Many people believe that you need a diet including meat when you want to build muscle. Although it’s easier to get all the right nutrients when you include meat in your diet, it’s not the only way to build muscle. Vegans and vegetarians can build enough muscle to even become bodybuilders!
When you want to gain muscle on a plant-based diet, you just need to ensure that you get enough calories and other nutrients each day. Important nutrients to focus on include the following:
Athletes need more protein compared to non-athletes. Protein assists the body by promoting lean mass and exercise recovery. Make sure that you eat a wide variety of plant-based proteins, as certain plant products have limited amounts of certain essential amino acids like lysine, methionine, isoleucine, threonine, and tryptophan.
Plant-based protein sources:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Black beans
Plant-based diets are usually high in n-6 fats. These fats are found in oils, avocados, nuts, and seeds. However, plant-based diets contain fewer n-3 fatty acids than which are needed for optimal functioning. These fats are mainly found in fish. The amounts found in plants might not be enough, so consider taking a supplement to ensure you get adequate amounts of n-3.
Plant-based n-3 fatty acid sources:
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
Plant-based eaters should prioritise their iron intake. Although there are plants that contain iron, the bioavailability of iron in plants is limited. Iron deficiency can lead to various health conditions including anaemia (decrease in red blood cells) with symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, and reduced exercise tolerance.
Plant-based iron sources:
- Legumes and grains (see protein sources above)
- Nuts and seeds (pistachio, pumpkin, sunflower)
- Green vegetables (spinach, kale, swiss chard, collard, beet greens, broccoli, cabbage)
- Tomato paste (dried and concentrated tomatoes)
- Potato skins
- White mushrooms
- Prune juice
- Coconut milk
- Dark chocolate
Plants don’t contain B12 – it is only found in animal products. If you don’t include dairy and eggs in your diet, you should take a supplement; B12 deficiency can lead to irreversible neurological damage.
Vitamin B12 sources:
- Foods fortified with B12 (fortified almond milk, fortified cereals)
- Nutritional yeast
- Dietary supplements
Certain other micronutrients are also in short supply on a plant-based diet. These include zinc, calcium, iodine, and vitamin D. When you include enough of the abovementioned foods, you should be getting enough of these nutrients as well – except for vitamin D which you should also consider supplementing.
You still need to consume more calories than you burn if you want to build muscle, so be sure to eat enough. Focus on consuming carbohydrates before exercising rather than after, and include plant-based protein shakes if you need to increase your calorie intake.