Yes, you CAN build muscle on a vegan diet.
We’ve all heard the myth that tells us otherwise. Even as an avid fitness enthusiast, I have personally heard these misconceptions concluding a friend or relative needs too much protein to be vegan. In reality, society has a skewed perception of fundamental nutrition. There is so much conflicting advice out there, the confusion is understandable.
Here’s the deal. You don’t need animal flesh to build muscle; you need protein. Meat does not provide a strength nor muscle development advantage over a protein-matched plant-based diet1.
Moreover, you probably don’t need nearly as much protein as you think.
According to the USDA, the average person who doesn’t exercise requires only 50-60 grams of protein per day. (You can calculate your specific needs at https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/dri-calculator/)
Here is how easy it is to hit that 60-gram minimum:
- Breakfast: 1 cup cooked oats (6g) -OR- quinoa (8g) with a handful of almonds (6g)
- Lunch: Bowl of veggie chili with 1 cup of cooked lentils/beans (15g)
- Snack: Apple/celery with peanut butter (8g)
- Dinner: Veggie Stir-fry with 1 cup firm tofu (20g) and rice (5g) -OR- pasta (8g)
With a little plant-based protein research, some recipes (like the ones on FitVeganChef.com created by IFBB Bikini Pro Natalie Mathews) and maybe some high-quality plant-based protein shakes, it’s no trouble at all to achieve even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ recommendation for athletes of 1.2 – 2 g protein per kg of bodyweight (or 0.5 – 0.9 g protein per lb of bodyweight.).
“Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes2″
– Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Vegan Athletes: Putting the plant-based diet to the test
Professional bodybuilders such as Torre Washington and Robert Cheeke have been crushing this myth by growing plant-based muscle for decades. Now, vegan athletes are popping up left and right, making it exceedingly difficult to dismiss the few from the past as anomalies. Not only are they defying the mainstream paradigm, but athletes following a well-planned vegan diet are finding that not only is it perfectly adequate, it can actually improve their performance.
Scott Jurek: Ultrarunner
Scott has been vegan since 1999, and his list of achievements is astounding.
In 2010, Scott obtained a US record for covering 165.7 miles in a single day!
Not impressive enough for you? In 2015, Scott ran an epic 2,189 miles in just over 46 days to obtain the Appalachian Trail Speed Record.
Scott attributes his greatest feats as an ultrarunner to his switch to veganism, citing improvements to endurance and recovery.
He writes about his plant-based extreme lifestyle in his book Eat & Run.
Patrik Baboumian: Strongman
This modern-day superhero was confronted in his mid-twenties with the cognitive dissonance of saving some animals while eating others. By 2006, despite being warned it would ruin his career, Patrik became vegetarian. By 2011 he transitioned to a completely vegan lifestyle.
Two years later, Patrik achieved the world record for the heaviest yoke by carrying 1,224 lbs. over 10 meters! When someone asked Patrik how he could get as strong as an ox without eating any meat, his iconic response was: “Have you ever seen an ox eat meat?”
Nimai Delgato: Former IFBB Pro Bodybuilder
Interestingly, Nimai has never eaten meat in his entire life, and made the vegan transition in 2015.
Nimai and his partner Bianca Taylor (self-proclaimed “booty-builder” and vegan fitness coach) co-founded Vedge Nutrition.
They created their own line of vegan nutrition supplements, adding to the growing pool of quality vegan supplements to help you reach your peak while building an athletic, plant-powered body.
Steph Davis: Rock Climber Extraordinaire
Steph pushes the limits of body and mind with epic feats including free-solo climbing thousand-foot mountain peaks and wing-suit flying off the side of cliffs. As a casual climber, I can tell you that if you find this impressive, the more you know about climbing, the more impressive her feats seem.
Featured in National Geographic, Steph Davis attributes her peak performance to her vegan diet; “I free climbed El Capitan in a day, climbed Torre Egger in a day, and freed the Salathe Wall, and noticed that I was climbing better than I had before.”
Could veganism really lead to enhanced performance? The plant-based diet has been shown time and time again to nourish athletes just as well as an omnivorous diet, but is there any science behind an enhanced performance?
A study in the Yale Medical Journal as early as 1907 concluded that their “flesh abstaining” participants had significantly longer endurance than their “full-flesh” consuming athletes3. The study calculated the duration the participant could hold their arms out in front of them, and counted the number of squats they could perform. The article claimed that their omnivorous athletes wildly underperformed against even sedentary plant-based participants. (Let me be the first to raise a skeptical eyebrow at this data.)
Since then, further studies have put technology and innovation on their side and confirmed that plant-based participants surpass omnivores in both oxygen utilization (VO2max) and time to exhaustion4.
As described by NutritionFacts.org, a plant-based diet is also high in antioxidants. Antioxidants neutralize the free radicals produced by oxidative stress due to environmental and physiological stresses, including exercise. It’s a completely natural process, but an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants could prevent muscle repair. On the other hand, a diet full of antioxidants could provide anti-inflammatory benefits that promote muscle repair.
While long-term vegan diets may result in an increase of performance, NutritionFacts.org reiterates that the true benefit of the plant-based diet is the long-term health benefits of decreasing chronic disease formation. And who doesn’t want to live longer, healthier lives with more time to do their favorite activities?
As the indomitable Steph Davis writes:
“Knowing what I know now, even if being vegan didn’t make me healthier, energetic and stronger (which it does,) I would continue to eat this way purely in order to keep my dollars out of the system that perpetuates cruelty and abuse.”
There is a lot of emerging research on the effects of a plant-based diet on health and performance, but there is still a long way to go. Correcting misconstrued paradigms takes time. Fortunately, we have a lot of incredible vegan athletes paving the way for us, proving the old animal-based paradigm wrong, and showing the world what truly healthy and ethical fitness looks like.
- Lynch, H. M. et al. No significant differences in muscle growth and strength development when consuming soy and whey protein supplements matched for leucine following a 12 week resistance training program in men and women: A randomized trial. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 17, (2020).
- Craig, W. J. & Mangels, A. R. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 109, 1266–1282 (2009).
- Fisher, I. The Influence of Flesh-eating on Endurance. Battle Creek, Mich: Modern Medicine Pub (1908).
- Boutros, G. H., Landry-Duval, M. A., Garzon, M. & Karelis, A. D. Is a vegan diet detrimental to endurance and muscle strength? Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 74, 1550–1555 (2020).