The cliche bodybuilding images of steak for breakfast and huge tubs of whey protein are not encouraging to a vegan with big body goals. And neither is constantly being told your vegan diet won’t give you enough protein to build muscle.
Don’t let the cliches and falsehoods put you off.
It is definitely possible to bulk up and add muscle mass on a vegan diet. With some small changes and big effort, your regular vegan diet can become your bodybuilding vegan diet.
Here’s how to stay a vegan and become a bodybuilder at the same time:
Remember: The principles of healthy eating stay the same.
Any healthy diet is about balance - whether you’re meaty, veggie, or vegan. It’s not enough to eat the right foods and the right amount of calories, the ratio in which you consume them is equally vital.
Adapting your vegan diet for a bodybuilding regime doesn’t change this.
What does change is that you focus on the foods that are great for building muscle, and you eat a lot more than you would on your regular vegan diet.
Let’s look at what a vegan bodybuilder should eat and why.
Macros: Adjust your regular ratio for more protein
Carbs, proteins, and fats: these are the three macronutrients, or macros for short. The quantity of each that you consume, and the percentage of your overall diet that each one accounts for, is what determines whether your diet is optimal for your goals or not.
On a general vegan diet, as a rule of thumb, the advice is to keep your daily protein intake to around 0.8g per kg body weight for a sedentary adult. and around 1.1-1.6 for those exercising.
But on a vegan bodybuilding diet, you need to get more muscle-building protein into your system. So when you’re training, it's good to aim for more grams of protein per kg body weight, or more simply put, more calories from protein.
See table below for more information into what you should be aiming for:
|Type of Individual||Grams of protein per lb body weight per day||Grams of protein per kg body weight per day|
|Recreational excerciser, adult||0.5 - 0.7||1.1 - 1.6|
|Endurance athlete, adult||0.6 - 0.7||1.3 - 1.6|
|Growing teenage athlete||0.7 - 0.9||1.6 - 2.0|
|Athlete restricting calories||0.7 - 0.8||1.6 - 1.8|
|Athlete severly restricting calories to make weight||1.0 - 1.4||2.1 - 3.0|
Protein Requirements VS. Amount Consumed
|Estimated upper requirement for adults||0.9||2.0|
|Average protein intake for male endurance athletes||0.5 - 0.9||1.1 - 2.0|
|Average protein intake for female endurance athletes||0.5 - 0.8||1.1 - 1.8|
ACSM 2016; Helms, E. 2014; and Institute of Medicine Food and Nutrition Board, 2002
Best Protein Sources for a Vegan Bodybuilding Diet
Protein is an important part of everybody’s diet. It plays a crucial role in many fundamental processes, including keeping your red blood cells healthy. It’s even more vital to a vegan bodybuilder’s diet. That’s because protein is key to building and maintaining muscle mass.
Fortunately, there are lots of vegan dietary elements rich in protein:
- Nuts and nut butters - including peanut, almond, and hazelnut
- Seeds - such as sesame, sunflower, chia, and flax
- Grains - like brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, and bulgur wheat
- Beans - dried or otherwise, such as kidney, black, and soya
- Other pulses - such as chickpeas, green peas, and lentils
- Tofu or soya bean curd - condensed and solidified soya milk
- Tempeh - made from fermented soya beans and shaped into a block
- Seitan - a wheat derivative made of gluten
Best Carbohydrate Sources for a Vegan Bodybuilding Diet
Carbohydrates can be a controversial topic in the nutrition world. But if you’re working out and bodybuilding, you simply must have a good balance of carbohydrates in your diet.
Carbohydrates get broken down by your body into glucose. That glucose provides the fuel and energy your body needs. You’ll need plenty of that energy to complete the training needed to really bulk up.
