Ten years ago, a plant-based bodybuilder would be considered an oxymoron by many. For decades now, we have learned that to build big muscles you need to eat meat and lots of it, right? Well, times are changing and people are realizing that, for a plethora of reasons, they want to eat fewer animal-based foods.
This leaves many bodybuilders concerned with their ability to maintain or increase their strength and size. But when you take into account the careful planning and attention to detail that goes into any bodybuilder’s lifestyle, you quickly learn that being a plant-based bodybuilder isn’t much more difficult than one that eats a carnivorous diet.
There are many facets of bodybuilding nutrition that hold 100% true even as a plant-based athlete. In many ways, we are just adapting what we already know works to build muscle and shed fat, and making it plant-based.
There are some key things to take into consideration when following a plant-based diet for bodybuilders, including adequate protein, carbohydrate balance, DHA and EPA and Vitamin B12. Let’s take a closer look at these key nutrition factors and how they pertain to vegan bodybuilders.
Protein: A Concern for Plant-Based Bodybuilders?
Protein is the number one concern for anyone who decides to adopt a plant-based lifestyle, but is there a reason? Maybe not. In a 2015 study, pea protein promoted muscle growth in a double-blind study comparable to whey1. In another study published in Nutrition Journal in 2013, rice protein was found to be associated with increased power, strength, and body composition comparable to whey protein2. More and more, the science is showing that plant proteins definitely stack up against the animal counterparts in terms of building muscle and strength.
But aren’t plant proteins incomplete? While individual plant foods do not boast the same full amino acid profile as many animal-based foods, what we forget is that we don’t eat these foods in isolation. When eating a wide variety of plant-based foods, we can easily get enough amino acids to reach even quite high daily protein goals.
Some people may have concerns about soy as a source of protein because they believe that the phytoestrogens will be feminizing and increase their estrogen levels. But when you think about it, isn’t soy just a bean, and dairy is the estrogenic secretion of another mammal? While it is true that soy does contain phytoestrogens, so do many other popular “bodybuilding” foods such as oats, apples, sweet potatoes, flax seeds, and even coffee. The fact is you would have to consume inhuman amounts of phytoestrogen-containing foods for it to have a feminizing effect, and even when consuming large quantities of soy, a 2010 study found no feminizing effects in healthy men3.
Based on current research, natural bodybuilders should aim to take in about 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight (or 2.3-3.1g/kg) for maximum muscle growth benefits4. This allows for proper nitrogen balance for building muscle and also is very satiating and muscle sparing while in a cutting phase.
If you are new to following a plant-based diet, you might not realize that many vegetables, legumes, and grains contain good levels of protein. For instance, beans contain a fair amount of protein along with slow digesting carbs and fiber. Lentils, for example, are 27% protein by calorie and 1 cup contains 63% of your daily fiber. And, green leafy vegetables are, on average, 40% protein by calorie and are loaded with micronutrients. One bunch of kale contains about 12g of protein. These numbers may not seem like much protein for one meal, but during the course of an entire day (or multiple protein sources in one meal), these small amounts of protein add up. There are also foods such as nutritional yeast, which boasts 6g of protein per 2 tablespoons and loads of B vitamins. And of course, we all love peanut butter which also contains 6g of protein per 2 tablespoons.
So, while it is definitely doable to reach your protein goals on a plant-based diet, it can be helpful for many to include a protein shake or two each day, as nearly all bodybuilders do. There are numerous products on the market, I personally prefer to use Nuzest’s range of plant-based supplements and there are a number of recipes that I have perfected to get the best experience out of my nutrition. You can choose to substitute your own preferred provider.
Is It Possible to Lower Carbs on a Plant-Based Diet?
We’ve established that you can build muscle on a plant-based diet, but can you get shredded on a vegan or vegetarian diet? The answer is yes. There is a fear that since many plant-based protein sources come with some fat or carbohydrates that it will be challenging to cut.
We can all agree that nearly every single carbohydrate-based food comes from plants. Oats, rice, beans, potatoes, fruit, vegetables, bread, and straight sugar are all plant-based foods. So the question here isn’t “where can a plant-based bodybuilder find carbs?” but rather “how does a plant-based bodybuilder keep their carbs low when or if the time calls for it?”
One of the main differences between bodybuilding as an omnivore and bodybuilding as plant-based eater is that the food sources as a plant-based bodybuilder are not always as clear-cut as pure protein, carbohydrate, or fat sources. Many plant-based foods contain a little bit of two or more of these macronutrients, so it is important to learn which foods are higher and lower in each macronutrient.
