When you decide to start exercising, what are you really after? While some hope to lose weight, many people work to build muscle. Of course, there are the aesthetic reasons – muscle looks good. But also, stronger muscles can really help improve athletic performance, balance, and even metabolism.
But building muscle harder for some than others. There are a lot of myths out there that suggest muscle building is harder for those living a vegan lifestyle. Yes, a lot of the protein products out there use animal sources. And yes, the vegan diet can pose some unique nutritional issues. But there are plenty of ways vegans can overcome these hurdles and build muscle mass.
How Muscle Is Created
Before getting into vegan-specific techniques, it’s important to understand how everyone puts on muscle mass.
When you engage in resistance exercise, your muscle fibers undergo small traumas. This triggers a repair response from the muscle’s surrounding cells. The body needs protein as a building block in this process. In essence, your body uses protein to repair your muscles, making them stronger than ever.
There’s another component that’s important to this process: Growth factors. They’re the set of hormones and other compounds that fire off that initial signal to repair. They’ve been proven to affect muscle growth by regulating the repair cells surrounding your muscle. Resistance exercise plays a major role in the release of growth hormone. Generally, the more intense the exercise, the more hormone that’s released.1
But, there are other nutrients that are needed to power this process. Carbohydrates provide the energy your body needs to synthesize protein. Eating regularly ensures that the body consumes fat rather than existing muscle during the process.
In addition, sleep is key. However, the body releases most of its hormones while you sleep. So, if you don’t get enough sleep each night, you may be cheating yourself out of the best results.
Turns out, lack of sleep can decrease the activity of protein synthesis and in some cases encourage the loss of muscle mass. This can hinder muscle recovery after exercise. So make sure and catch your z’s.2
What Could Be Wrong With A Plant-Based, Vegan Diet?
For a long time, people felt meat was the only way to get the protein needed for muscle building. A major part of this stems from what we know about proteins.
You see, proteins are made from chains of amino acids. Some of these amino acids are made in the body, but many are not. In fact, the bulk of amino acids in animal and soy products mimic those found in human proteins.
Now, for vegans, animal products are clearly off the table.
But if anyone tells you that plant proteins lack any amino acids you should recognize that this is false.
The trick is combining plant foods – like corn and beans, for example – in order to create high-quality protein food combination that meets the adequate essential amino acids requirement for muscle building, but still honors your vegan diet.3
While individual plant foods may contain fewer amino acids than the amount found in meats, they’re in there – and if you combine the right foods, you’ll still get what you need.
Today, there are more vegan options than ever, and people know a lot more about the human body and its needs. As a result, the myth that an athlete on a plant-based diet won’t be able to build muscle is – busted. But vegans should be proactive about setting themselves up to succeed.
Ways To Get Started…
Know Your Plant-Based Proteins
Now, your body needs a proper mix of amino acids. On top of building muscle, they handle other functions. The good news is that there are plenty of plant-based proteins to choose from.
Here are some great vegan options:
And, there may be reasons to seek out these great plant-based proteins even if you aren’t trying to build muscle.
Several studies show that focusing on vegan proteins might help offer preventative effects against cardiovascular issues and help regulate cholesterol.4
In fact, one study showed that people who swapped out 15g to 19g of animal proteins and replaced their protein intake with plant sources had a notable drop in early death risk.5
1. Keep An Eye Out For Healthy Fats
Now again, you want to load your diet with good fats.
You see, not all fats are created equal. Vegans and non-vegans alike should focus on monounsaturated fats.6 The great news for vegans is that many of these foods are accessible to them.
Try to eat plenty of good fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, and coconut and extra virgin olive oil.
2. Choose Your Carbs Wisely
Carbohydrates go hand-in-hand with fats and proteins, especially if you are focused on shorter, intense workouts.7 Most people think of grains when it comes to carbohydrates, and whole grains should be a part of your diet. Try to focus on oatmeal in the morning or ancient seeds and grains like flax or millet.
But also, you should know that grains aren’t the only source of carbs when it comes to a vegan diet. Bananas are packed full of potassium, vitamin B6, fiber and more. And sweet potatoes have plenty of vitamin C and magnesium. In fact, bananas and potatoes have pretty similar compositions for energy, fiber, and potassium.8 These, and many other vegan favorites can make great pre-workout meals.
3. Balance Your Meals
It’s important to note that vegans especially need to make sure to have plenty of variety in their meals for building muscle. While you can get all the proteins and nutrients you need from a vegan diet, sometimes it’s tough to get them all at once.
Make sure to eat a variety of the foods mentioned above to make sure that your body has everything it needs.
4. Consider Meal Planning
Muscle building itself can take a toll on your body – and even on your mind. Trying to seek out vegan foods that fit your needs on the fly, as it were, can become a major headache. But meal planning is generally associated with healthier diets and less obesity.9
Consider planning out your meals a week in advance so you can focus on your workout when the time comes. Create a list of muscle-friendly meal options. Then, create a list of necessary ingredients and go shopping. Try to set aside a free day to prep each week if you can.
5. Pace Yourself
Trying a muscle-building routine for the first time? You’re going to need to find a pace that fits your body and your goals. Sometimes, this may be difficult.
Four to five exercise sessions a week is a good place to start. This allows you to train each muscle group 1-2 times. It’s important to be consistent, so you can encourage regular protein synthesis.
When you start seeing results, you’re going to want to adjust. Note that as you put on muscle, you’re going to have a higher metabolism.10 So, be ready to adjust your calorie intake accordingly.
6. Allow Yourself To Be Hungry
It’s common for new vegans to get a little hungrier after starting their new diet. This applies even more if you are building muscle. When eating plant-based food, you’ll usually be eating a larger volume of food but you’ll be taking in fewer calories.
Seek out a few healthy snacks and be ready to use them if you find yourself hungry. However, if you are hungry right after eating, you may need to up your intake of fats and protein.11
7. Supplement Your Diet Strategically
Sometimes, you may still be lacking in certain nutritional areas. For example, vegetarians are likely to have a lower level of the organic acid creatine than that of omnivores.12 This has been shown in some studies to help reduce fatigue during short repeated bursts of intense exercise.
Supplements may be able to help reduce the gap. However, there’s a lot of sports supplements out there. Consult with a medical professional to find out if you really need it, and what the best fit for you is.
8. Know that You’re Not Alone
Did you know that many of the world’s most well-known athletes and ripped celebrities are also vegan? Olympiad track star Carl Lewis, pro tennis player Venus Williams, pro snowboard and Olympiad Hannah Teter and so many more vegan athletes.
So, if they can do it, be encouraged that you can also!
Nothing should hold you back from building your muscle while enjoying a vegan diet. Where you may end up falling short is not taking proper care of your body during the process.
In order to make sure you stay healthy while bulking up, be sure to eat a lot of different vegan foods. In addition, keep hydrated and put together a strong sleep schedule. With this mindset, you’ll be well on the path to a more toned and healthier you.
Want more tips on mastering a healthy vegan diet, keep reading here: