There’s a lot of confusing information out there about vegetarian and vegan diets. It becomes especially confusing if you’re not just looking to be healthy, but also to build muscle.
The moral arguments for eating a vegan diet often bias the health arguments. By the time you get to the muscle-building arguments, the information is usually flat out wrong.
This creates a big issue for those who are struggling to build muscle while eating a plant-based diet for moral reasons.
You can build muscle with a vegetarian or a vegan diet, but your protein sources really do matter big time.
In this article, we’ll first cover what protein is and why protein quality matters. This is important because it will explain why this article will be radically different than every trending article on your Facebook feed.
Then, we’ll cover the best vegetarian and vegan protein sources and go over some strategies that make it easier to get the protein your body needs to grow.
If you’re getting your protein from plants, grains, legumes, seeds and nuts, you will need to be more deliberate with your protein to ensure that you feel your best and to help with building muscle.
This can be confusing, because isn’t plant-based protein “better”—like all those blogs write?
We have to be careful to not let moral arguments bias how we perceive reality. This way we can understand any possible setbacks with plant-based proteins, and then come up with gameplan to overcome it. When it comes to building muscle, plant-based proteins have a number of disadvantages, but nothing that can’t be solved!If you eat a pescatarian or vegetarian diet, not as much thought needs to be given to your protein sources because fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt provide all 9 essential amino acids. They’re “complete proteins.” Since any mix of any of those protein sources will give you all the specific amino acids you need, you can just worry about how much protein you eat overall, not what types of protein you eat. These protein sources are also digested fairly efficiently, and have a higher protein content per calorie.
But with a purely plant-based diet, it gets more complex. As an example, many plant-based websites list almonds as a food with a good source of protein. While there is protein in almonds, it’s only 15% of the total energy (calories) in the almond. Almonds are, in fact, 77% fat. If you’re trying to get, for example, 30% of your calories from protein, this takes you further away from your goal. Almonds are not a good enough source of protein per calorie, and are also deficient in 3 amino acids. This doesn’t mean that almonds aren’t healthy—they’re very healthy—but it does mean that they aren’t the best source of protein, and may not contribute that much to your muscle-building goals.
A lot of the conventional vegan diet wisdom is not designed with naturally thin people in mind. Still, if you plan your vegan diet properly, eating only plant-based protein sources can be more than good enough to help you healthfully build all the muscle you want while staying true to your values.
How much protein should we eat?
For general health, having a modest protein intake can be ok, especially if you aren’t very active. But muscle is constructed out of protein, so as soon as you want to build muscle, it takes quite a lot more.
0.8 grams of protein per pound bodyweight is technically the minimum amount of protein you can eat per day to build a maximal amount of muscle, but we normally round this up to 1 g per pound. That takes into account that there might be some guesstimating when calculating your daily protein intake or serving sizes, and it accounts for your protein quality not being totally perfect.
On that note, as someone who will be eating plant-based protein sources, protein quality can be something valuable to learn about.
What is protein quality and why does it even matter?
If the protein is hard to digest, it will be harder for our body to break that protein down into the amino acids that it needs. If it doesn’t digest well, your body can’t use it.
On top of that, some plant-based protein sources don’t even have all the essential amino acids we need in the first place. So “protein quality” is how easily a protein can be digested into the amino acids that we need.
This means that to get the same score as you would from whey isolate, you’d need to eat 33% more pea protein. If you prefer rice protein powder, you’d have to eat 294% more! This might be a problem depending on how expensive rice protein is, how much you can eat, how well you feel while eating a lot of it, etc.
So when it comes to problem solving, perhaps it’s worth going for soy protein isolate instead given it’s much higher protein quality score?
The problem is that most plant-based resources don’t discuss topics like this, so many eating a vegan diet are accidentally getting much less protein than they think they are.
That brings us to the next question—so what? What’s the problem with not eating as much protein as you think?
Not Eating Enough Protein Means Your Gym Efforts Will Be Wasted
Dr. Philips references a study from 2013 where they compared people who lifted weights over a 9 month period (96 workouts). The only thing that was different between the groups was whether they were using whey protein, soy protein, or a carb supplement (study).
At the end of that 9-month period, the people taking whey protein had 83% better gains than those taking the soy protein. The people who were taking the carb supplement did even worse since they weren’t getting any additional protein.
That’s why protein quality matters.
If I put in 9 months of hard work in the gym, I would find it incredibly frustrating to only get half the results of someone else just because I hadn’t known that I needed to factor in the protein quality of my protein supplement when deciding how much to take.
After all, I could have gotten equally good results if I’d only known to take slightly more protein powder.
So what can we do to make sure that those eating a plant-based diet can still build muscle at full speed?
Leucine And Muscle Protein Synthesis
Research has consistently demonstrated that one amino acid, leucine, is what “turns on” muscle protein synthesis (MPS). This makes leucine the crucial amino acid driving muscle growth in people who are still thin.
People who are already quite muscular are limited by how many nuclei they have in their muscle fibres, but those of us who are still thin don’t have this problem—we grow simply by stimulating muscle protein synthesis.
This makes protein especially important for us, but explains why people who are already muscular don’t pay as much attention to the quality of their protein.
How do we stimulate muscle growth? Researchers believe there’s a threshold for how much leucine we need in a meal to ensure that we build as much muscle as possible as we digest that meal over the course of the next few hours.
Dr. Layne Norton has written that each meal needs about 3.2g to maximally spike MPS. That’s the amount of leucine contained in a 27g scoop of whey protein isolate.
