The goal for every athlete’s training plan is better performance. Whether you run, play a team sport or compete in CrossFit, you probably want enhance your strength and improve your body composition.
For a long time, it was commonly thought that the only important food group needed to build muscle was meat and lots of it. With the rise in popularity of vegetarian diets and scientific evidence supporting their merit, many athletes have made the switch to eating less meat or none at all. While a small segment of the popular consider themselves vegetarians, this number is steadily on the rise. Some world-class athletes like Venus Williams and NFL star Arian Foster have proven that body composition and performance are not compromised by making the switch to plant-based diets.
Simply going vegetarian does not mean you have to sacrifice your goal to build muscle. You can follow a plant-based (or mostly plant-based) eating plan and still build enough strength for your chosen sport.
Vegetarian Diets Defined
If you are an athlete or active person contemplating a plant-based lifestyle, it’s important to understand the different styles. While there are many variations, the four main styles are:
- Vegan: This style of eating chooses to abstain from any and all animal-derived foods including meat, seafood, dairy, eggs and sometimes honey.
- Lactovegetarian: This style excludes all animal products except dairy. Milk, cheese and yogurt may still be consumed.
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: This style of eating includes eggs and dairy but still abstains from meat and seafood.
- Pescatarian: This style of eating includes seafood but no other kind of meat. It may or may not include eggs and seafood based on a person’s preference.
Also keep in mind that every individual can define her own form of vegetarianism. The term “flexitarian” describes someone who eats mostly plant-based foods but may incorporate a variety of animal foods on an as-needed basis.
Why Protein Is so Important for Muscles
All forms of protein, whether in our own muscles, a piece of beef, an egg or tofu, contain a mix of amino acids. These amino acids are what are affectionately called “the building blocks of life” because they make up many of our living cells.
When it comes to protein in our diets, we need to eat it daily to ensure we have an adequate supply of all the amino acids needed to rebuild our tissue. Unlike fat and carbohydrates, our bodies don’t keep amino acids idly stored for later use. All the amino acids have a role. When amino acids need to be replenished (i.e. muscle building), they have to come from the diet. The tricky part is that most plant-based foods don’t contain all the amino acids in any one food; therefore, vegetarians must eat a variety of plants-based foods to get all the amino acids.
The Concern for Vegetarian Diets
In order for muscles to grow, there has to be a surplus of amino acids circulating in the bloodstream, at least temporarily. The concern for vegetarian diets is that they may not contain enough high-quality protein to build muscle as effectively as a meat-containing diet.
Many plant-based proteins are not “complete proteins,” meaning they do not contain all the essential amino acids, particularly lysine, methionine and leucine, that are needed by the body. That doesn’t, however, mean vegetarians cannot obtain all the essential amino acids they need. Research has found that by increasing the amount and variety of plant-based proteins in a vegetarian diet, you can make up for what is more easily acquired through a meat-containing diet.
5 Tips for Building Muscle on a Vegetarian Diet
Here are five important tips to ensure you are getting adequate protein in your vegetarian diet:
1. Eat enough calories.
You won’t build muscle if you’re under-eating calories. Make sure you are eating enough food to support your active lifestyle. You can use MyFitnessPal to track your daily calorie and protein goals.
2. Use the “1.2–1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight” rule.
Moderately active individuals can meet their protein needs with the Recommended Daily Allowance of 0.8 g/kg body weight/day. Athletes training five times or more a week do have higher requirements and should use 1.2–1.7 g/kg body weight/day. Eating more than this recommendation is not necessarily beneficial and could be detrimental. If you’re unsure, work with a registered dietitian to determine if a higher protein intake beyond this recommendation is beneficial for your body and performance.
3. Eat a variety of plant-based protein.
You may need to increase your total daily protein intake to promote muscle building. Quinoa, beans, tofu, edamame, hemp seeds and lentils are great vegan choices. Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs and seafood are excellent choices for other styles of vegetarianism.
4. Choose whole foods containing the amino acid leucine daily.
This is an especially important amino acid for vegetarians and muscle building. Spirulina (sea algae), eggs, fish, cottage cheese, soy, kidney beans, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds are good sources of leucine.
5. Refuel after workouts.
The first 15–45 minutes post-workout are a very important time to replenish your body with easy-to-digest carbs and protein to best aid muscle building. Examples:
- 1 medium banana + 1 tablespoon almond butter
- 1 ounce dry roasted or raw almonds + 1.5-ounce box of raisins
- 1 medium banana + 1 tablespoon almond butter
- 1 hard-boiled egg and 1 thick slice of whole-grain bread
- 1 medium tortilla rolled up with 2 tablespoons of hummus, 1 loose cup of spinach, and 1/4 cup shredded carrots, 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, 1 tablespoon hummus, 2 tablespoons dried cranberries and 1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
- 8 ounces tart cherry juice and a cheese stick
By paying attention to diet details, any vegetarian can successfully achieve her fitness goals— including building muscle.
- Sports Nutrition Guidelines for the Vegetarian. The Vegetarian Resource Group. Available at: https://www.vrg.org/nutshell/athletes.htm. Accessed on November 14, 2015.
- Rosenbloom C, Coleman E eds.Sports Nutriton: A Practice Manual for Professional, 5th Edition. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2012