Bodybuilding Vegan Diet: Your Complete Guide
Bodybuilding vegan diets are built around plant-based proteins plus plenty of vegetables, and when designed correctly, they can be an incredibly effective way of building muscle, gaining strength and successfully training as a bodybuilder. This article is going to cover everything you need to know to maximise your results, including:
Food Choices for Vegan Bodybuiding (Proteins, Carbs and Fats)
Let's jump straight in.
Can You Build Muscle On a Vegan Diet?
Absolutely, research shows that with the right diet vegans can gain muscle mass and build muscle strength almost identically to omnivores. To ensure this happens you need to make sure you eat the right amount of calories, the right macros, and the right types of foods.
Emerging research also suggests that there may be some interesting endurance performance benefits, plus potential differences in molecular signalling in skeletal muscle. So the next time someone tells you that vegans can't gain muscle, tell them to do better research.
How do vegans get thick?
Real talk, if you don't want to be just another 'skinny vegan' then weight gain and muscle gain is all about calorie-dense foods, plenty of protein, and regular exposure to resistance training (like these mass gain workouts)
Rule 1: Get Your Calories for Vegan Bodybuilding
I'm working on the assumption that you're a pretty smart reader. Reasonably clued up on training, and ready to put in a bit of work. So I'm not gonna spend ages on this basic point.
"If you want to build muscle as a vegan, you need to be in a calorie surplus, i.e. you need to be gaining weight"
Don't be that person who spends 16 weeks 'bulking' only to end up basically the same weight as when they started.
Body 'recomposition' (losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time) is incredibly rare for anyone except true beginners and people who are considerably overweight.
When you want to gain weight, eat in a surplus, when you want to lose weight, eat in a deficit.
And if you want to work out the exact calories you need, find a TDEE Calculator like this and then add or subtract 300-500 depending on your goal.
Rule 2: Get the Right Macros for Vegan Bodybuilding
Alright, so now that you've got a ballpark figure for your daily calorie needs, you need to get the right macros. First off then...
What are your macros?
Protein: The amino acid building blocks of muscle, connective tissue etc
Carbs: Your primary energy source for activity and recovery
Fats: For hormonal systems, cell growth, nutrient absorption
How Much of Each Macro Do You Need for Vegan Bodybuilding?
Protein: 1g per lb of bodyweight. So if you weigh 180lb, that's 180g of protein per day.
Now, this is just a general rule, some people find that they get great results eating less protein per day, and some people find that they get better results eating more. Start at around 1g per lb, and then adjust over time, based on how your own body responds.
Pro-Tip: If you are dieting, especially if the diet is quite aggressive and/or you are already quite lean, then I would highly recommend increasing protein intake, perhaps up to 1.2-1.4g per lb per day. This can help you hang onto as much muscle as possible, as well as help you feel more full.
Fats: Between 15-30% of your calories should come from fat. So if you're eating 3000 calories per day, then 450 to 900 of those calories should be from fat sources.
Don't drop your fats much lower than this or you'll start to see some negative health effects.
Carbohydrates: Any calories not used for protein and fats is your carb allowance. Here's a worked example...
You're a 180lb person eating 3000 calories per day.
180lb means 180g protein, 1g of protein is 4 calories, so that's 720 calories protein
If you get 20% of your calories from fats, that's 600 calories fats
So, 3000 - 720 - 600 = 1680 calories left for carbs, or 420g of carbs.
Eyeballing Macros or 'Fist Sized Portions'
Now, doing all of the above means that you'll have to track your food intake. Many people will be fine doing this forever. Other people (myself included) prefer to switch to an easier method over time.
For me, I simply 'eyeball' my macro sizes based on 'fist or thumb-sized portions.' So I know that in order to gain weight, I need to eat 4 meals per day that consist of...
1-2 fists protein
2-3 fists carbs
1-2 thumbs of fats
I wouldn't necessarily recommend this for people new to nutrition, as you need a solid grasp of which foods are which and the rough amounts of macros in different foods. But if you have a few months of tracking under your belt this can be a great simplified and time-saving approach.
Rule 3: Eat the Right Foods for Vegan Bodybuiding
Bodybuilding vegan protein sources
Vegan bodybuilding requires high-protein food sources, these include:
Soy curls or pieces
Soy-based meat alternatives (i.e. soy burgers, sausages etc)
Legumes (Various beans and lentils)
Is vegan protein good for muscle building?
Absolutely, a high-protein vegan diet has been shown to be equally as effective for muscle building and strength gain. Vegan sources of protein such as soy or a combination of plant-based sources like lentils and beans provides a complete amino acid profile. So you can certainly build muscle without eating animal-based proteins.
Bodybuilding Vegan Carbohydrate Sources
Sources of carbs for vegan bodybuilding are essentially identical to omnivorous sources:
Beans and Lentils
Where possible, I mainly recommend eating whole grain and whole wheat options, as these have been shown to be better for your health. However, refined options tend to be quicker digesting, so can be useful before, during and after training for quick energy and replenishment of glycogen stores.
Bodybuilding Vegan Fat Sources
Vegan fat sources are similar to omnivorous sources, but avoid animal-derived products, so things like eggs yolks and dairy products are out. Instead, great options include:
Various types of nuts
Various types of seeds
Vegetable oils, olive oils, coconut oils etc
Pro-Tip: I also like to supplement with a vegan omega-3 tablet. These are made from sea algae.
