Updated: Oct 11
When it comes to building muscle, there is no doubt that protein is the number one nutrient. You need to give your muscles enough protein daily, or you’ll find it much harder to put on lean muscle mass.
Research shows that eating 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day is ideal for building muscle. On a weight-loss diet, up to a massive 2.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day might be beneficial.
Eating less protein could compromise your ability to build muscle. It might be a bit more of a challenge to get the amount of protein you need with a purely plant-based diet, but it’s far from impossible.
The protein in your food comprises 20 amino acids, nine of which are essential. That means that your body can’t make it on its own, and you have to provide them through your diet. Also, the nine essential amino acids are the ones most important for building muscle. Your body can make the eleven non-essential amino acids when it needs them.
All protein in your foods provides you with all 20 amino acids in different amounts and ratios. A protein with enough essential amino acids is called a whole or complete protein. If a protein provides too little of one or more essential amino acids, you’re looking at a so-called incomplete protein.
In general, most plant-based sources of protein are incomplete. Plant protein often contains limiting amounts of at least one amino acid, in addition to an overall lower essential amino acid content. Plant-based protein contains lower amounts of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) than animal-based protein. The BCAA leucine, in particular, is crucial for stimulating muscle protein synthesis.
However, that doesn’t mean that a plant-based diet is useless for building muscle. Most people don’t base their diet on one or two protein sources, and your body is smart enough to combine two or more low-quality proteins into one high-quality package.
Factors affect your protein needs for the vegan athlete.
1. Lower amounts of essential amino acids.
As you can see, the essential amino acid content of plant-based protein sources is lower than animal-based ones.
Leucine is the amino acid that triggers muscle protein synthesis.Studies show that 20 grams of whey protein, providing roughly 3 grams of leucine, likely is enough to stimulate muscle protein synthesis maximally.
To get the same response from a plant-based protein, which contains less leucine, you’d have to eat more of it. For example, you’d have to eat 33 grams of potato protein, 37 grams of protein from brown rice, 38 grams of pea protein, 40 grams of soy protein, 45 grams of wheat protein, or a whopping 70 grams of protein from quinoa.
And that’s just the protein.
Plant-based protein sources are often not very protein-dense. They contain a lot of water, fiber, and carbs, along with protein. That means that you have to eat a lot of food to get enough protein to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis if you rely on one protein source alone.
Potato protein is a high-quality protein. However, you’d have to be very fond of potatoes to be able to get enough protein from potatoes alone.
2. You don’t absorb the protein from plant-based proteins as easily as animal-based.
While you absorb 85–95% of the protein in eggs and chicken meat, you only absorb 50–75% of the protein in peas and beans, common vegan protein sources. Likely, this is because of so-called anti-nutrients, like tannins and trypsin inhibitors found in plant-based foods, which interfere with nutrient uptake.
If that sounds discouraging, don’t worry. I am just presenting the facts, not trying to discourage you. The good news is that there are easy ways you can increase the anabolic properties of plant-based proteins and build muscle with a vegan lifestyle.
It used to be that you’d need to combine different plant-based protein sources to get the high-quality protein you can fully use to build muscle. If one protein source didn’t have enough of one amino acid, you’d combine it with another protein source with more than enough of that amino acid.
Current research does away with that hassle.
You don’t need to worry too much about such things, because your body is smart enough to do the combining for you. There is no need to combine different plant proteins in a particular meal, as long as you eat a varied diet. As long as your diet contains various legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds, your body will take care of things, improving your overall protein quality enough to build muscle without issues.
As a vegan, you can simply eat a little more protein than an omnivore. Increasing your protein intake by 25% compared to standard recommendations does the trick. For someone looking to build muscle, that might mean aiming for the upper end of the 1.4–2 grams of protein per kilogram per body weight per day mentioned earlier. That’s enough for 99% of the population, including competitive bodybuilders and strength athletes.
As a vegan, you might find it more challenging to get enough protein from your diet without simultaneously getting more carbs and calories than you need. Compared to animal protein sources, a plant-based diet provides you with fewer “pure” protein sources. For example, if you want to get 200 grams of protein from plant-based foods alone, chances are you get a lot of carbs at the same time. That doesn’t have to be a problem, but it can be.
Some examples of foods that give you as much protein per serving as animal-based foods are pumpkin seeds, black beans, lentils, almonds, and soybeans and products based on them, like tofu. They aren’t loaded with massive amounts of carbs, so you can get enough protein from these foods without your calorie intake skyrocketing simultaneously.
If you’re still having issues getting enough protein or need a protein source without significant amounts of carbs or fat, a protein supplement is helpful. Unlike a few decades ago, there are plenty of vegan protein powders to choose from that both taste great and don’t mix into a semi-liquid sludge. The classic option is a soy protein powder, but you can also find supplements based on rice protein, hemp protein, pea protein, and others, or a combination of different plant-based proteins. If you add a shake or two a day, you should have no issues getting enough protein to build muscle.
Excellent staple foods and protein sources for the vegan
· Beans: soybeans, kidney beans, black beans, and so on. Beans are excellent sources of protein.
· Tofu: tofu is made from soy milk and is a high-quality source of protein.
· Legumes and pulses: lentils, chickpeas, and green peas.
· Tempeh is fermented soybeans formed into protein-packed blocks.
· Spirulina: algae filled with protein and micronutrients.
· Soy milk and yogurt
· Quorn: Quorn is a meat substitute made from fungus and high in quality protein. Some Quorn products contain egg whites and are not vegan-friendly, so make sure to check the nutrient facts label.
· Seitan: a meat substitute made from gluten. Not for the gluten intolerant, but very high in protein.
As you can see, soy products, in general, are excellent for building muscle due to their high-quality protein and versatility.
· Eat 1.4–2 grams of protein per kilogram per body weight per day.
· Choose a variety of protein sources to give your muscles all the amino acids they need
· A protein supplement is a convenient way to increase your protein intake if you struggle
to get enough
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