Guidelines for Daily Carbohydrate Intake:
|Amount of Excercise||Grams of carbohydrate per lb body weight per day||Grams of carbohydrate per kg body weight per day||Grams of carbohydrate per day for 120 lb athlete||Grams of carbohydrate per meal||Grams of carbohydrate per day for 150 lb athlete||Grams of carbohydrate per meal|
|Light excercise (<1 h/day)||1.5 - 2.5||3 - 5||180 - 300||45 - 75||225 - 375||55 - 95|
|Moderate excercise (1h/day)||2.5 - 3.0||5 - 7||300 - 360||75 - 90||375 - 450||95 - 110|
|Endurance excercise (1-3h/day)||2.5 - 4.5||6 - 10||360 - 540||90 - 135||450 - 675||110 - 170|
|Extreme excercise (>4-5h/day)||3.5 - 5.5||8 - 12||420 - 660||105 - 165||525 - 825||130 - 205|
ACSM, AND, and DC Joint Position Statement: Nutrition and Athletic Performance, 2016.
The following are great sources of carbohydrates to incorporate into your diet:
- Whole wheat bread
- Whole wheat pasta
- Black beans
- Sweet potatoes and yams
- White potatoes
- Brown rice
Best Fat Souces for a Vegan Bodybuilding Diet
Fat is a more concentrated source of energy than either protein or carbohydrate. It packs in far more calories per gram. That makes it a godsend for any bodybuilder. When you’re looking to bulk up, you need a surplus of calories to add muscle mass. Fat delivers that surplus without the need to eat a far greater volume of food.
Vitamins A, D, E and K are vital in small amounts for a healthy lifestyle. That quartet are known as fat-soluble vitamins. They do not dissolve in water. They provide the most benefit when consumed via and with higher-fat foods, as it’s then that they’re better absorbed. That’s another reason why fat is an important part of a vegan bodybuilding diet.
What’s great news for any vegan bodybuilder is that lots of nuts and seeds are rich in healthy Omega-5 fats.
The following are some of your best options:
- Macadamia nuts
- Chia seeds
- Cashew nuts
- Brazil nuts
- Flax seeds
Nuts and seeds like those listed above are also a good source of Omega-3 fats. Those fats are proven to have a whole host of health benefits. They aid a healthy heart, improve circulation, and lower blood pressure.
Certain Omega-3 fats also help reduce inflammation, which can cause swelling and pain in the joints. That makes them vital for bodybuilders looking to return to training after an injury layoff. A vegan bodybuilding diet can be rich in Omega-3 if balanced correctly. You can also supplement your intake of healthy fats with plant-based supplements.
Micros: Prioritise the Nutrients that Build Muscle
More commonly-known as vitamins and minerals, micronutrients are vital for good health. We don’t need huge amounts of these in our diet but when we don’t get enough, we’re more likely to become ill or suffer from diseases such as rickets and osteoporosis.
If your regular vegan diet is full of fresh fruit and vegetables, it should contain plenty of the essential micronutrients you need for all-round good health.
When you switch to a vegan bodybuilding diet, certain micros become even more important because they aid the muscle-building process. Here are the micros you’ll want to pay close attention to when you’re bulking up.
Iron plays a crucial role in getting oxygen from your lungs to your muscles, which makes it an important nutrient when you’re trying to bulk up.
Vegan Sources Of Iron:
- Lentils - a rich source of both protein and iron
- Spinach - there’s a very good reason for Popeye’s spinach obsession
- Kale - cooked kale in particular is a good iron source
- Dried apricots - a great source of iron, just watch out for the sugar content
- Seeds - such as pumpkin and sesame seeds
- Nuts - such as cashews and almonds
The amount of iron you absorb from your food can be influenced by your levels of vitamin C. And with iron being important for building muscle, you’ll want to keep your vitamin C levels up when you switch to a vegan bodybuilding diet.
Vegan Sources Of Vitamin C:
- Oranges and orange juice
- Red and green peppers
- Brussel sprouts
A lack of calcium in your diet can have negative effects on your metabolism and muscle contraction, and it can trigger the hormone that makes you store fat. Calcium-rich foods are an important part of any bodybuilder’s diet.
