There’s this nasty rumor that’s been going around for years. Maybe you’ve heard it, or maybe you’ve even spouted it yourself: There’s no way a guy’s going to get enough protein from a vegan diet to build the kind of ultra-ripped body you’re aiming for.
Hm. Tell that to NFL pro Griff Whalen, NBA guard JJ Reddick, or Nike trainer Joe Holder—all of whom are vegan and seriously jacked.
“You can absolutely be a vegan power athlete, be a vegan and build muscle,” says Nanci Guest, R.D., C.S.C.S., a Toronto-based sports nutritionist who works with vegan Olympic sprinters and vegan professional UFC fighters.
While it’s certainly easier to load up on protein when it comes from animals, your muscles don’t actually reward the seemingly superior source. A study earlier this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found it didn’t matter whether protein intake was from animals or plants—as long as men and women were getting at least the recommended daily allowance (that’s 0.8g/kg of bodyweight), carnivores and omnivores had roughly the same muscle mass and strength.
Of course, switching over to veganism is totally different from trying a new diet like Paleo or high-fat, low-carb. But once you learn the basics, it’s actually really, really easy. So if you’ve been thinking about ditching meat—for animal advocacy, environmental impact, or maybe just because you watched What the Health and haven’t been able to look at chicken since—we’re serving up everything you need to know.
The basics of gaining muscle while vegan
Your basic dietary tenets still apply:
- Eat protein after a workout.
- Eat fewer carbs late at night.
- Eat a balance of fat, protein, and carbs at every meal.
The primary difference:
- Eating only plants is totally different for your digestive system. Not all your calories will be getting digested in the same way.
- You’ll need to eat more in one sitting.
- You’ll get hungry more often.
In essence, all the ways you needed to control your intake before will have to change. The most important thing is eating enough to fuel those HIIT workouts to shed body fat. And as long as you’re hitting your protein goals, you’ll have no problem being an ultra-ripped vegan.
Here’s a guidebook on how you can give up all meat, poultry, fish, and dairy—pretty much every source of protein you probably eat right now—and still get totally ripped.
Ease into veganism
If you’ve gotten on board with going V, chances are you want to dive right in. But Guest actually advises against going cold tofurkey.
She has two really good reasons: First, a lot of people experience bloating and gas when they first switch over. “If you’ve been eating a super high-protein diet and not all that much fiber, your gut bacteria is pretty brutal,” she explains. Suddenly eating so many more vegetables, whole grains, and legumes is radically different on your system. Over time, your stomach will build up its stores of good bacteria, but in the interim, the bloating can be enough to freak out any body-conscious dude—potentially to the point of retreating back to the safer chicken-and-yogurt way of eating.
The second reason: Nixing animal products all in one go implies a vastly different way of grocery shopping, cooking, snacking, and eating out. Until you learn your go-to meals, it’s going to be more mentally exhausting to eat than normal—especially if you’re super-busy and can’t devote a ton of time to finding non-dairy grab-and-go snacks. Just like with any diet, that mental exhaustion increases your risk of giving up.
Guest suggests you start by cutting out any animal flesh—that’s beef, chicken, fish, pork—but keep in eggs and yogurt over about four to six weeks before you go full vegan.
Give soy a chance
Giving up chicken, meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs, whey, and casein means you’re definitely adding in soy (among other proteins). But if you still equate eating soy with growing man boobs, you need to get with the 2017 science. “As much as people want to say there’s an issue with soy, the science says it’s just fine,” Guest says. “There is some research showing the testosterone spike you get from a workout is slightly blunted when you consume soy post-workout compared to other proteins, but testosterone has no bearing on muscle protein synthesis or how much strength gains you’ll get, and it doesn’t affect your other testosterone levels.”
Can switching to a soy protein powder help you hulk out like the whey, casein, or egg white kind can? We won’t argue that whey is the golden child of protein powders. That’s largely because it’s higher in a key muscle-building amino acid called leucine compared to all other plant- or dairy-based proteins. With less leucine, you have less muscle protein synthesis, or so goes the theory.
But there’s actually a ton of research to support plant proteins’ ability to build just as much bulk as dairy varieties, namely soy and brown rice. And even if there is an advantage to whey, “That extra bit of leucine will make maybe 1% difference in building muscle,” Guest says.
