Protein is the foundation for bodybuilders striving to increase muscle mass. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, it's possible to meet the challenges of a high-protein diet with a plant-based bodybuilding meal plan by ensuring you eat a variety of nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and grains each day.
Role of Protein in Bodybuilding
You may have chosen to be vegan or a vegetarian for a number of reasons, including health, environmental or ethical beliefs. But the fact that you may not eat animal-based foods should not restrict you from training as a bodybuilder. By focusing on a high-protein vegetarian diet for bodybuilding, which includes the right balance of macronutrients to support muscle gain, you can successfully achieve your desired body composition.
Consuming adequate carbohydrates and healthy fats in the diet is as easy for a vegetarian as for an omnivore, but the challenge of meeting your high-protein needs may take a little more consideration.
Protein is made up of a combination of nitrogenous compounds called amino acids. Once absorbed by your body, amino acids become the raw materials required to make proteins necessary for nearly every biochemical reaction in your body. Protein supplies carrier agents in your blood to transport oxygen to your muscles and produce hormones needed for muscle growth.
Of the 20 amino acids required to synthesize protein, your body is able to produce 11 of them. The remaining nine are called essential amino acids because they must come from your diet.
The Best Bodybuilding Amino Acids
Many of the essential amino acids are directly involved with skeletal muscles and connective tissue development important for athletes, but three in particular are especially beneficial to bodybuilders. These are known as branched-chain amino acids and include leucine, isoleucine and valine.
Along with other amino acids, these compounds may trigger protein synthesis post exercise and help increase muscle mass and decrease fatigue. A small study published in June 2017 in the Frontier of Physiology found that branch-chained amino acids stimulated a 22 percent greater response to muscle protein synthesis following resistance training when compared with a placebo.
Leucine is the most important amino acid for bodybuilders because it contributes to the growth, maintenance and repair of muscles and bone tissue. It also prevents the breakdown of muscle proteins after intensive exercise, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NIH). Additionally, leucine helps with growth hormone production.
The best vegetarian food sources of leucine include soybeans, quinoa and corn, lists a article published in Scientific Reports in May 2016. If you are a lacto or lacto-ovo vegetarian, drinking milk will provide the highest source of leucine, according to a March 2012 article published in Journal of Obesity.
Isoleucine is an isolated form of leucine and is heavily concentrated in muscle tissue, according to NIH. Isoleucine is needed for hemoglobin production, which helps fuel your body. A deficiency is marked by muscle tremors. The best sources of isoleucine from plant foods are beans, including soybeans and wheat, with a lesser amount in potato and cauliflower, says the article in Scientific Reports. A lacto-ovo vegetarian bodybuilding meal plan that includes eggs will supply a good source of isoleucine.
Valine helps maintain your muscle coordination and is vital for the growth, repair and regeneration of tissue to ensure endurance, according to NIH. Valine is obtained from soy, cheese and vegetables.
Lysine is another amino acid that is helpful to bodybuilders because it converts fats into fuel and helps with the absorption of calcium for bone and collagen production. A deficiency in lysine can result in fatigue, muscle atrophy and osteoporosis, says NIH. Among vegetable sources are peas, beans, cauliflower, soy and quinoa, lists the article in Scientific Reports. If you are a vegetarian who eats dairy products, lysine is contained in cheese and eggs.
Getting Enough Protein
According to recommendations from the USDA 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from protein, depending on age and gender, to prevent deficiencies. But athletes, especially bodybuilders, have additional lean body mass and burn more calories during exercise, so they often require a higher intake of protein to build body muscle.
The position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says serious athletes could benefit from 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. However, for a vegetarian, American Council on Exercise suggests athletes should aim for an additional daily intake of 12 grams of protein because the body digests, synthesizes and utilizes protein from plant-based foods at a lower rate than animal-based proteins.