Calcium-rich Foods for a Vegan Bodybuilding Diet:
- Pak choi
- Sesame seeds
So, those are the nutrients and specific foods to focus on if you want to adapt a vegan bodybuilding diet in order to gain muscle and burn fat.
Now let’s look at how much you need to eat and when.
What to Eat When You’re Training - And When to Eat It
On average, men should consume around 2,500 calories a day and women, 2,000 calories a day. But in order to gain muscle mass, it is recommended that you eat between 250 and 1,000 calories more on training days.
The exact amount you need to consume will vary depending on your bodyweight and how intensively you train. A good rule of thumb is to take in between 15 and 20 calories per pound of bodyweight. If you’re really hitting the weights, aim for the top end of the calorie intake scale. If you’re not pumping iron as much as you’d like, aim for the lower end.
With vegan diets being naturally lower in calories, you’ll need to eat significantly more food than you’re used to if you want to add muscle. But that doesn’t mean you should eat huge, heavy meals. In fact, we’ve got some delicious vegan bodybuilding recipe ideas here.
The best way to take in enough food as fuel is to eat lots of small, frequent meals throughout the day.
Eating little but often through the day ensures a more regular flow of nutrients into your body. You’re basically keeping your body continually topped up with the vital protein, fats, carbs and other dietary elements we discussed earlier.
Small but frequent meals also deliver a range of knock-on benefits. A constant influx of nutrients helps maintain a positive nitrogen balance. That helps speed up your metabolism and increase your body’s fat-burning capabilities. Both of those things are critical to building muscle mass and bulking up.
Rather than having a main breakfast, lunch and dinner, switch to eating six meals per day. Depending on your daily routine, spread the meals as evenly as you can. For most people, that will mean eating every two to three hours from early morning until around nine or ten o’clock at night.
Eat the Right Nutrients at the Right Time of Day
It’s a good idea to alter the exact nutrients you take in according to the time of day. You need to consume protein throughout to ensure you keep adding muscle mass. In the daytime, however, you should concentrate more on carbohydrates to accompany the protein. Later in the day, you should then focus on consuming more healthy fats.
Low-glycemic carbs during the day give you the energy needed to workout at the peak of your ability. Healthy fats later in the day help to slow digestion. That extends the drip-feed of protein to your body overnight. It also has the added benefit of ensuring you stay feeling full, and aren’t tempted to snack later into the night.
Limit Your Snacks Between Meals
Speaking of snacking, eating outside of your six main meal times isn’t ideal. Given how closely spaced those meal times are, it’s not likely you’ll be too tempted to add extra snacks. If you do feel a craving for something, though, don’t be too hard on yourself.
You can enjoy a sneaky snack from time to time, but the key is moderation. You should try to avoid eating outside of your main meal plan as much as you can. When you do add an extra snack, keep it as healthy as possible and don’t go over the top with the volume. Eat a small amount.
Stay Hydrated: Make Sure You're Watered as Well as Fed
Hydration is also of paramount importance. Aside from protein shakes, which are key to any vegan bodybuilder’s diet, you’re best beverage options are water or green tea. Both provide the hydration you need and the latter has the added benefit of giving a natural energy boost.
It’s recommended that you drink at least 2 litres of fluid per day. You don’t need to measure out your drinks throughout the day, just keep yourself hydrated. Be sensible: drink when you’re thirsty, avoid unhealthy beverages, and you’ll be fine.
What to Eat When You’re NOT Training
Much as you may like to, you shouldn’t train all the time. You’ll need to include some rest days in your workout program to allow your muscles to recover. Even if you’re on a vegan diet, which has the benefit of shortening recovery times, these rest days are still vital.
Cutting seasons are as much a part of bodybuilding as the bulking up. During a cutting season, you’re looking to lose fat while maintaining all the muscle you’ve worked hard to build up. It makes sense, then, that your eating plan on rest days or during cutting seasons should change a little.
