How to build muscle on a plant-based diet

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I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life, and for many years I was vegan. I’m also a yoga teacher, a runner, and a workout junkie. Because I get an inordinate amount of exercise, I don’t have much trouble staying fit. But sometimes I want more than that. I want to know what it feels like to have a little more muscle mass. But is it even possible for vegans? Do you need meat to get ripped? I explored the possibility of getting swole on a plant-based diet.

First of all, it’s certainly possible. “It’s a common myth that people need meat to muscle up,” says Pamela Nisevich Bede, an Ohio-based registered dietitian and author of Fuel School, a popular nutrition advice column for runners. “In reality, building muscle and strength is fairly simple, and you can gain muscle without going carnivore.” And while it can happen, Bede says, it does require some thought and planning. Here’s what to consider if you want to bulk up without consuming meat, which is most commonly hailed for its mass-building powers.

Eat a variety of proteins

“The main difference between animal and non-animal protein is the type and quantity of the amino acids they contain,” Bede says. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, she explains, and only complete sources of protein contain the nine essential amino acids which the body cannot make on its own. Most animal proteins are complete, but vegans can get the same nine essential amino acids by combining proteins — and hence, building muscle. Beans and rice together, for example, form a complete protein.

Finding those ideal combos does take planning and a little science. But you also now have the option of meat substitutes that are complete proteins, like Impossible Burger and Beyond meat (although they are high in sodium, so consume in moderation). There are also vegetarian foods that are naturally complete, but you may need to eat more, comparatively, to get the protein your abs of steel or svelte, newly muscular thighs need. “Meat does pack a lot more macro and micronutrients than a plant-based counterpart in equal measure,” explains Andres E. Avestas, a Florida-based registered dietician and founder of Vive Nutrition, a company that helps athletes develop nutritional training programs, tells Mic. To get 30 grams of protein from a sirloin steak, for example, you would need about 4 oz, Avestas explains, while to get the same amount of protein from kidney beans you would need about 13.3 oz, which is over 1.5 cups.

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Avestes also explains that plant-based complete protein sources include things like tofu, tempeh, edamame, quinoa, chia seeds, nutritional yeast, amaranth, and beans, but that you can also supplement with protein powders that include pea protein, brown rice, or chia seeds. And you can’t skimp on variety if you want to build plant-based muscle mass. “The diversity of a plant-based diet for bulking and gaining muscle mass needs to be larger in order for your body to obtain enough quantities of all essential amino acids,” he says.

Eating a more diverse diet to get your protein needs met may not be as convenient as scarfing down turkey jerky on the elliptical, but it can help you reach your body and strength goals faster. “When you feed your body a mix of complete and incomplete protein sources, and in the amount needed to support day to day physiologic needs as well as the high demands of your last lifting session, your body can build muscle,” Bede says, and you are more likely to get the rainbow plate that experts recommend than someone eating meat might be.

Consider supplements when planning feels like too much

“With busy, on-the-go schedules it can be really challenging to get enough of the nutrients you need from diet alone,” Bede says. Being vegan requires more planning than a carnivorous diet. That’s real. Sometimes I just wanna eat pizza and veg out (ha!) after a workout. For those times, in order to make sure you're getting everything your body needs to build muscle, there are supplements. To be transparent, research on the efficacy of supplements is still developing, but Bede and Avestes agree that vegans — and other active people — may benefit from them.

Bede recommends Ensure Plant-Based Protein Shake anytime you need extra protein or right after a workout to restock and refuel. Avestes says that vegan diets may have lower amounts of some naturally occurring vitamins and minerals and may need to use B12 supplements, iron supplement, creatine monohydrate, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, zinc, calcium, and Vitamin D.

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To be fair, it’s not just vegans who may need these supplements; anyone who isn’t eating a balanced diet would, but it’s especially important if you’re trying to bulk up. Avestes says that most people should probably talk to a dietician or a doctor before going vegan to make sure they have a plan and to get educated about what kinds of supplements they may need. Your doctor or an independent lab can also test your blood to make sure you don’t have any deficiencies.

Do resistance strength training

If you want to get ripped, you’re gonna have to work for it. Burger King’s Impossible Burgers and chill is not the way to washboard abs and chiseled arms. “A well-structured resistance training program is the ideal exercise regime for anyone trying to increase muscle mass regardless of their dietary choices,” Avestes says. Resistance strength training means using your own body weight, resistance bands, or hand weights to place a load on muscles that forces them to work, or resist, and like Avestes says, it’s kind of the key to gaining strength and definition.

“A well-structured program combines exercises that incorporate large and small muscle groups also incorporating proper rest periods in between sets, repetitions, and even in-between days of training,” says Avestes. If you’re new to strength training, try not to freak out about the idea of designing a workout plan. “You don’t need to feel intimidated – anyone, at any fitness level, can strength train right from their home,” Bede says. “Grab some dumbbells and resistance bands for quick arm toning exercises, and work your lower body and abs with kettlebell swings. If you don’t have weights at home, go for body weight squats, mountain climbers and planks.” Summer — and this very indoorsy pandemic — make it a great time to take your workout outside, but make sure you’re safe about exercising in the heat.