Vegan Bulking: What Are the Best Plant-Based Sources of Protein?

If you eat a proper vegan diet, you can build muscle at full speed. You won’t be at any disadvantage at all. Vegan diets tend to be high in nutritious starchy carbs, and starchy carbs are amazing for muscle growth. Thing is, you also need to make sure that you’re eating enough protein. And getting enough protein can be hard. So let’s go over the best plant-based protein sources and strategies.

Before and after illustration showing a skinny-fat woman becoming lean and strong.

Are Plant-Based Diets Good for Building Muscle?

Most fad diets aren’t very good for building muscle. Low-carb diets have too few carbs to maximize workout performance and muscle growth. Keto has way too few carbs. Intermittent fasting limits muscle growth to just the periods of time when we’re in a fed state. Most of these diets make it harder to gain muscle and strength.

But not plant-based diets. Plant-based diets are good for building muscle. You get plenty of carbs. You can eat all day long. There are plenty of good protein sources. Lots of vitamins and minerals and fibre. Plant-based diets have everything you need to build muscle. You can maximize your rate of muscle growth.

For more, we have a full article about how to bulk on a plant-based diet. In this article, we’ll go over one of the main struggles people run into—eating enough protein. This is a struggle everyone has, but for vegans, it can take a bit of extra strategizing. So let’s do that.

The “Problem” with Plant-Based Proteins

Most people don’t eat enough protein to maximize their rate of muscle growth. This is true for everyone, omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan. But because plant-based foods don’t tend to be as rich in protein as animal-based foods, it’s especially important to double-check that you’re getting enough. The good news is, there are plenty of great plant-based protein sources, including soy, legumes, peas, grains, seeds, and nuts. You just need to make sure you’re eating enough of them.

The other thing to keep in mind is that plant-based protein sources aren’t only protein. In fact, many of them have proportionally more carbs or fat than protein.

For example, consider almonds. They are a source of protein, yes, but they’re also mostly fat. Only 15% of the calories in the almond come from protein. If you’re trying to get more than 15% of your calories from protein, then almonds actually set you behind. But if we have both almonds (fat + protein) and beans (carbs + protein), we can get all the protein we need without overdoing it on the fats or carbs. And, of course, you can use soy and protein powders, which are often quite a bit higher in protein.

Finally, plant-based protein sources aren’t “complete” protein sources. They don’t have all of the amino acids, just some of them. And that’s okay. Different plant-based protein sources have different amino acids, so if you mix a few together, you’ll get a balanced protein intake. Most plant-based protein powders do this by default, making it super easy. So no problem. But again, it helps to know what you’re doing.

Not Eating Enough Protein Slows Muscle Growth

A 2013 study by Volek et al. measured muscle and strength gains after 9 months of hypertrophy training (96 workouts). The only thing that was different between the groups was whether they were given whey protein, soy protein, or a carb supplement. At the end of that 9-month period, the people taking whey protein had gained 83% more muscle than those taking soy protein. The people who got the carb supplement did even worse. This sounds like a problem, right? It depends.

Graph showing that plant-based diets are as good for building muscle as omnivorous diets.

A 2021 study by Hevia-Larraín et al. compared vegan and omnivore diets for gaining muscle size and strength. This time, though, instead of giving out protein powder, they instructed the participants to eat enough protein. The difference was, some of the participants were instructed to eat a plant-based diet, the others were instructed to eat an omnivorous diet. Perhaps most importantly of all, they made sure all of the participants were eating at least 0.7 grams of protein per pound body weight per day. Because overall protein intake was sufficient, both groups gained the same amount of muscle and strength. (The vegan group gained a fraction of a pound more muscle, but the results didn’t reach statistical significance.)

So the trick is to make sure that you’re eating enough protein overall. Otherwise, you may not build muscle nearly as fast.

How Much Protein Should You Eat?

For general health, having a moderate protein intake can be ok, especially if you aren’t very active. But muscle is constructed out of protein (as are your nails and hair). So if you want to gain muscle and strength, you’ll benefit from eating more protein.

Some research shows that we can maximize our rate of muscle growth by eating 0.7–0.8 grams of protein per pound body weight per day. Other research shows that eating a full gram of protein per pound bodyweight works even better. We normally round up to that full gram. 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.

So, aim to get at least 0.7 grams of protein per day. That’s your bare minimum. But if you want to ensure you’re building muscle at max speed, bump that up to a full gram. That’s what we do with our clients.

