• Alyssa Fontaine, RD
  • Apr 05, 2024

Can you build muscle on a vegan or vegetarian bodybuilding diet?

Many athletes and bodybuilders have turned away from meat and towards plant-based bodybuilding.

However, in the realm of muscle building, it is often questioned if a vegan or vegetarian diet can also work as a mass building diet. Throughout history, people have always believed that meat was needed for muscles and vegan bodybuilding. But now, science is challenging this assumption.

Can you build muscle on a vegan or vegetarian bodybuilding diet? Yes, but it is important to first understand what is needed for proper and maximal muscle growth.

How to build muscle?

There are many key factors to consider when aiming for bodybuilding, including:

  • Strength training
  • Progressive overload
  • Consistency
  • Proper sleep
  • Adequate hydration
  • Caloric surplus
  • Balanced nutrition
  • Protein intake

Basically, food choices and diet matter a lot for muscle building.

Is meat needed for an adequate mass building diet?

The simple answer is no. But how can you build muscle without meat?

The goal of a mass building diet

A mass-building diet supports muscle growth and an increase in body mass. Therefore, the goal of a mass-building diet is to provide enough calories and nutrients to promote that muscle gain. 

How can you build muscle without meat?

As long as there is caloric surplus and enough nutrients are consumed, meat is not needed for mass building. A vegan or vegetarian diet for building muscle is just as adequate. Thus, the only difference is that the food sources of nutrients, such as protein, are plant-based.

Is it harder to build muscle on a plant-based diet?

Plant-based bodybuilding is not harder than when on an omnivorous diet. Indeed, with proper planning and attention to nutritional needs, a vegan or vegetarian diet can successfully increase muscle mass. 

As a matter of fact, a vegan sports nutritionist is an invaluable resource when it comes to identifying the nutritional requirements to an individual’s specific needs. Additionally, they can also provide tips for a vegan athlete diet.

Can plant-based protein provide all the protein needed for bodybuilding?

Yes, plant-based protein can provide all the essential amino acids necessary for muscle growth. Therefore, it is a myth to think that plant proteins versus animal proteins are of lesser quality or incomplete relative to animal proteins.

Hence, obtaining adequate protein through a vegan or vegetarian meal plan for muscle gain can be easily accomplished. 

Planning meals might seem tricky at first, but once people find simple and tasty ways to add beans, peas, lentils, and soy foods to their diet, they not only get plenty of protein but also important iron.

What foods can help you build muscle on a vegan or vegetarian bodybuilding diet?

1)    Plant-based calorie-dense foods to achieve caloric surplus

2)    Plant-based nutrient-dense foods to provide essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants

3)    Plant-based sources of protein to achieve adequate protein

What are plant-based calorie-dense foods?

  • Healthy fats (nuts, seeds and whole grains, avocados)
  • Whole grains (quinoa, pasta, oats)

What are plant-based nutrient-dense foods?

  • Whole grains (whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, whole grain cereals, whole grain tortillas, brown rice, quinoa, barley, bulgur, popcorn)
  • Fruits (apples, bananas, oranges, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, pineapples, mangoes, kiwi, cherries, peaches, plums, avocados)
  • Vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, broccoli, eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini, cabbage, asparagus, mushrooms, green beans, cauliflower)
  • Leafy greens (spinach, kale, lettuce, arugula, bok choy, collard greens, beet greens, chard)
  • Nutritional yeast for B12

Where can you get your protein to build muscle on a vegan or vegetarian bodybuilding diet? 

  • Legumes (edamame, lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, soy beans, lima beans, fava beans, split peas, black-eyed beans)
  • Tofu & tempeh (soy-based products)
  • Whole grains (quinoa, farro, seitan, bulgur, spelt, amaranth, teff, millet, whole grain pasta)
  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, peanuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds)
  • Eggs & dairy (for lacto-ovo vegetarians)

Which nutrients should you watch out for to avoid deficiencies on a vegan or vegetarian bodybuilding diet? 

A vegan or vegetarian bodybuilding diet can provide the nutrients needed for muscle growth. However, it’s crucial to watch out for specific nutrients to avoid deficiencies. 

Animal products are often rich in the following sources of nutrients. Hence, nutrient intakes in adults consuming plant-based diets compared to meat-eaters may be at risk. Therefore, to maintain health, vegans and vegetarians need to be mindful of their nutrient intake.