A January 2018 review published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (JISSN) agrees that higher protein consumption may have positive effects on body composition in individuals who resistance train to promote loss of fat. The amount you need to include in your diet is dependent upon the mode and intensity of exercise, the quality of protein ingested, and your energy and carbohydrate intake.
According to the JISSN, protein should be evenly distributed across the day, every three to four hours. Protein intake immediately before or after an exercise session may help increase lean muscle mass and strength, and improve recovery. Also, the review concluded that eating a high-protein snack before going to bed may increase overnight muscle protein synthesis and next-morning metabolism. This was shown to help improve muscle size and strength over 12 weeks of resistance training.
Vegan Bodybuilding Meal Plan
All natural foods from lettuce to nuts provide varying amounts of protein in the form of one or more amino acids. With careful nutritional choices, a vegetarian diet with sufficient caloric intake derived from a variety of fresh fruits, leafy greens, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds throughout the day can supply all the amino acids you need to fulfill your protein requirements, assures Cleveland Clinic.
Read more: What Foods Combine to Make Complete Protein?
You don't have to combine specific foods at each meal to get all the amino acids. Your body can recycle and mix absorbed amino acids present in your body to make up the protein it requires. Ensuring you eat a variety of plant-based foods throughout the day will provide all the amino acids you need. Cleveland Clinic notes that you absorb only 25 to 40 grams of protein at one time, so make sure you space out your protein intake throughout the day.
These top 10 plant-based healthy vegetarian sources of protein should be forefront in your bodybuilding diet, as listed by the USDA. The daily values (DV) are based on a protein intake of 50 grams per day.
- Tofu – Per cup, firm tofu contains 87 percent of the DV for protein; medium tofu provides 40 percent DV, and tempeh provides 67 percent DV.
- Soybeans – Per cup, dry roasted soybeans provide 81 percent DV for protein.
- Beans – Per cup, lentils provide 36 percent DV; white beans
contain 35 percent DV; split peas have 33 percent DV, and navy beans contain 30
- Soymilk – Per 16-ounce glass, unsweetened, soy milk provides
28 percent DV for protein.
- Green peas – Per cup, cooked green peas contain 17 percent
DV for protein.
- Seeds – Per handful, squash and pumpkin seeds provide 17
percent DV for protein; peanuts deliver 14 percent DV; almonds provide 12
percent DV, and sunflower seeds contain 11 percent DV.
- Quinoa – Per cup, cooked quinoa provides 16 percent DV for
protein; cornmeal and kamut each have 20 percent DV, and brown rice contains 11
- Dark leafy greens –
Per cup, cooked spinach provides 11 percent DV for protein; collards contain 10
percent DV; Swiss chard has 7 percent DV, and kale contains 5 percent DV.
- Sweet Corn – Per cup, cooked sweet corn provides 9 percent
DV for protein.
- Mushrooms – Per cup, cooked mushrooms contain 8 percent DV
For comparison, if you are a vegetarian who eats dairy, a cup of whole milk contains 16 percent DV for protein, according to USDA.
If you find that your diet cannot supply sufficient protein your body needs for the intensive training regime that bodybuilding demands, nutritional supplements made from natural plant-based ingredients may give you a boost. The review in JISSN indicates that using supplements to increases protein intake up to two or three times the RDA can promote greater overall improvements in body composition and lean body mass.
Some vegan protein supplements to consider are those made from nuts, seeds, grains and legumes, including peas, hemp, rice, soy, chia and peanut, or ones that combines different types of plant protein to get all the essential amino acids.
Include Sufficient Fat
You need fat in your bodybuilding diet to provide energy for muscle contractions and to sustain the intensive exercise regimes required in bodybuilding. Fat provides twice as much energy per unit mass compared to protein and carbohydrates, according to the American Heart Association. You also need fat to maintain optimal cell structure and hormone levels to support a muscle-building environment.
Fat helps protect cell membranes and the sheaths surrounding nerves, says Harvard Health Publishing. Dietary fat is also essential for muscle movement, blood clotting and inflammatory response, which assists in repair of muscles from injury during rigorous training. In addition, fat facilitates the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E and K.