Protein Quality (And Why It Matters)

If protein is hard to digest, it’s harder for your body to break it down into amino acids. If it doesn’t digest well, your body can’t use as much of it. On top of that, not all plant-based protein sources have all the essential amino acids. So “protein quality” is how easily a protein can be digested into the amino acids that we need.

For an example, check out these protein quality scores of common protein powders and foods from Dr. Stuart Philips’ meta-analysis of all the available research (study, study):

This means that to get the same score as you would from soy isolate, you’d need to eat around 10% more pea protein. No problem. Both of these are great sources of protein. But if you had rice protein powder, you’d have to eat more than twice as much! That’s why it can help to intentionally have some high-quality protein sources in your diet. Soy protein isolate, soy milk, pea protein concentrate, protein powder blends (rice + pea), and so on. They give you some extra insurance.

The Best Vegetarian And Vegan Protein Sources

The ideal vegan diet includes a variety of protein sources. 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 is fine. Still, this can be a bit tricky, and it’s why getting protein powder blends, like pea and pumpkin seed protein powder, can really come in handy.

Vegetarian foods that have a lot of protein per calorie:

  • Greek yogurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Whey protein
  • Egg whites
  • Low-fat cheese
  • Kefir

Vegan foods that have a lot of protein per calorie:

  • Soy milk
  • Tempeh
  • Tofu
  • Seitan
  • Cooked spinach
  • Textured Vegetable Protein
  • Veggie Burgers
  • Beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Peanuts
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Nuts in general
  • Seeds in general

So think of having a lentil stew with some cooked spinach in it. Maybe with a glass of soy milk on the side. That would get you all of the protein you need, and you’d be getting it from three different sources.

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. For example, blending up a fruit smoothie in the morning with a scoop of rice/pea protein powder mixed in.

Summary

Those eating vegetarian and vegan diets can still build muscle perfectly well, you just need to make sure you’re eating a variety of different protein sources, and that you’re eating enough protein overall.

  • Aim to eat at least 0.7 grams of protein per pound bodyweight per day. If you want to make sure that you’re fully maximizing your rate of muscle growth, you might want to bump that up to a full gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day. But that’s up to you. It’s unclear if it will make a difference.
  • Feel free to use plant-based protein powders. Supplementing with protein powders can make hitting your protein goals a lot easier. Choosing protein powder blends, like pea/pumpkin seed, is best.
  • Try to eat some protein with every meal. In an ideal world, you’d get at least 20 grams of protein in every meal, and you’d eat at least 3–4 meals per day. For more, we have a full article on how to eat a good bulking diet.

If you liked this article, I think you’d love our muscle-building newsletterWe’ll keep you up to date on all the latest muscle-building information for women. Or, if you want us to walk you through the process of gaining muscle and strength, including teaching you the exercises, giving you a structured 5-month workout program, a complete diet guide, a recipe book, and online coaching/customization, check out our Bony to Bombshell Program.

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19 Comments

  1. Adrianna on January 2, 2017 at 2:40 am

    Awesome article, thank you so much for covering this topic! 😀

    • Jared Polowick on January 6, 2017 at 10:22 am

      So glad you liked it Adrianna 🙂 The best compliment we can get is someone sharing our article with a friend who might get some value out of it!

  2. naveen on January 12, 2017 at 7:02 am

    Had recently joined gym but not willing to take any kind of supplement. I am stuck to a diet with 4 boiled eggs in the morning, 2 bananas shake after workout, again 4 eggs in evening and 2 bananas shake. In morning and after and night normal indian meal. Am i going right here?

    • Shane Duquette on January 30, 2017 at 11:33 pm

      Hey Naveen,

      That actually sounds pretty effective. One thing you could do to make sure is add up all the protein you eat every day and see what your total is. If you’re eating less than 0.8 grams of protein per pound bodyweight, you might want to try eating more.

      Having some protein after working out could boost your results a little bit also, but even just the carbs from the bananas should help 🙂

      How crazy are you going following that diet? My main worry would be that it isn’t very enjoyable and you might not be able to stick with it.

      (I’d also make sure that your doctor is cool with you eating 8 eggs every day.)

    • Shane Duquette on January 30, 2017 at 11:34 pm

      Oh! And remember to track your results. If you aren’t tracking your progress, it will be impossible to tell if you need to adjust anything in your routine. Not gaining weight each week means not eating enough calories, if you gain more fat than muscle, it could be a protein or training issue, etc.

