Building Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet
Plant protein works as well as meat.
After reading the subtitle, you may be raising your eyebrows.
We’ve been told all our lives that we need to eat meat to build muscle. Meat is how you get your protein, and you need lots of protein if you’re going to build muscle, right?
Last week’s post was about weight loss. If you’d like to slim down, see that post. This week, it seemed suitable to address a topic concerning those who want to bulk up—or at least gain strength and get toned, even without adding bulk.
If you want to build strength and muscle mass, then yes, you need protein. And not just protein per se. If you’re really serious about building muscle, you’re likely going to want to focus in on leucine in particular as well, along with how much protein you’re getting in total and spacing it throughout the day, all of which is key for muscle protein synthesis. Hang tight; we’ll return to this in a bit.
First, let's address the basics.
Can you build muscle eating plants?
Earlier on the blog, we addressed the myth of so-called “incomplete” proteins, affirming the important fact that all plants have all nine essential amino acids. To build upon that, we turn now to look at the adequacy of plant protein to achieve strength and muscle growth.
Just as we’ve been fed the myth that plant protein is “incomplete” and thus inferior to animal protein (such as meat, eggs, and dairy), we’ve also been fed the myth that animal protein, especially from meat, is superior to plant protein for building muscle and getting strong.
But is it?
Research has shown that plant protein produces just as good of results as far as building strength and muscle are concerned. In episode 137 of The Proof podcast, Simon Hill interviews researcher and scientist Hamilton Roschel about the outcomes of a recent study he and a team conducted comparing animal and plant protein sources to see whether protein source affected muscle growth and strength in young, healthy adults performing resistance training. This episode is certainly worth a listen. In short, the plant protein worked just as well as animal protein for promoting strength and muscle growth.
What’s more, not only does plant protein “work” just as well as animal protein does in building muscle and strength, plants also support recovery and overall health in ways that animal products do not.
If you’re interested in learning more about how plants can fuel an athletic lifestyle, I recommend watching The Game Changers documentary. One of my favorite quotes from the movie comes from a world record holding strongman, Patrik Baboumian, “Someone asked me, ‘How could you get as strong as an ox without eating any meat?’ My answer was, ‘Have you ever seen an ox eating meat?’” Granted, we are not oxen, but he makes a terrific point. All protein initially comes from plants. Any protein we get from animal products got there because the animal ate plants (or ate another animal that first ate plants). To go straight to the source—plants—for our protein simply cuts out the “middleman.”
How much protein do I need?
While there is some debate regarding the optimal amount of protein to consume daily, if you’re looking to build muscle, it’s likely good to aim for about 1.6– 2.2 g per kg of body weight. For example, if you weigh 80 kg, you’ll want to aim to eat 128–176 g of protein a day.
Additionally, assuming your goal is to promote muscle protein synthesis, aim to spread out your protein intake throughout the day. There is evidence suggesting that hitting a 30 g threshold (in addition to getting 2–3 g of leucine) per meal is important for optimal muscle protein synthesis.
As you look to hit that 30 g threshold and include enough leucine, focus in on plants high in leucine, such as soy (esp. tofu, tempeh, and edamame), various other legumes (e.g., lentils and red kidney beans), nuts (e.g., almonds, cashews, peanuts, and walnuts), whole grains like rolled oats and brown rice, and even other veg like potatoes and broccoli.
A quick note on soy: tempeh and tofu are great sources of both protein and leucine in particular. If you have concerns about myths you have heard spread about soy, check out the resources linked below to help answer any questions you may have. In brief, there’s nothing to fear.
So . . .
Is it possible to build muscle and get strong on a plant-based diet?
As with any goal, it takes awareness of how to get there and thoughtful planning along the way. Instead of intentionally pounding the steaks and eggs, enjoy a diverse array of legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and other veg and fruits to plant power your gains in the gym.
 The Proof podcast, episode 137: https://theproof.com/animal-vs-plant-protein-for-building-muscle-and-strength/.
 See, e.g., several articles about the advantages of plant-based eating for athletes: https://gamechangersmovie.com/benefits/.
 The Game Changers, 2018. See https://gamechangersmovie.com/.
 From the Protein Pyramid produced by The Proof (a “Protein Protocol For Resistance Training Plant-Based Athletes”): https://theproof.com/optimising-protein-intake-for-resistance-training-plant-based-athletes/. In his book, Simon Hill recommends about 1.8 g, which is within this range. See The Proof is in the Plants, 372.
 Study on PubMed: https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-12-86.
 Protein Pyramid by The Proof: https://theproof.com/optimising-protein-intake-for-resistance-training-plant-based-athletes/.
 See Simon Hill, The Proof is in the Plants, 373.