Lose a Meal to reduce Your Calorie Intake
The types of meals you should eat at these times doesn’t really change. It’s still important to take in a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. If you’re really hitting cutting season hard, you could slightly reduce the proportion of fat. But the main thing you want to do is tweak your meal cycle.
On a rest day or during cutting season, reduce your meal plan down to five per day. Have your two morning meals at the same times, but then space three - not four - meals out through the afternoon and evening. That way, you’re taking out the calories you no longer need because you’re not training.
Gains: When to Expect Results if You’re Bodybuilding on a Vegan Diet
It’s a common misconception that you can’t bodybuild with a vegan diet. It’s perfectly possible to train and bulk up as effectively on a plant-based diet as when you eat meat. The principles of consuming the right nutrients are exactly the same. All that’s different is where you get those nutrients - especially protein - from.
As such, bodybuilding results for a vegan bodybuilder will arrive in the same way as for anyone else. Muscle growth takes perseverance, dedication, and time. Results will come slowly, as a result of a well-regimented plan of diet and training. Eat right, train hard, and repeat is the formula to keep in mind.
Adopting the right kind of plant-based diet while bodybuilding can deliver benefits along the way. Get the balance of your vegan bodybuilding diet correct and you’ll feel generally healthier. That will allow you to train harder. On a vegan diet, too, recovery time is anecdotally reported to be significantly shorter. That means you can make your training as intensive and efficient as possible.
3 Top Tips for Switching from a Regular Diet to a Bodybuilding Vegan Diet
The transition to a bodybuilding diet and regime is a tricky one, whether your diet is vegan or otherwise. If you’re finding the transition tough, it’s entirely understandable.
Keeping these three simple tips in mind can make things much easier.
1. Plan Your Meal Times to Jump From Three to Six
The whole three square meals a day idea is one that’s drummed into most people from an early age. Changing that up completely to a five or six meal regimen will take a bit of getting used to.
Planning the switch in advance makes the whole process simpler. Think about the shape of your day. When do you get up? When are you going to work out? What time do you normally go to bed? From there, you can plan your meal times to fit best with your natural routine.
2. Change Your Meal Cycles on Your Days Off
When you’re not training, your nutritional requirements are different. You don’t need as many calories to fuel your workouts. The best way to reduce your calorie intake is to change your meal cycle. It makes more sense than having your small meals even smaller.
On rest days or during cutting season, alter your meal cycle to include only five meals. It’s best to take away one of your afternoon meals and space the others out more widely. That way, you remove those unnecessary calories but you won’t feel hungry due to one excessive gap between meals.
3. Vary Your Diet to Make it More Interesting
With a vegan bodybuilding diet, you are viewing food as fuel. But that doesn’t mean what you eat needs to be boring. A well-balanced and optimised diet for bodybuilding can still contain interesting and delicious meals.
The snacks that are included in your meal plan also give you scope for creativity. Make yourself some tempting vegan treats and it can help make that hard work feel even more worthwhile.
Eat Right, Eat Often, Train Hard, And You’ll Make Gains
Bodybuilding is absolutely possible when you’re a vegan. A vegan bodybuilder’s diet is not that different in content from the diet of any other vegan. Most of your current, favourite vegan foods can still feature. The key is achieving balance in the different nutrients you need for building muscle and bulking up.
What you want is a diet that provides everything you need to get buff, and no more. Ideally, you’re looking for a 40/40/20 protein/carbohydrate/fat ratio. That provides the fuel needed for the intensive training that all bodybuilders must complete. You can add to this with vegan bodybuilding supplements. The best way to ensure that constant flow of nutrients is by adopting a five or six meal daily cycle.
Transitioning to a vegan bodybuilding diet does take some effort. Planning, shopping for, and cooking meals is key when you’re eating five or six times a day. The extra effort is well worth it, however. Once you get into the new routine, you can start building that body you’ve always dreamt of. All without abandoning your plant-based principles.
Don't let the cliches stop you from achieving your goals. Take it slow because the gains will come.