Vegan Muscle Building - Can It Work?

A vegan lifestyle can create special challenges when it comes to muscle building. Article includes a sample eating plan and tips to help you maximize growth.

Vegan Muscle Building

Over the last years, more and more people have approached me with questions regarding a vegan diet and how to gain muscle/lose fat, so I decided that this might make for a good topic for Muscle & Strength. I am a convinced carnivore but I do respect other people's beliefs, and it makes for interesting intellectual challenge to come up with a diet for a vegan.

Someone who chooses the vegan lifestyle forgoes all animal product including milk and eggs, which seems like a terrible idea when it comes to building an impressive physique. After all, we have been taught for years that meat, milk and eggs are a cornerstone in our quest of becoming the next Arnold.

So the question remains: can someone on a vegan diet build gain substantial muscle and if so, how?

The answer isn't all that cut and dry, so bear with me. While it is possible to get sufficient protein from lentils, beans, nuts, soy, etc., there are some roadblocks a vegan needs to overcome.

I see three main obstacles on your path to 220 lbs with 5% body fat (by the way all three points are of interest to carnivores as well, so read on):

  1. Achieving a positive nitrogen balance, in particular mTor upregulation, when building muscle/recovering from workouts.
  2. Vitamin B-12 deficiency.
  3. Carb control in order to lose body fat.

mTor Upregulation

Let's talk about mTor a little bit since its one of the most mysterious and misunderstood mechanisms in the body. The truth is, we do not understand the old mammalian target of rapamycin fully but from what we do know it is that its responsible for the signaling and regulation of insulin, IGF-1 and certain amino acids.

Insulin is the most potent anabolic hormone known, and promotes the synthesis and storage of carbohydrates, lipids and proteins, while inhibiting their degradation and release into the circulation. IGF-1 stands for insulin like growth factor and is an extremely powerful peptide hormone, which might even cause hyperplasia (creation of new muscle fibers). All in all, precisely the type of hormones that you need in order to build huge bulging muscles.

Vegan muscle building

What does my nutrition have to do with these hormones? Quite a bit actually. We want to use these hormones around our workout to recover as fast as possible and start protein synthesis.

For years now, we were told to diligently drink our high carb post workout shake in order to "spike our insulin levels" so it can "shuttle" nutrients into the muscle. As it turns out having carbohydrates without a full complement of amino acids means that mTORC1 signaling will be impaired and the insulin response of a carbohydrate load will not lead to protein synthesis (but to fat gain), which means no new muscle being build.

Ok, so we'll have some protein with my shake, what's the big deal?

Good point, after all, whey protein and l-leucine are the most powerful stimulators of insulin and protein synthesis (with or without carbohydrates). But this is exactly where vegans run into trouble, since most vegan proteins are incomplete or l-leucine deficient, so they won't stimulate mTor enough in order to facilitate protein synthesis.

This is why I highly recommend supplementation with BCAAs during or post workout. A study by Esmarck et al showed that protein synthesis was not dependent on insulin but by hyperaminoacidaemia (high blood amino acid levels) which can be achieved by as little as 10 grams of protein. Any more and the protein is wasted as energy and not as building material, or simply stored as fat.

So to summarize: as a vegan (or any bodybuilder) you must have 10 grams of whey or BCAAs upon awakening and during your workout. 10 grams of protein intra-workout are probably worth 60 grams at any other time during the day. Carbohydrates are much less important than we are led to believe, unless you train for 90 minutes plus.

Vitamin B-12 Deficiency

Vitamin B-12 is needed to create blood cells and cell division, Since it only occurs in animal products, hard training vegans can be deficient. The solution here is either brewers yeast or a simple b-12 supplement. The same goes for zinc. I recommend using ZMA before bed for deeper sleep and higher testosterone output.

Carb Control

Almost every vegan protein is loaded with carbs (lentils, beans, chickpeas) so if you are trying to cut, you'll run into problems. The first line of defense are nuts and soy products, but there is only much tofu one can eat.

Nuts deliver a good amount of fat, so if you are training for a bodybuilding show, you won't be able to eat the amount of nuts you'll need to get to 200 grams of protein. Here is where you'll need to supplement.

Luckily, the supplement industry has picked up on the needs of vegans and there now is a wide array of hemp, rice, pea, buckwheat and soy proteins one can use to supplement your competition diet.

Sample Vegan Muscle Building Diet

Here is an outline of how I would approach a vegan diet:

  • 7 am - 10 grams of BCAAs. Afterwards, consume some pure cranberry juice. Yes it's tart, but it's also the best liver detoxifier one can find. This goes for all lifters, not just vegans. If your liver isn't healthy, all that precious protein you are consuming will be wasted.
  • 7:30 am - Pancake from almond flour, almond milk, protein of choice. 1/2 grapefruit. Add almond butter and/or honey if calorie content allows.
  • Noon - Tofu burger with lentils/tomato sauce poured over, rice cakes with almond butter if bulking.
  • 3 pm - (Pre workout meal) Oatmeal cooked with protein powder and almond milk, add fruit and nuts if calorie content allows.
  • 5 pm - During workout 10 grams of BCAAs.
  • 6 pm - Salad with tofu, nuts and avocado. Add quinoa if bulking.
  • 8 pm - Repeat meal (from 7:30 am, noon or 6 pm) depending on goals.

If you're dieting, every meal should contain vegetables (goes also for carnivores as well, by the way).

So while it's true that vegans face more of an uphill battle, it doesn't meant that it's impossible to build an impressive physique. You'll just have follow some simple guidelines and observe how your body reacts.