When many aspiring bodybuilders and athletes think of bulking up, countless hours in the gym and lifting max reps of heavy weights come to mind. Little do they know that nutrition is equally important in the mass building equation and that foods consumed directly correlate to muscle gains from intense workouts.
Whether you’re a meat-eater or a vegan, the process of building muscle is essentially the same in terms of nutrient and caloric intake. It all boils down to determining your optimal macronutrient ratios based on your fitness goals and balancing your diet with the appropriate amount of protein, carbs, fats, and calories.
Here we break down the basics of how to build mass on a vegan diet to eat healthier than ever before and get in the best shape of your life.
The Basics of Building Mass
In theory, building mass is simple: take in more calories and protein than you burn metabolically and during workouts. Through intense weight training, you create a demand for more muscle. Bu then you actually start to get bigger and stronger during rest periods when you allow your body to fully heal and recover.
Researchers who conducted a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that resistance training creates larger increases in skeletal muscle size than in fat free mass; however, muscle size does not occur uniformly in the body. The conclusion was that the distribution of muscle size and total muscle mass are important for evaluating the effects of total body resistance training on muscle size. A separate study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology confirmed that resistance training is required for any training program aimed at building muscle mass and it is most effective for lean body mass gains.
All About Macros
Many people are confused by macros and especially how athletes can get their macros on a vegan diet. Bodybuilders and physique competitors have perfected the math of counting macros, which just means tracking the grams of protein, carbs, and fats consumed each day. Proteins, carbs, and fats are all macronutrients, and each has a crucial role in the body.
Protein helps build muscle and prevent muscle loss, while carbs are stored in the muscles, liver, blood, and brain for energy. Contrary to popular belief, fat is not the enemy because this essential nutrient facilitates vitamin absorption, hormone regulation, and even brain function.
Meanwhile, calories fuel the body with energy, but that’s a separate calculation entirely. Counting calories may help you lose weight but not gain mass, and that’s where macros come into play.
Factors that affect your macro calculation are your age, gender, weight, BMI, and activity level. The macronutrient breakdown for a bodybuilder or anyone looking to gain mass should look something like this: 50 percent of calories from carbs, 30 percent of calories from protein, and 20 percent of calories from fats. Compared to an average active person, this breakdown has more calories coming from protein and fats and fewer from carbs. If you want to build muscle on a vegan diet and bulk up from 210 pounds to 220 pounds, for example, start with one gram of protein per pound of body weight and try to consume 220 grams of protein each day.
Meeting Protein Needs with Plants
Not only do dietary proteins help build mass, but they also support the growth of body tissues, synthetize enzymes, repair muscle damage, and provide energy. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, determined that eating three to six meals per day with each meal containing 0.4-0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight before and after weight training maximizes gains at the gym. Another study from researchers at McMaster University found that the test group consuming more protein experienced greater muscle gains by about 2.5 pounds, while the lower protein group did not gain muscle mass.
Vegan alternatives to whey protein are pea and soy proteins. Some plant-based nutrition companies produce customized mixed plant and grain proteins designed to build mass. A Sports Medicine study determined that protein supplementation can enhance muscle mass and performance when paired with frequent workouts and when paired with adequate nutrition balance through food.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in protein needs when you’re trying to bulk up, but a balance of carbs, fats, and calories is just as important. Vegans sometimes have trouble getting enough calories to compensate for calories lost in intense workouts. But to build mass with vegan macros, you have to pay special attention to calorie intake.
Try experimenting with the number of calories that you consume, because this will be a major factor in terms of mass gain. Ultimately, fewer calories equals reduced mass gain, but increased calories could mean an increase in body fat if you’re not eating the right macro/calorie ratio.
Meat-Free Foods to Build Mass
With the right knowledge and a little guidance, it’s easy to add mass-building foods to your training diet without meat. There are many plant-based foods packed with protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates that can help you bulk up. Athletes can be more efficient with their meals by choosing foods that contain multiple macronutrients.
One great example is quinoa, which contains nine amino acids that the body can’t produce on its own and complex carbs for enhanced energy. Legumes, including beans, peas, and lentils, are rich in protein, fiber, potassium, iron, magnesium, and folate. An added bonus is that legumes boost insulin response and enhance nutrient absorption, which are both essential for muscle growth.
Nuts are another important part of a vegan diet because they’re packed with protein, calories, fiber, and healthy fats. Green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach contain vitamins, calcium, and folic acid to enhance muscle concentration, and fruits build muscle with a nice mix of complex carbs, fiber, and minerals.
Supplementation is a way of life for many athletes and bodybuilders looking to gain mass, and there are some great plant-based protein powders on the market that are perfect for vegans. With an optimal mix of protein and carbs, pre-workout protein shakes support muscle growth, prevent muscle weakness, and lessen the risk of muscle breakdown.
Avoiding Nutrient Deficiencies
One thing that vegan athletes and bodybuilders need to be especially careful of while training is nutrient deficiencies. Vitamin B-12, which is needed for blood formation and cell division, is a cause of concern because plant foods don’t contain it except when contaminated by microorganisms or are fortified with vitamin B12.
Fortunately, vitamin B12 is added to many vegan products, like nutritional yeast, and vegan-friendly supplements are available too. Other common deficiencies among vegans include calcium, vitamin D, and iron, but these can typically be remedied with natural vegan foods like broccoli, spinach, kale, almonds, and fortified oatmeal.
Sample Vegan Meal Plans
The creator of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, Robert Cheeke, has put together some no-nonsense meal plans based on his experiences and observations as a competitive and champion vegan athlete. Six meals spaced out over the course of the day is the best way to continuously fuel your hardworking body with the macros it needs to be competitive.
One of Cheeke’s meal plans, for example comes out to 4,300 calories, 175 grams protein, 675 grams carbs, and 100 grams fats. This is a nice macro ratio for an average 180-pound man looking to build mass; however, the percentages per day should vary depending on how intense your workout is and the meal plan you chose for that particular day.
No one ever said that building mass was easy, but it’s just as easy on a vegan diet as a meat-based one if you have the dedication, focus, and commitment.
Chris Willitts is the founder of VegetarianBodybuilding.com and a contributing writer for Muscle & Fitness, Vegan Health and Fitness Magazine, and Natural Muscle Magazine.