If you think building muscle is not possible on a plant-based diet – think again. As I’ll soon explain, the notion that a plant-based diet cannot fit the lifestyle of gym-goer is a big misconception, one that many elite endurance athletes such as Venus Williams, Lewis Hamilton and Novak Djokovic are quickly dispelling. In 2016, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics updated its official position to reflect their belief that “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including for athletes.” But not only is a plant-based diet appropriate for athletes – it may actually bestow a competitive advantage thanks to its potential to increase energy levels and boost immune functions.
Here, I will share with you my top tips for you to build a strong physique on a health-promoting plant-based diet. So, let’s get started. Here are two simple steps to build muscle on a plant-based lifestyle.
STEP 1: RESISTANCE TRAINING
The first essential step is setting up a training plan that you know you can stick to. Choose CrossFit, functional group training, callisthenics, HIIT or weight training – anything you like. Ultimately, a fitness regime will only work if it’s sustainable and enjoyable, so find what keeps you motivated and works for you! Having said that, in order to increase muscle growth, the key is to progressively overload your muscles, essentially providing them with a reason to grow. So no matter what your workout consists of, you want to be increasing your reps or amount of weight you are able to lift within the same time frame. There are various techniques to improve strength and hypertrophy and it would be no small feat to include them all in one article. My recommendation would be to find an experienced personal trainer and set up a plan with them. Just remember that being sore the next day does not necessarily mean that you will grow your muscles: the true and reliable indicator of progress is being able to handle more weight and do more reps at the same tempo (time under tension). In terms of frequency of training, you don’t need to be spending hours and hours in the gym – 45 minutes 3 to 5 times per week with a good program and solid understanding of how to perform the exercises is more than enough to get results!
STEP 2: NUTRITION
Equally as important as training right, eating an adequate amount of food can make or break our fitness aspirations. In fact, eating enough calories is an essential step in building muscle because if the body’s energy needs are not met, the body can fuel itself with lean body tissue, reducing muscle mass and endurance. At the same time, however, if we consume more calories than we are burning, we will likely be gaining fat at the same time as muscle. Ultimately, the amount of calories you should eat comes down to what your goals are: for example, if you’re looking to “tone up”, you’ll want to engage in resistance training while you are in a calorie deficit (15-20% below daily calorie burn) or equilibrium. The combination of getting stronger whilst losing body fat is what creates “tone”. If, instead, you’re looking to do a “lean bulk”, you’ll want to engage in strength training while in a slight calorie surplus (15% above daily calorie burn). To calculate your daily calorie burn and target intake use an online “TDEE Calculator” or visit a qualified Dietician/Nutritionist to create a completely personalised food plan to complement your fitness pursuits.
Next, you may be wondering what foods are best for muscle growth. In fact, building muscle is more than just getting the right amount of calories: it’s also important to eat a balanced diet that takes into account all macronutrients. In general, for a moderately active person who is looking to build muscle, we want our macronutrient targets to be 55% carbs, 25% protein, and 20% fat. That’s right, for optimal muscle growth we need to focus on carbs as well as protein. In fact, while carbs are often demonised in the fitness world, a carb-rich diet is essential to improve stamina and build strength. Carbohydrates are stored in our muscles and are our bodies main source of fuel. Therefore, limiting carbs essentially means depleting our glycogen and blood glucose stores, effectively denying our body its main source of fuel. This can result in muscular fatigue and reduced performance, which is definitely not something you want when you’re trying to build muscle. So don’t believe the media or keto-promoting folks: carbs are essential to make our bodies thrive. The key, however, is to choose the right type of carbs: unrefined and whole food options such as oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes, and fruit are going to help you thrive just like the longest living populations in the world – pizza, pasta and white bread will obviously not.
As for protein, many often worry that a plant-based diet can lack protein and the necessary nutrients to sustain muscle growth – fears I shared too before delving into the research, learning from elite athletes and ultimately seeing first-hand results with my own training. Muscle growth relies on a number of factors, and while it is true that protein is essential to building muscle, it does not have to be in excess, and it definitely doesn’t need to come from animal sources.
The Australian Government’s Nutrient Reference Values indicate that the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for an average person is 0.84 grams of protein per kg for men and 0.75 grams per kg for women. For example, a woman who weighs 65 kg should aim for 49g of protein each day. For those who are particularly active and regularly engage in resistance training, this figure goes up to 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kg (if the individual is in calorie maintenance or surplus) and between 1.8-2.2 grams of protein per kg if in a calorie deficit as the extra protein may help maintain muscle mass during a weight loss phase. Overall, it’s advisable to consume no more than 25% of calories from protein, the upper limit set by the NHMRC in the Australian Dietary Guidelines to allow for sufficient calories from healthful carbohydrates and fats.
This can easily be met by eating plant-based protein-rich foods which carry the added bonus of being low in saturated fat and free from cholesterol common in animal protein sources. A well-rounded intake of plant proteins will help support our muscle recovery and growth, but it’s also important to make sure we are eating foods rich in essential amino acids such as the lysine and leucine. My favourite sources of protein are beans, tempeh, tofu, lentils, chickpeas and quinoa, but almonds, hemp seeds, peanuts, hummus and pulse pasta all provide plenty of protein per serving. It’s also worth noting that the majority of plant foods such as vegetables or fruits also contain some protein, which may not seem like much in itself, but over the course of a whole day they can definitely add up. I also have a protein shake on training days – my recommendation is an organic pea, hemp and/or rice protein blend.
Overall, a varied plant-based diet rich in legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables will provide our body with everything it needs to not only build muscle and recover, but have us feeling truly healthy. At the end of the day, the point is that while any diet can make us look fit, the benefit of a plant-based diet is that it can promote longevity and prevent long-term chronic disease as well as making our bodies look healthy and fit. In fact, while animal protein may indeed contain a substantial amount of protein and other nutrients, it also contains a whole range of other things too, such as saturated fat and cholesterol which have been shown to increase one’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease. On the contrary, not only do plant proteins supply us with adequate protein, their benefits extend far past their protein content: plant foods are generally packed with dietary fibre, non-heme iron and unsaturated fats making them an all-around healthier choice. I don’t know about you, but it seems like a no-brainer to me!
Nutritionist, Physiotherapist & Owner (Plant Proof)
Simon Hill is a qualified expert who is passionate about making nutritional information simple and accessible so that people can make informed decisions about the food they feed themselves and their family.