Alternatively, here’s another easy fix: Add a leucine supplement to your soy shake, Guest suggests. A 2015 study in The Journal of Nutrition confirms that a leucine supp. will help offset any lack of muscle protein synthesis that might otherwise come with the plant protein. (Check that your powder doesn’t already have leucine added to the formula.)
Learn your plant proteins
“Protein is absolutely important for fitness and building muscle no matter if you are keto, paleo, raw, vegan, or something between,” says Matt Ruscigno, R.D., co-author of the No Meat Athlete and Chief Nutrition Officer at Nutrinic, a nutrition counseling center in Pasadena, CA. “Getting 20g of protein at each meal is actually very easy to do when beans and whole grains are part of your eating habits.”
Your heaviest hitters are now soy milk, tempeh, seitan, tofu, edamame, black beans, chickpeas, lentils, and vegan meats. Yes, you’ll certainly bite into a few terrible soy dogs and veggie burgers before finding brands that actually taste good—but hey, the same could be said for all the whey powders you sipped before finding the one brand that doesn’t taste like chalk.
Insider tip: We highly recommend checking out the Beyond Meat product line (sold at Whole Foods, among other stores), particularly the Beyond Burger, which everyone from Ruscigno to the 76ers’ Reddick recommends thanks to its high protein count and texture that’s as close to meat as you’ll get from plants.
A lot of high-protein veggie options (tempeh, tofu, edamame, and most vegan meats) are soy. Try to cap yourself at three servings of soy a day, advises Guest. That’s not because more soy is necessarily bad, but because you should be getting your protein from a variety of sources, she explains. “We all know variety is important, but it’s especially so in plant foods since they offer such a variety of phytochemicals. The more phytochemicals, the more your hard-training body is getting what it needs.”
That really won’t be a problem. “With plant foods, the numbers are lower, but they add up quick because there’s protein in everything,” Ruscigno says. Here are a bunch of vegan protein sources with 4–8g of protein per serving:
- hemp seeds
- chia seeds
- nuts like walnuts and almonds
- nut butters
- seeds like sunflower or pumpkin
- nutritional yeast
- wild rice
Even leafy greens—which every athlete should be eating because of their ability to increase nitric oxide, which helps deliver oxygen to the muscles—contain protein, Ruscigno points out. And while 4–8g might sound low, remember that you likely won’t be eating any of these items on their own. Plus, that’s right around the protein of one egg.
Oh, and if you’ve heard you need to pair plant proteins to ensure a complete amino acid profile, you can forget that advice. That idea is outdated and misleading, both nutritionists agree. Your muscles pull from a collective pool, not one individual meal, so as long as you’re eating a variety of protein sources throughout the day, you’re good.
Adjust your macros to account for more clean carbs
Chances are your meat-eating macro breakdown was either 30% protein, 30% fat, 40% carbs or 30% protein, 50% fat, 20% carbs. But on a muscle-building vegan diet, your new breakdown will land closer to 20% protein, 30% fat, and 50% carbs.
Don’t freak out.
“When you switch over, your macros will have to change somewhat because plant-protein sources are inherently lower-fat and higher-carb,” Guest says. “Tofu, soy milk, any protein powders—all can be low-carb or zero-carb. But most pulses, like beans, lentils, or dried peas, are between 15-30g of protein per cup. That’s the same as beef, chicken, or fish, but they come with more carbs.”
Otherwise, the same eating rules apply—every meal should have a balance of fat, protein, and carbs; pre-workout snacks should be a hit of carbs without too much fiber or fat; post-workout fuel should be a mix of protein and carbs.
Learn to love carbs
If 50% carbs scares you, keep in mind you’re (hopefully) spending those grams on way healthier sources than the crap you ate before. “Inherently, your carbs are all coming from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans,” Guest says. “There’s no room in a healthy, muscle-building, athletic diet for refined bread and cookies anyway.”
Obviously you know refined junk was never on the “OK” omnivore list, but if you’re cutting out eggs and butter, suddenly the small cheats that quickly fill your 20% bucket—a small piece of birthday cake, a few bites of croissant—aren’t even options anymore.