  3. Krsiak Daniel on January 23, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    Great article 🙂 Just in time when I explain my girlfriend, who is “mostly” vegetarian, what is protein, how it works and that yes, it is not in meat only. Gonna show her this article 😉

  4. Duncan on July 26, 2017 at 6:53 am

    Thanks and congrats on a very useful article. There’s a rarely-reached level of depth here, given usual plant protein advice for athletes shrugs off any detail beyond total daily requirements. One part that intrigued me – the bit about protein synthesis being less important for already-muscular folks, is that because trained athletes have different cell physiology to beginners or something? Do any gains from that stage begin to work by a different mechanism? And does that mean they can relax protein requirements? Fascinating stuff. Thanks again guys.

  5. […] However, if you don’t handle whey protein well (allergies) or you’re avoiding it for moral reasons (e.g. you’re a vegan) then you can go with soy protein, pea+pumpkin seed protein, or another blend of plant-based protein. (Those eating a vegan or vegetarian diet can see our full article on plant-based protein options here.) […]

  6. CJD on March 15, 2018 at 8:06 pm

    Great post! So many vegetarian/vegan nutritional resources fail to take total calories or total serving size into account when talking about protein, which ends up giving people the impression that it’s perfectly reasonable to eat 5,000 calories or 40 cups of spinach to get your daily protein.

    I’m 240+ pounds, so getting adequate vegan protein on a muscle building diet has always been a stomach-busting challenge. Realistically, it does usually mean relying heavily on plant protein isolates and veg meat products.

    One great whole food that’s missing from your list is lupini/lupin beans. They have a awesome protein to calorie ratio and have a pretty complete balance of aminos acids. (One cup = 198 calories, 26 g protein, 16 g carbs, 5 g fat, and 5 g fiber.) Drawbacks: They are a nightmare to prepare from scratch, and they aren’t as versatile in a culinary sense as many other beans. (Some people are also scared off by the potential toxicity associated with improperly prepared lupini beans, but this is a non-issue with modern “sweet” strains and not that different from many other traditional foods like cassava, acorns, and taro.) I just used canned/jarred lupini beans and skip the lengthy prep.

  7. Mo on January 14, 2019 at 1:19 pm

    Any brand recommendations that meet these requirements?

  8. Amanda H on February 25, 2019 at 10:43 am

    I am a whole fooder but I just bought a thing of pea protien powder , just making a shake a day is hard for me cause I don’t want to clean the blender 3x a day with all the house work I do on top of keeping 2 kids under the ages of 5 alive from hurting themselves.. . I can’t drink or eat any cows milk products , is coconut milk a good alternative?

    • Michael on March 29, 2019 at 8:07 pm

      Coconut milk isn’t bad, but it’s not an alternative to milk, it’s a different product altogether. It also contains far less nutrients. For example, cows milk contains the following: thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B12, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin C, folate, as well as fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Coconut “milk” on the other hand is a much less nutrient dense plant water.

    • Michael on March 29, 2019 at 8:09 pm

      If you don’t handle milk well, track down raw goat’s milk. The keyword here is raw, it’ll contain the enzymes needed to breakdown the lactose. There really isn’t anyone on the planet who couldn’t handle raw goat’s milk.

      • Amanda Hosler on April 1, 2019 at 9:44 am

        I don’t have wiggle room in my budget for raw goat’s milk. It’s $2.74 for coconut milk vs $8 for pasturized goat’s milk for just a half gallon! I would be spending 4x the amount ! In a perfect world I could go ask a farmer and milk the goat for a discount but the country is a 30 min drive and it’s just don’t have that kind of money.

  9. MICHAEL on March 29, 2019 at 7:59 pm

    Wrong, you can’t build muscle on a strictly vegan diet. Perhaps some small gains immediately after a switch but that won’t last.

    Long term you will lose muscle, brain tissue, bone density and eventually sex drive. Do not go vegan.

    • Amanda H on April 1, 2019 at 10:14 am

      Only if you don’t supplement with protein powder and b12 vitamins. There are some long time youtube vegans out there who do have Drs listen to them and eat alot and healthy . They don’t go on a weird fasting/fruit /juice only diets. Also I recently read a study that vegan men had slightly more testosterone than their vegetarian and meat eating counterparts. I personally don’t eat vegan unless it’s as a dairy replacements. But to lump the fad diet vegans with their healthy counter parts is like saying meat eaters are healthy when we all know to much animal products clog arteries and many meat eaters are obese and unhealthy.

  10. Elle on July 5, 2021 at 12:05 pm

    Thank you for the article. Good information. Would love to see more vegetarian/vegan specific articles and recipes.

    • Shane Duquette on July 5, 2021 at 5:05 pm

      Hey Elle, thank you!

      That’s a great idea 🙂

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