Learning which foods are very low in carbs (tofu, for example), very low in fat (seitan, for example), or very low in both carbs and fat, is critical to successfully cutting weight for bodybuilding. But the good news is that the lowest calorie foods in the world are plants. So when it comes time to fill up your plate with voluminous, filling food that is low in calories, every bodybuilder knows that fruits and veggies are the star attraction.
In regard to carbohydrate intake, this will change with your bodybuilding goals. In a building (or gain) phase, you can get lots of healthy carbohydrates with the usual staples: oats, sweet and white potatoes, fruit, rice, and if you’re using beans as a protein source, you will get plenty of healthy carbs from them as well. When cutting for bodybuilding, however, you may want to switch your protein source to something with fewer carbohydrates such as tofu or a vegan protein supplement. You may also want to switch your more dense carbohydrate sources such as sweet potato, to something less carbohydrate dense such as butternut squash, or have strawberries instead of bananas to stay within your carbohydrate goals.
Fats: DHA + EPA Without the Fish
Whether you prefer a higher fat or higher carb diet largely comes down to preference. Creating the desired energy balance with a caloric surplus for building muscle or a caloric deficit for shedding fat, with adequate protein accounted for, is the most important nutritional aspect to consider.
That said, fat does play an important role in hormone production for both men and women. Even while aggressively cutting, fat should not be brought below 15% of total calories. Ideally, fat should stay above 20% of your daily total calories whenever possible to maintain a healthy hormone balance5. Whether to increase your daily fat intake percentage largely depends on how it makes you feel, how much you’re able to adhere to it, and how it fuels your performance in the gym.
Omega-3 fatty acids are made up of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). They are called essential fatty acids because they are, well, essential! EPA and DHA each have specific functions in our health that cannot be replicated by any other substance. EPA is important in supporting the healthy regulation of cellular inflammation, while DHA is the most prominent omega-3 found in the brain. DHA and EPA also enable healthy circulation of blood, which is essential to optimal brain function6.
Some great plant-based fat sources are nuts and nut butter, avocado, coconut, olive oil, flax seeds, and chia seeds. One thing to consider is omega-3s, which are traditionally consumed as fatty fish or fish oil. Omega-3s are critical to a healthy bodybuilding lifestyle as they reduce inflammation brought on by training, help keep joints healthy, and show signs of improving body composition7.
As plant-based athletes, however, fish oil isn’t an option. But there are other ways of achieving these same effects! Flax seeds and chia seeds are higher in the omega-3 ALA, which then needs to be converted into DHA and EPA in the body. This isn’t optimal, but vegetarians and vegans have been shown to have higher conversion rates of ALA to DHA and EPA than non-vegetarians8. But if you want to go straight to the source, consuming 1-2g of micro-algae oil per day will easily get you the recommended amounts of DHA and EPA with no conversion necessary. A great way to take this oil (and enjoy it) each day is to include it in a tasty protein smoothie.
While there are many supplements that may be helpful to a bodybuilder, one that is of particular importance for a plant-based bodybuilder is vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is synthesized by bacteria found in soil and in the guts of animals, provided they are getting enough bacteria from the soil and food they are eating. However, as our food growing process has become more sterile, there are fewer bacteria in the soil and even farm animals are often suffering B12 deficiencies, and they are being supplemented with B12 themselves. Due to this lack of bacteria in the soil, there is little to no B12 in our plant-based food unless they are fortified with B12, such as fortified cereals, bread, soy milk and nutritional yeast.
Because of this, it is best to find a quality, vegan B12 supplement and take it daily to cover all of your bases. For many, it is easiest to take a multivitamin that contains a healthy dose of B12.
When you look at the facts, plant-based bodybuilding isn’t more challenging than omnivorous bodybuilding when it comes to diet choices. A diet for plant-based bodybuilding simply applies the same principles as a bodybuilder who eats an omnivorous diet, just with plant-based foods. Even if you’re not ready to go plant-based right away, you can begin by making simple plant-based food swaps such as almond milk instead of skim milk, or plant-based protein powder instead of whey protein. These small steps can add up to big changes that lead you to enjoy a satisfying plant-based diet over time. And remember to make it fun—rather than thinking about what you’re taking off your plate, think about all the new exciting foods you will be able to start experimenting with, all while enjoying a plant-based diet tailored to a bodybuilder.