Plus, fiber and starch are part of the carb count, so the grams on the label aren’t necessarily how many grams your body is actually getting, Ruscigno says. “Fiber isn’t ‘zero’ calories, but it’s definitely not the four calories per gram that other carbs are—which is why vegetarians and vegans weigh less, according to ongoing study cohorts with hundreds of thousands of people.”
Up your supps
You’ll score way more micronutrients with the overload of fruits and vegetables, but there are still a few vitamins and minerals you can only get when you eat meat. A 2016 study review by Mayo Clinic physicians found vegans are most often deficient in vitamin B12, iron, calcium, vitamin D, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. Meanwhile, research in Clinical Nutrition found among vegans who weren’t supplementing with DHA and EPA—two nutrients crucial for brain health—about 60% had low levels of DHA and about 27% had very low levels of DHA, numbers akin to those who have brain shrinkage with aging.
So: Definitely pop B12 and DHA/EPA every day. And add 5g of creatine to your post-workout shake if you don’t already: A recent study review found that creatine can significantly improve the performance and recovery in vegetarian athletes, since the nutrient is mainly found in beef and fish.
Eat way more often
It’s totally normal to be hungry more often and to need snacks when you follow a vegan diet, Ruscigno says. “When switching to plants, you are eating a larger volume of food but fewer calories, so it’s important to make sure you’re eating more, and eating more often.”
Listen to your body rather than your daily count. “I tell people to eat if they are hungry, even if they are trying to lose weight. That’s the benefit of eating plant-based: You can eat more food and feel full while also having a calorie deficit,” he adds.
But if you’re hungry right after eating, it’s a sign that you need to add more volume and/or more fat and protein, he adds. Start adding nut butter to your fruits, or bean spreads to your raw vegetables. Instead of just plain ol’ oatmeal, make it with soy milk, frozen blueberries, walnuts, and/or chia seeds. The small additions really go a long way when you’re vegan, he adds.
Commit the time to learn new “anchor” foods
“When you decide to get serious about your training, it takes planning and effort, and nutrition is part of that program. Being vegan requires meal planning and cooking, but that’s true of healthy eating whether it includes meat or not,” Guest points out.
The good news: It’s way, way easier to be vegan in 2017 than ever before. Go to Whole Foods or your local health grocer and check out what pre-made vegan options are available to give you an idea for meal prep. Develop a few go-to foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (we’d suggest just straight copying what these seven elite vegan athletes eat to get (and stay) ultra-jacked).
Most important, keep snacks on hand. “If you’re a busy athlete, snacks can be the hardest since most of the easiest grab-and-go foods are dairy-based, like Greek yogurt or string cheese,” Guest points out. “Drinking two cups of soy milk can deliver about the same amount of protein to hold you over.” We’d also suggest stocking up on vegan bars like GoMacro, CLIF Builder’s, and PROBAR to keep hangry from happening.
Keep it simple
“I encourage new vegans and athletes to keep it simple by thinking of meals like this: grain, bean, vegetables, sauce,” Ruscigno says. Think: Brown rice, black beans, salsa, avocado, fajita vegetables; quinoa, chickpeas, kale, pesto; wild rice, falafel, hummus, roasted cauliflower, and tahini dressing. “It’s a good strategy because it’s easy. I find people overthink how their meals have to look or they follow complicated recipes.” Then you adjust your ratios based on your macros, adding more legumes or less grains, and controlling the calories with the sauce or dressing.
Chew your food twice as long
OK, it doesn’t actually have to be double the count—but eating slower and chewing your food is one of the best ways to reduce bloating, according to Ruscigno. “Eating slower is a tough habit for people to acquire, but not chewing beans all the way is one of the leading causes of the quintessential discomfort.” Alternatively (or additionally), eat more mush: Making hummus or refried beans is a way to get your protein without risking bloating or GI distress from beans since they’re already somewhat broken down, he adds.
“I encourage my athletes to not obsess over the numbers—calories, macros—and instead just be sure to fuel their workouts,” Ruscigno says. “We need to be eating enough to fuel the workouts to build the muscle to be lean.”
Guest agrees that too many guys get hyperfocused on protein: “To build muscle, you need adequate protein, but the most important factor in gaining mass is eating enough energy, or calories. I’ve looked at probably 200 diets of meat-eating men who want to gain mass, and they’re almost always consuming around three times the protein they need, half as many carbs, and not enough calories.”