Rule 4: Vegan Macros vs Micros (Don't Forget Them)
Back in the early 2010's people all across the fitness industry got a little carried away with IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros)
And as it turns out, getting all your calories from hot dogs, fries and donuts didn't result in great results or great health. Weird right?
Macros are great, but we also need micronutrients, i.e. vitamins and minerals, in order to be healthy and to maximise our rate of muscle gain.
Where Do We Get Our Micronutrients as Vegans?
As vegans this is perfect for us, as vegetables and fruits are the number one best source of micronutrients.
Apples, oranges, bananas, spinach, broccoli, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, lettuce, cauliflower, kiwi's, melons, grapes, cucumber, asparagus etc.
Literally every single fruit and vegetable contains a unique and useful variety of micronutrients.
So if you want to maximise your micros for health, performance and muscle building as a vegan bodybuilder, then all you need to do is eat a wide variety of fruit and veg.
Bodybuilding Vegan Meal Plan
Alright, real talk for a minute, any random PT or fitness person is definitely not qualified to be giving out meal plans over the internet. Think about for a moment, I have no idea...
How much you weigh
How tall you are
If you have any food allergies or intolerances
If you're diabetic or have high cholesterol
If you have a history of eating disorders
Or even simple stuff like which foods you like and dislike
So I could give you a vegan meal plan for bodybuilding that ends up with you feeling like crap, eating foods you hate and getting nowhere near your performance goals.
The only people that you should be taking specific dietary advice from are dieticians and qualified nutritionists. And at the end of the day, the best person to design your meal plan is you.
"The best person to design your bodybuilding meal plan is YOU"
So use the rules and principles we've discussed above, work out your calories and macros, pick foods that you like, and build your own meal plan around that.
Bodybuilding Vegan Diet Plan
Exactly the same logic applies to diet plan's for weight loss and cutting phases. The best person to design your diet is you, and it would be all kinds of stupid to blindly follow diet plans you find online.
So, if you want the 'vegan bodybuilding shred diet' (A popular keyword that lifters seem to bang into google) then what you should be doing is designing it yourself.
Eat a daily deficit of calories so that you lose weight (300-500 is a good ball-park deficit amount)
Try to eat plenty of protein to maintain muscle mass and reduce hunger
Make sure that you still get 15-30% of your calories from fats
Then make up the rest with carbs
And don't forget your veggies
That's it, there's no magic foods or special recommendations. And anyone who tells you there is is very likely misinformed or just flat out trying to sell you some shady diet plan.
Bodybuilding Vegan Supplements
As a vegan bodybuilder there are a few supplements that can really help your muscle building process.
Vegan protein powder
Multi-vitamin (Make sure it includes iron, vitamin D and B-12)
Bodybuilding Vegan Protein Powder
Literally just a powdered form of protein, typically made from soy, pea, hemp or some combination of all 3. Personally I prefer the ones made from soy, as it's a more complete protein source (i.e. it contains all your essential amino acids) It can be useful for keeping a high protein intake, especially during cutting phases.
Bodybuilding Vegan Creatine
Yes, vegan versions of creatine are available. Most omnivores get theirs from meat and dairy products, but since we won't be eating those, creatine is a great choice of supplement. Creatine has had decades of research published (Meta-analysis 1, ISSN Position Stand) conclusively showing that it is a safe and effective way to increase resistance training performance.
Multivitamins for Vegan Bodybuilders
Since it's not unusual for vegan bodybuilders to lack specific nutrients, especially iron and vitamin B-12 (B-12 is only found naturally in animal products) a multivitamin is a cheap and effective way to address these concerns. Moreover, since many of us live in colder and darker parts of the world without yearly sun, a multi-vitamin that includes vitamin D is a great choice.
Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA's) for Vegan Bodybuilders
BCAA's are naturally occurring amino acids found in proteins. This isn't necessarily an essential supplement, because it's totally possible to get all of your essential amino acids through eating a range of vegan protein sources, especially if that range includes soy.
With that said, I personally like to take this as it's cheap, safe, and covers all of my bases. So if I have a day in which most of my protein comes from incomplete sources such as legumes or wheat protein, I know I'm still getting a complete amino acid profile.
Bodybuilding with Vegetarian Diet
I'll probably write a separate article on this, but the TLDR (too long didn't read) is that pretty much all the same rules and principles apply.
The only real difference is that vegetarian bodybuilders can have dairy products like milk, butter, eggs, cheese etc - which offers slightly more options for food intake.
Bodybuilding Vegan Diet Frequently Asked Questions
Is a vegan bodybuilder diet for a woman?
Vegan foods and the vegan diet in general is 100% suitable for women. There are plenty of female bodybuilders who follow vegan diets, many of whom post their full days of eating online
Is soy bad for bodybuilding?
Soy is a complete protein that can help you build muscle and progress in bodybuilding. Old myths about soy being estrogenic or somehow lowering testosterone have been shown to be completely untrue, with a meta-analysis reviewing 38 independent studies to conclude that soy has no impact on testosterone or estrogen levels.
Are vegan bodybuilders stronger?
Research shows that vegan bodybuilders are as strong and competitive as omnivorous bodybuilders. They are also equally as strong in sports like powerlifting and weightlifting. So being vegan is no worse, but also no better, than being omnivorous when it comes to strength.
Alright, that's enough reading for today, time to put some information into action...
1) Find your calorie target, work out your macros, pick your foods to fill them, and eat plenty of veggies to ensure you get your micros too. Combine this with consistent training and you've got yourself a solid vegan bodybuilding plan.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you're looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching you can find more information about my services here.
'Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.