Example Building Meal Plan: 3000 calories
Meal 1 – Breakfast:
- 1 cup oats
- 1 large apple
- 1 1/2 servings seitan bacon
- 1 c soy milk
Macros: 675 calories, 94g carbs, 13g fat, 50g protein
Meal 2/Post Workout – Protein Smoothie made with:
Macros: 525 calories, 53g carbs, 19g fat, 43g protein
Meal 3 – Lunch Bowl:
- 1 c cooked quinoa
- 1 c black beans
- 2 c broccoli
- 2 Tbsp nutritional yeast
Macros: 541 calories, 89g carbs, 6g fat, 32g protein
Meal 4 – Mid-Afternoon Meal:
- 4 oz tempeh
- 300g sweet potato
- 2 Tbsp hemp hearts
- 2 c roasted veggies
Macros: 615 calories, 84g carbs, 15g fat, 37g protein
Meal 5 – Dinner:
- 6 oz extra firm tofu
- 1 c cooked brown rice
- 4 tbsp hummus
- 2 c fruit salad
Macros: 696 calories, 100g carbs, 22g fat, 31g protein
Daily Totals: 3053 calories, 419g carbs, 75g fat, 192g protein
Example Cutting Meal Plan: 1800 calories
Meal 1- Protein pancakes made with:
- 3 scoops Nuzest Clean Lean Protein
- 40g oat flour
- 100g strawberries
Macros: 317 calories, 36g carbs, 4g fat, 37g protein
Meal 2/Post Workout – Protein smoothie made with:
- 2 scoops Nuzest Clean Lean Protein
- 1 c unsweetened almond milk
- 1/2 large banana
- Cocoa powder + stevia to taste
Macros: 178 calories, 17g carbs, 3g fat, 23g protein
Meal 3 – Lunch Salad:
- 5-6 cups salad with lots of colorful non-starchy veggies
- 1/2 c lentils
- 2 Tbsp hummus
- 3 oz seitan
Macros: 430 calories, 55g carbs, 6g fat, 42g protein
Meal 4 – Dinner:
- 4 oz tempeh
- 2 c broccoli
- 2 c butternut squash
- 50g avocado
- 2 Tbsp nutritional yeast
Macros: 455 calories, 53g carbs, 14g fat, 34g protein
Meal 5 – Yogurt Protein Bowl:
- 6 oz container vanilla soy yogurt
- 2 Tbsp peanut butter
- 1/2 c berries
- 1 scoop Nuzest Clean Lean Protein
Macros: 420 calories, 38g carbs, 20g fat, 25g protein
Daily totals: 1799 calories, 199g carbs, 47g fat, 161g protein
1. Babault, N., Paizis, C., Deley, G., Guerin-Deremaux, L., Saniez, M. H., Lefranc-Millot, C., Allaert, F. A. (2015). Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2015 12:3.
2. Joy, J. M., Lowery, R. P., Wilson, J. M., Purpura, M., De Souza, E. O., Wilson, S. M., … & Jäger, R. (2013). The effects of 8 weeks of whey or rice protein supplementation on body composition and exercise performance. Nutrition Journal, 12(1), 1.
3. Hamilton-Reeves, J. M., Vazquez, G., Duval, S. J., Phipps, W. R., Kurzer, M. S., & Messina, M. J. (2010). Clinical studies show no effects of soy protein or isoflavones on reproductive hormones in men: results of a meta-analysis. Fertility and Sterility, 94(3), 997-1007.
4. Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., Fitzchen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11:20.
5. Author Unknown. (2018). Omega 3 Fatty Acids Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institute of Health.
5. Bloomer, R.J., Larson, D.E., Fisher-Wellmann, K.H., Galpin, A.J., Schilling, B.K., (2009) Effect of eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid on resting and exercise-induced inflammatory and oxidative stress biomarker: a randomized, placebo controlled, cross-over study. Lipids Health Disease; 19:8:36.
6. Couet, C., Delarue, J., Ritz, P., Antoine, J.M., Lamisse, F. (1997). Effect of dietary fish oil on body mass and basal fat oxidation in healthy adults. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders; 21:637-643.
7. Welch, A.A, Shakya-Shrestha, S., Lentjes, M.A., Wareham, N.J., Khaw, K.T. (2011). Dietary intake and status of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in a population of fish-eating and non-fish-eating meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans and the product-precursor ratio [corrected] of α-linolenic acid to long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids: results from the EPIC-Norfolk cohort. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; 93(3):676.
8. Huwait, E.A, Kumosani, T.A., Moselhy, S.S., Mosaoa, R.M., Yaghmoor, S.S. (2015) Relationship between soil cobalt and vitamin B12 levels in the liver of livestock in Saudi Arabia: role of competing elements in soils. African Health Sciences 15(3): 993-998.