Although the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend you should consume 25 to 35 percent of your total calories from fat, many bodybuilders who strive for lean muscle often restrict fat intake to lose weight. This practice may result in unhealthy effects on the body. The position statement of the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, published in March 2016, discourages consuming less than 20 percent of calories from fat because of the possible result of decreasing the delivery of vitamins and essential fatty acids.
Vegetarians should choose fats that contribute healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids to the diet in favor of saturated and trans fats. The addition of foods containing omega-3 have an exceptional benefit to a vegan bodybuilding meal plan. According to a September 2019 review published in Frontiers in Nutrition, omega-3 fatty acids may have a positive influence on skeletal muscle, gains in muscle size and muscle strength and help reduce the loss of muscle mass.
For your plant-based bodybuilding meal plan, USDA recommends the following foods that incorporate healthy omega-3 fatty acids:
- Chia seeds
- Canola oil
- Navy beans
- Brussels sprouts
What About Carbs?
Athletes who engage in resistance training or exercise hard every day have a high requirement for dietary carbohydrates. Carbs play an important role in fueling your body for athletic endurance and strength training. During the initial bulking stage of bodybuilding, when you want to muscle growth and development, your body needs an adequate amount of carbs in the diet to maintain and restore glycogen levels.
During intense physical activity, muscle glycogen particles are broken down, freeing glucose molecules that are used by muscle cells required for muscle contraction. Consuming a carbohydrate snack prior to working out can reduce glycogen depletion, which may enhance performance, says a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in May 2014.
The rate at which muscle glycogen is used depends upon the intensity of the exercise, according to the April 2018 article in Nutrition Reviews. The review reports the recommendation for daily carb intake from your diet needed to replenish muscle glycogen stores in liver and muscles is 8 to 12 grams per kilogram of body weight.
When adding carbohydrates to your vegan bodybuilding meal plan, choose complex carbohydrates that are unprocessed in the form of vegetables, grains and fruits. They should provide more than 20 grams of carbs per serving and include dietary fiber, choline, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, D, E and C, advises the Nutrition Reviews article.
Examples of good high-carbohydrate foods that contain the required nutrients, according to the study, include:
- Baked potato with skin
- Black beans, canned and drained
- Enriched penne pasta, boiled
- Enriched wheat bran cereal with raisins
- Whole-wheat bread
Foods such as breakfast cereals are often fortified with vitamin B12, a nutrient that is difficult to get in a plant-based diet. You should ensure that your bodybuilding diet includes vitamin B12 to keep your blood cells and nerves healthy, as well as to prevent anemia.
- Frontier of Physiology: "Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulates Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Humans"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "PubChem: Leucine"
- Scientific Reports: "Essential Amino Acids: Master Regulators of Nutrition and Environmental Footprint?"
- Journal of Obesity: "Excessive Leucine-mTORC1-Signalling of Cow Milk-Based Infant Formula: The Missing Link to Understand Early Childhood Obesity"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "PubChem: l-Isoleucine"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "PubChem: Valine"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "PubChem: Lysine"
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines: "Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Industry-Presented Blog: Half a Dozen Nutrition Myths DEBUNKED"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Do I Need to Worry About Eating ‘Complete’ Proteins?"
- USDA Nutrition Data: "Top 10 Vegan Sources of Protein"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Whole Milk"
- American Heart Association: "Dietary Fats"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Truth About Fats: the Good, the Bad, and the In-Between"
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: "Nutrition and Athletic Performance"
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "The Influence of Omega-3 Fatty Acids on Skeletal Muscle Protein Turnover in Health, Disuse, and Disease"
- USDA Nutrition Data: "Top 10 Foods Highest in Omega 3 Fatty Acids"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Evidence-Based Recommendations for Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation: Nutrition and Supplementation"
- Nutrition Reviews: "Fundamentals of Glycogen Metabolism for Coaches and Athletes"