NutrientRisk of deficiencyFood Sources
Vitamin B12Vegan or vegetarian diets often lack B12, which is crucial for nerve function and energy production.Fortified foods (e.g., plant-based milk, cereals), B12 supplements.
IronPlant-based iron (non-heme) is less readily absorbed than heme iron (from animal products).
Hence, low iron-absorption of non-heme iron increases the risk of deficiency.
Lentils, chickpeas, spinach, tofu, pumpkin seeds, fortified cereals.
Calcium can interfere with iron absorption, while vitamin C enhances it. Therefore, avoiding calcium-rich foods, when eating iron-rich foods, and adding vitamin C can help improve iron absorption. 
CalciumVegan or vegetarian diets often lack calcium with a decreased or no intake of dairy products. Insufficient calcium intake may impact bone health.Fortified plant-based milk, tofu, leafy greens (e.g., kale, collard greens).
Vitamin DVitamin D is primarily found in animal-based foods, such as fatty fish, egg yolks, and dairy products. Vegan diets exclude these sources entirely, and many vegetarian diets limit their consumption.  Hence, limited sun exposure and few food sources can lead to vitamin D deficiency. Fortified plant-based milk, mushrooms, exposure to sunlight, supplements.
Omega-3 Fatty AcidsOmega-3 fatty acids come in different forms, with two essential types being eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Plant-based sources of omega-3s primarily provide alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is a precursor to EPA and DHA. However, the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA in the body is relatively inefficient, and not everyone can convert enough to meet their needs. While ALA is present in foods like flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and hemp seeds, the direct sources of EPA and DHA are mainly from marine sources, such as fish and algae. Low intake may affect brain and heart health.Flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, algae-based supplements.
ZincMany plant-based foods have high contents of phytates and fiber which reduce the absorption of zinc. Plant-based sources of zinc are also less easily absorbed by the body.Legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas), quinoa, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fortified cereals.
IodineIodine is primarily found in marine-based foods like fish and seafood. Vegan and vegetarian diets often exclude or limit these sources. Hence, reducing iodine intake. Additionally, soil variability affects plant-based iodine content. In regions with iodine-poor soil, even plant-based foods may contain low levels of iodine.Iodized salt, seaweed (in moderation), iodine supplements.

To conclude, monitoring these nutrients and ensuring adequate intake can help prevent deficiencies while gaining muscle on a vegan or vegetarian bodybuilding diet.

Are vegan muscle supplements needed?

Food is always the preferred source of nutrients and is better than supplements. Whole foods give us a mix of nutrients that offer a well-balanced diet. Moreover, when we eat real food, our bodies can use the nutrients better.

Additionally, it’s entirely possible to build muscle on a vegan or vegetarian bodybuilding diet without supplements if your diet is planned carefully. A vegan bodybuilding registered dietitian can help with curating a vegan or vegetarian plan for muscle gain.

However, depending on individual dietary choices, preferences, and potential nutrient gaps, some may benefit from muscle or vegan/vegetarian supplements. 

What are the best vegan/vegetarian supplements (To be edited after research)

  1. Vitamin B12 supplements 
  2. Iron supplements
  3. Vitamin D supplements
  4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids supplements

What are best vegan/vegetarian muscle supplements (To be edited after research)

1) Vegan protein powders (pea protein, rice protein, hemp protein): May be beneficial in meeting the daily protein requirement needed to build muscle mass.

2) Creatine: Well-researched supplement that can enhance muscle growth and performance.

Why are you losing muscle on a vegan or vegetarian bodybuilding diet?

  1. Insufficient protein: Protein is essential for muscle maintenance and growth. It is possible to obtain adequate protein for mass building on a vegan or vegetarian bodybuilding diet. However, when the diet lacks adequate protein, the body may break down muscle to use amino acids for other important jobs in the body.
  1. Caloric deficit: A caloric deficit occurs when you consume fewer calories than your body needs for its daily energy expenditure. If you’re not eating enough calories to support muscle growth, your body may break down muscle tissue for energy. Hence, you may be losing muscle and therefore, losing weight on a vegan or vegetarian diet.
  1. Lack of nutrients: Vegan or vegetarian diets may lack essential nutrients, such as vitamin B12, iron, and zinc, which are vital for muscle function and overall health.
  1. Inadequate training: Without a structured resistance training program, muscle growth is unlikely, regardless of diet.
  1.  Poor meal timing: Failing to consume protein-rich meals or snacks post-workout may hamper muscle recovery and growth. 

For more information and support, book a free discovery call with a registered vegan dietitian, or learn more about our specialties and services here.

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