With celebrities like NFL running back Adrian Foster and former President Bill Clinton embracing a vegan lifestyle, more and more health-conscious individuals are shifting towards a plant-based diet. Plant-based nutrition is known to improve long-term health and benefit animals and the environment, but many weight-trainers hesitate to make this healthy lifestyle change due to one question: is it possible to build muscle?
Yes You Can
The answer is: absolutely. (See my picture to the right.) Many athletes have already made the transition with outstanding success, and a quick glance at some powerful herbivorous animals such as horses, oxen, and gorillas also demonstrates that meat is not essential for building strength and muscle mass.
To put together a mass-gaining meal plan based on plant foods the objectives are no different than they are on any diet. To build muscle you will need a calorie surplus (eating more calories than you burn metabolically and through exercise) from healthy whole food sources like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans/nuts, and getting plenty of protein. You will also need to create the demand for more muscle through hard training and adequate recovery. Lastly, you will need to these things consistently, day in and day out, for long enough that a change can take place. Great physiques take time and commitment.
Nutritionally, creating a mass gaining, plant-based meal plan is easier than one might think. As a vegan bodybuilder I am most often asked where I get my protein, so this is a good place to start. The simplest answer is from food - all whole plant foods contain protein, and simply by getting enough calories you will have plenty of protein to be a healthy and active individual. There is no need to worry about mixing and matching proteins either. As long as you get plenty of variety throughout the day you will get all of the essential amino acids you need.
If you are looking to build muscle and are following an intense weight training program it's a good idea to make sure you consume more of the protein dense foods like beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains (and steer clear of processed foods like fake meat products). These are also the most calorie dense plant foods, which will make it easier to create that calorie surplus. As for supplementing protein, there are several great protein options based on whole plant foods that will make a great post-workout or meal replacement shake. My two favorite brands of protein are Plant Fusion and SunWarrior, and both are available on most major supplement websites and in many nutrition stores.
With regards to how much protein, a good rule of thumb for a hard training bodybuilder is one gram per pound bodyweight. This is much more than an average individual needs and in fact would cause excess work for the kidneys, but if you are someone trying to gain mass through intense training and maintaining calorie and protein surplus, more is necessary and this is a good starting point. Now, given that amount, divide it roughly equally into five or six meals during the day and you know what to shoot for at each meal. For example, a 200lb bodybuilder would shoot for roughly 200g of protein per day, getting about 40g at each of his five meals.
For fats, stick to whole food based fats like avocados, nuts, and seeds (rather than oil or condiments like Vegenaise and margarine). Fat is essential for many functions throughout the body such as hormone production, but it is also the easiest macronutrient to convert into body fat. Try to keep it to a maximum of 0.5 grams per pound of bodyweight (or preferably less) per day. For our 200lb bodybuilder, this would amount to 100g of fat per day as a maximum, but preferably 70 or 80g.
Carbs are your main source of fuel for intense training, so flesh out the rest of your daily calorie surplus with ample complex carbohydrates from foods like oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes, and fruit, as well as any other whole fruits, vegetables, or grains you enjoy. When you're looking to add mass, more is better and as long as it's from whole unprocessed foods you shouldn't worry too much about body fat gain. Save the occasional processed carbs, like floury and sugary foods, for your infrequent cheat meals - preferably after a brutal leg workout!
Sample Meal Plan
An example of what such a program would look like for our 200lb bodybuilder is:
1.5 cups oatmeal
Protein shake with 1 serving of Plant Fusion, 1 cup soymilk, 1 banana
1/2 block of extra firm tofu, scrambled with spinach and peppers
1 almond butter sandwich: 2 slices of whole grain bread, 2 tbsp almond butter
Black bean chili with 1 can black beans, 1/2 pack seitan, and veggies
1 baked sweet potato
Meal 4 (post workout):
Protein shake with 1.5 scoops SunWarrior protein, 1 cup soymilk, 1 banana
1 large spinach salad
1/2 cup lentils, cooked with veggies and spices over 1/2 cup brown rice