Building Muscles With A Vegan Diet
Building muscles can be achieved very well with a vegan diet. Vegans need to consider the same muscle-building principles as omnivores and vegetarians. A widely spread misconception is that muscle building can only be achieved through consuming meat and dairy products. However, all the essential nutrients necessary for muscle building can also be easily obtained through plant-based and vegan foods.
Primary nutrients required for muscle building
First and foremost, it is important to know which nutrients are essential for muscle building. These include:
- Amino Acids: are the building blocks for muscle cells and muscle tissue, consisting of proteins such as actin and myosin; essential for muscle growth and regeneration; leucine plays a key role as an anabolic amino acid (building body tissue) 1
- Carbohydrates: provide the body with energy; it is important to consume enough carbohydrates to prevent energy from being obtained from proteins and fats
- Vitamin D: important for normal skeletal muscle development, optimization of muscle strength, performance, and regeneration 2 3 45 6
Providing the Body with All Nutrients for Muscle Building
Proteins: Strength athletes require 1.6g to 1.7g of protein per kilogram of body weight throughout the day, while endurance athletes need 1.2g to 1.4g of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (see also protein requirements) 7. Additionally, it is not relevant for muscles whether the protein is of animal or plant origin.
All plants contain all nine essential amino acids. However, food sources usually contain only small amounts of one or two essential amino acids, which may be necessary to adequately supply the body. Legumes, for example, tend to lack the amino acid methionine, while grains contain higher amounts of this amino acid. Conversely, when it comes to the amino acid lysine, legumes have more and grains have less. Therefore, it is often recommended to combine proteins, although it is not necessary since the body can temporarily wait for the missing amino acids. The available free amino acids are stored in an amino acid pool until the missing ones arrive. Subsequently, they are combined with the free amino acids to form endogenous peptides and proteins. However, a conscious selection of a variety of protein-rich foods can better ensure the coverage of amino acid needs. Furthermore, there are some plant-based foods such as chia seeds, quinoa, and amaranth with a high-quality protein profile.
Therefore, the diet should be varied and planned in order to optimally support muscle building through nutrition. According to studies, vegan athletes can achieve their optimal protein intake through careful dietary planning, with a focus on protein-rich plant-based foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains 8.
Many plants, especially seeds, nuts, and legumes, are rich in nutrients. They also have high protein content:
- protein-rich nuts and seeds: pumpkin seeds, almonds, pistachios, hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and hazelnuts
- protein-rich legumes: lentils, beans, peanuts, chickpeas, and soybeans
- protein-rich grains and pseudo grains: spelt flakes, oatmeal, amaranth, quinoa, and canihua
The need for leucine can easily be met with healthy pumpkin seeds (2.4 g per 100g), roasted soybeans (3.2 g), kidney beans (1.9 g), and lentils (1.8 g). Additional foods with leucine can be found here.
Carbohydrates: Athletes also have a higher carbohydrate requirement. Depending on the intensity and duration of training, the body needs more energy. Approximately 4 to 6 g of carbohydrates per kg of body weight should be allocated for muscle-building nutrition. The requirement should mainly be met with whole grains and legumes such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas. Additional carbohydrate-rich foods can be found in the table.
Vitamin D: The requirement for vitamin D can be easily met in the summer months through the body's own production along with the impact of sunlight on the skin. The body can store a relatively large amount of vitamin D, so the reserves can last well into the winter months. In some latitudes during the winter months, vitamin D production is not possible due to the low position of the sun. 9 10. Therefore, during the cold season, it is advisable to consume mushrooms and plant-based drinks fortified with vitamin D (see foods with vitamin D).
Meeting Caloric Needs
In addition, it should be considered that the body needs more calories for training. If the body is provided with too few calories, there will be a decrease in performance and it can also lead to muscle breakdown, as the amino acids incorporated in the muscles are released and converted into energy. Therefore, it is important to know your own energy needs and meet them through nutrition. An easy calculation to determine calorie needs is to multiply body weight in kg by 40 kcal (e.g., 80 kg x 40 kcal = 3200 kcal). This calculation applies to healthy individuals who are not overweight. For muscle training, approximately 500 kcal for men or 350 kcal for women should be added. The daily calorie intake for athletes should consist of 60% carbohydrates and 20% each of fats and proteins.
General Principles to Consider
In order to succeed with vegan muscle building, vegans should consider the following principles:
- Regularly eat 5 to 8 meals spread throughout the day, including three larger meals
- Consume proteins and carbohydrates with each meal to optimally support muscle building during the day and night
- Throughout the day, rely on foods with complex, long-chain carbohydrates that provide the body with a constant supply of energy over a longer period of time (nuts, whole grain products, vegetables, legumes)
- Consume a variety of different foods to provide the body with all the nutrients
- Including calorie-rich foods such as nuts, tofu, tempeh, textured plant protein, and meat substitutes; they contribute to increasing the energy density of the diet 11
- Drink sufficient water to eliminate waste products from protein metabolism through urine
- Also, rely on plant-based drinks with vitamin B12
- Supply the body with high-quality plant-based protein sources approximately one hour before and immediately after exercise to promote muscle protein synthesis 12
- Fiber-rich foods should be avoided around training sessions and opt for fast carbohydrates (found in fruits like bananas and apples)
Are dietary supplements necessary?
It is often claimed that vegan muscle building is only possible with dietary supplements. But that is a widely spread misconception. As mentioned earlier, the necessary nutrients for muscle building can be obtained through a vegan diet. Dietary supplements are meant to complement your food and are not intended to be a part of your daily nutrition. With proper meal planning, you can do without supplements! However, for those who still want to use protein powder, a recommended amount is 20 grams. This quantity is sufficient to maximize muscle protein synthesis and albumin protein synthesis after training 13. Albumin is crucial for maintaining the colloid osmotic pressure of blood plasma. It binds water and prevents fluids from entering the tissues.
Avoiding an excessively one-sided muscle-building diet
With an unbalanced vegan diet, deficiencies can occur, just like with other dietary forms (see vegan malnutrition?). If vegans have an inadequate diet and do not pay attention to a varied nutrition, it is likely that muscle growth will stagnate or even cease. Vegans should pay special attention to vitamin B12 as well as the micronutrients vitamin B2, iodine, and selenium. According to studies, a deficiency in vitamin B12 and folate (folic acid) may also impair muscle function due to their effect on homocysteine 14. Deficiencies in these two vitamins lead to an increase in homocysteine levels. Elevated homocysteine levels are associated with functional limitations in older men and women as well as reduced muscle strength in older men 15.
From a nutritional perspective, muscles can be built very well with a vegan diet by making the right selection of vegan foods. It doesn't require any animal products because all essential nutrients, such as proteins, are present in plants. It's important that the diet is balanced and varied so that an adequate amount of micronutrients and macronutrients are provided to the body. Additionally, the diet should align with physical exertion to ensure optimal supply of all nutrients to the body.