The good news is that you can get that perfect muscle-building response with lots of different plant-based protein sources—even pea protein. You just need to make sure that your servings are the right size (reference here). In Dr. Philips review, he wrote that a 48g serving of pea protein would have 3.8g of leucine—more than enough on paper to clear the leucine threshold.
But the question of the bioavailability/digestibility of the pea protein is still there. If pea protein is 33% more difficult to digest than whey protein, and you would need 3.2g of leucine, would that mean you’d actually need 4.2g of leucine from pea protein?
The research is still clearing through these dense forests when it comes to muscle protein synthesis, protein quality, leucine and it’s effects, etc. However, based on current research it may be a good idea to increase your plant-based protein servings a little higher to make absolutely sure that you’re giving your body enough protein to work with.
There might be other solutions coming as well. One study has already shown that those eating a vegan diet will soon be able to take a digestive enzyme to help break down plant-based proteins more easily to improve it’s quality score.
The Best Vegetarian And Vegan Protein Sources
There are no specific foods that will be the sole reason for your downfall or success, but there are ideal diets. When it comes to plant-based protein sources, this is especially true. One protein source might be deficient in Lysine, another deficient in Valine. But so long as you aren’t relying on just one or the other, everything should be okay.
Through a comprehensive and varied vegan diet, you should be able to reach all your essential amino acids for health. It’s important to take this seriously, though, as being deficient in any of the “essential” amino acids listed below will prevent your body from building muscle properly, not to mention being very bad for your health.
The 9 essential amino acids
So the ideal vegan diet would include a variety of protein sources where one food would make up for another food’s deficiencies and vice versa. This is why it’s better to choose protein powder blends, like pea and pumpkin seed protein powder, rather than just plain pea protein.
Eating Enough Protein To Grow
Eating enough protein to be healthy is one thing, but in order to grow you need to go above and beyond what’s needed to be healthy. These protein sources also need to have a strategic blend of amino acids, and they need enough leucine to fully stimulate muscle growth.
Vegetarian foods that have a lot of protein per calorie:
- Greek Yogurt
- Whey Protein
- Egg Whites
- Cottage Cheese
Vegan foods that have a lot of protein per calorie:
- Spinach, cooked
- Textured Vegetable Protein / Veggie Burgers
If you’re still having trouble hitting your daily protein goals, remember that there are lots of great plant-based protein powder blends that can make this a lot easier.
Bonus: Non-Protein Supplements
All vegans should be supplementing with vitamin b12, which is only found in high enough quantities in animal sources like seafood, dairy and meat. (Fortified cereals can have b12 supplements built into them.)
In the July 2015 issue of Alan Aragon’s Research review, Aman Duggal wrote that those eating a vegan diet should also highly consider supplementing with taurine and carnitine given research that many eating a vegan diet are deficient in these.
Others, like Russell Taylor, recommend taking algae that contains EPA/DHA, iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium, and creatine.
Because women also have higher needs for iron, women eating a vegan diet may want to especially consider getting their iron levels checked to see if they should be supplementing with iron.
Bonus: How to Eat Enough to Gain Weight
If you’re looking to build muscle and gain weight, you’ll need to eat more calories than your body needs. Eating enough to gain weight is difficult for almost everyone who is naturally skinny. We often have higher metabolisms paired with smaller stomachs, to name just a couple challenges.
Getting over these kinds of issues is what our women’s weight-gain program specializes in, but we can go over a couple quick tips here.
Research shows that foods that are high in protein, fibre or water are the most filling. It’s virtually impossible to eat enough to gain weight if you focus on foods like broccoli, fruits, and legumes. They’re too rich in fibre and water. Even a hearty lentil stew will often be fairly low in calories for how filling it is.
One quick tip would be to introduce liquid calories. Drinking calories doesn’t affect our appetites in the same was as eating them does, and our stomachs can often process them quite quickly. A good way to do this is to make smoothies with protein powder blended in.
Another tip would be to eat foods with less water content like dried fruit such as prunes or dried mango’s to help get those calories in.
You can also mix healthy fats into your foods. Nut butters, chocolate and coconut oil are good for this. Adding some almond butter to a smoothie, some dark chocolate to your cereal, or adding some coconut oil to a lentil stew are good ways to boost their calorie content.
Baking can also help. There are lots of good recipes for cookies made out of oats, lentils, chocolate and sweeteners—all great sources of calories when trying to build muscle. Imagine finishing dinner and realizing you’re still 500 calories short. Despair at the thought might quickly turn to joy as you remember the banana bread cooling on the countertop.
- Those eating vegetarian and vegan diets can still build muscle perfectly well, you just need to be more thoughtful.
- The more variety, the better. When eating a plant-based diet, eat a large variety of foods to prevent amino acid deficiencies. (Note: vegetarian protein sources, like dairy and eggs, are complete proteins. They remove the need for eating a wide variety of protein sources.)
- Err on the side of eating more protein than you think you need. Going 30% over your daily goals might allow you to build muscle even more quickly.
- Use protein powders. Supplementing with protein powders can make hitting your protein goals a lot easier, and choosing protein powder blends, like pea/pumpkin seed, is best.
- Try to eat some protein with every meal. If you can get around 3g of leucine in a meal, you’ll stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth during the next few hours. If you’re doing that 4–5 times each day, you can build muscle very quickly.
What do you think? Do you have any questions or comments? Leave them below!