements I would recommend taking to encourage optimal health.

For building muscle and enhancing performance

coffee

There are some supplements that can aid muscle mass gain and augment performance in the gym.

A bare-bones supplement stack would be creatine, protein powder and caffeine.  

Creatine 

is one of few supplements that is scientifically proven to work.

For a brief summary of this gym supplement staple, it is a molecule produced in the body that acts as energy storage for the cells. When you take creatine you essentially fill up these storages which then helps aid cellular function during lifting.

This effect translates into greater lean body mass gain, increased aerobic working capacity as well as increased muscle performance in short-duration, high-intensity resistance exercises.

Creatine is found naturally in animal foods such as meat, eggs, and fish. Hence it makes even more sense for vegans to supplement with creatine as we will enjoy even greater benefits i.e increase power output and lean mass.

Vegan protein powder 

is not really a supplement as much as it is a food in powder form.

The protein found in whole foods and a powder isn't any different, it is just an extremely convenient way of making sure you get enough protein per day.

You can choose between a number of different types of protein sources. Pea protein, rice protein, hemp protein, soy protein etc.

For the vegan athlete a pea protein is a good choice as it's often cheap and contains plenty of BCAA.

For a more in-depth look at vegan protein powder check out this article.

Caffeine

is a central nervous system stimulant and is the world's most widely consumed physoactive drug in the form of coffee.

A cup of black coffee is a great natural pre-workout so that you have energy to throw barbells around.

Furthermore caffeine can also increase strength and performance and has a thermogenic effect that increases metabolism slightly.

For further information, check out the comprehensive hub on vegan supplements.

Step 5 - Implement an effective exercise program

man front squatting

We have barely touched upon the topic of training up until this point.

This is because before anything else you want to get your vegan diet and nutrition on point before you start hitting the gym. 

With an inadequate diet, i.e not enough protein or calories or nutrients, you might only get 50% of the results you would otherwise. This would be an incredible waste of time and squandered plant-gains. 

When it comes to working out my recommendation is to keep it simple and not try and reinvent the wheel. The wheel has already been invented a thousand times when it comes to working out. 

The majority of people simply have no idea/the wrong ideas on how to properly structure their training and balance factors such as volume, intensity, frequency, rest etc.

It's likely that you're not an unique snowflake in this regard and you'll probably benefit from outsourcing your workout routine to someone more knowledgeable. 

Another major misconception regarding training is that the more advanced and complex a training regime, the better results it will produce. 

In reality it is often the exact opposite, if you devote most of your energy on the basics you will often get the best results.

Find a balanced program made by somebody who knows what they’re doing.

Here are a couple good training routines that aren't stupid. 

Step 6 - Track your progress and stay consistent

Let's recap.

We've thus far established our fitness goal, macros for a plant-based diet, appropriate supplementation as well as a sound training routine.

All in all great foundation for your plant-based bodybuilding goals. 

Tracking progress

Now in order to reach your goal it becomes crucial to also keep track of your progression.

This includes

  • Weighing yourself every morning
  • Keeping a workout log
  • Tracking your macros

It might seem like a hassle to do all of those things every day, but without this information you will simply have no idea if what you are currently doing is working or not. 

For example if you're in a bulking phase but not gaining those 2 lbs per month or making any progress at the gym, add another 150 kcal per day.

Continue tracking your scale every day and progress in the gym and see if this fixed the issue. 

Still not putting on weight after ~7 days? Make further adjustments and add another 150 kcal per day and see what happens.

You get the deal.

I should mention that whilst tracking all these variables might seem daunting - you'll find that after a while these things become like second nature and doesn't feel like inconveniences anymore. 

Vegan strongman Patrik Baboumian breaks a world record by carrying 555 kilos 10 metres on the West Jet stage at the Harbourfront Centre

Vegan strongman Patrik Baboumian carrying 555 kilos on his back and setting world records. What a legend.

Closing words

Honestly this is not really rocket science, eat good whole plant foods and train hard and it is inevitable that you'll both look and feel better. 

Not to overlook is that while there is some hard work involved, this is supposed to be fun as well. Eat some delicious vegan food, drink good coffee (or if you don't like coffee have some beet juice or something) and bust your ass in the gym.

Don't get discouraged if you do not see immediate results. That is not really how this works, sorry. 

Combining all of the previous steps with consistency and hard work is how vegan gains are made.

When your plant-based diet and training is on point you have to simply trust the process and let time work its magic.

Think of it as depositing a small amount of money into a savings account every single day. One day is not going to make you rich or matter in the grand scheme of things. 

However 500 consecutive small deposits, and also taking into account the 5% return, will add up and create a snowball effect. Suddenly what seemed impossible at first has happened, and your body has transformed into something that you can take pride in. 

If you diligently follow the steps as laid out here you will see the results you're looking for.

I hope this article was helpful and that you're better equipped to build your body in a cruelty-free manner. Feel free to share this guide with someone that needs it!

Alex
 

Hey there! I’m Alex and I’m obsessed with a vegan diet, strength training and bodybuilding, as well as health and nutrition. When I’m not writing articles on here I am either in the gym, playing electric guitar or cooking vegan food!

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