The following guest blog post by fitness blogger Morgan Antoinette provides some great ideas/tips to consider when trying to build muscle while following a vegetarian diet. *Please check with your registered dietitian and fitness trainer when starting to pursue muscle building goals while on a vegetarian diet as needs can vary from individual to individual.*
If you are looking to build muscle while following a vegetarian diet but don’t know how to start, then you have come to the right place. There are thousands of articles talking about the good virtues of fish, lean meat, chicken, eggs and other animal protein-rich choices and their positive impacts on building muscle, but what about those adults who choose not to eat animals or animal products? What about those who want to build muscle on a primarily plant-based diet?
Protein is the most important nutrient that you need in large amounts to build muscle. This being said, you don’t need to jump to the conclusion that this protein has to come from animals in order to build muscle (and you definitely don’t need meat to build meat)! There are other ways to gain muscle despite the fact that you are not consuming any meat products.
Let’s get to the main point. Here are 10 tips that may help you not only to gain muscle but also to have a healthy balanced-diet while following a vegetarian or plant based lifestyle.
1. Get Enough Calories
Getting enough calories is necessary as a vegetarian bodybuilder. Not consuming sufficient protein and all-around calories may result your body turn to the protein you are intaking for fueling basic function and lead to a calorie- deficit, which you don’t want when trying to build muscle.
2. Eat Sufficient Amounts of Fruits and Vegetables
To get high-quality sources of a variety of nutrients along with antioxidants you should include a variety of fruits (eg banana, strawberry, pomegranate, etc.) and veggies of a wide range of colors especially dark green vegetables (eg kale, broccoli and spinach) in your diet. These beautiful plant-foods may help promote a strong immune system.
3. Chickpeas and Legumes are Important too!
Since vegetarians aren’t able to consume their protein from lean meat or chicken, they have to get it from other sources. Chickpeas, legumes, beans, seeds, lentils, and split peas are some examples of great plant-based- sources of proteins for vegetarians. Plus, these can always double as a good low-fat source of carbohydrates which you can take as a snack before you work out.
4. Exchange Quinoa in Place of Rice
If you eat rice with your meals 3 times a day, you are taking more carbohydrates than protein. When you are looking to use nutrient dense options (so you don’t have to eat as high volume of food), swap your rice intake with quinoa. Unlike rice, quinoa is a complete source of protein that you need to build muscle. (Note rice can still be a good option, but you need to combine it with sources such as beans to create a complete protein source).
5. Use Soy, Nut, or Pea Protein or Egg White Powders
Having soy, nut, pea, or egg white protein powders can do wonders in terms of protein intake (note egg whites are only for vegetarians that do still consume eggs). These are convenient, easy to find and quick to dissolve in the body. “Must-haves” as fitness experts call it. However, medical cautions should be taken while having soy protein powder due to potential negative on certain medical conditions). Also note protein powders should only be consumed in amounts recommended as high intake of protein powders can result in strain on the kidneys.
6. Avoid Processed Foods
Now, this is general advice for all, no matter if you are on a plant- based diet or consume animal proteins; if you want to build muscle or lose fat- you should AVOID processed food as much as possible. I know it is difficult to always use fresh foods and prepare all 3 meals a day, especially on a primarily plant based diet, but building a reliance on processed food can cause negative effects on your body overtime. You may save some time eating overly processed foods now, but in the long run you may be harming yourself. It is better you start building a habit on whole grains foods, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, etc. to maintain a fresh diet that is beneficial to your body.
7. Your Workouts Should Be Intense but Short
As a vegetarian, your workout routines should be structured in such a way that is intense but short. This will avoid overworking your muscles and potentially decreasing muscle mass especially if you are not quite getting enough protein in your diet. This will also adjust what nutrients your body needs for the workout, being able to rely on carbs before protein for a longer portion of your physical activity. This is because intense-long workout sessions require elevated protein intake which can be more difficult to get on a vegetarian diet. Note shorter more intense workouts are generally more beneficial for those trying to build muscle/bulk.
8. Go “Nuts”
Nuts while being a great source of protein, are also are an amazing source of healthy fat, a nutrient that can provide you with a form of long-lasting energy. A handful of nuts (particularly peanuts, walnuts and almonds) will increase your calorie intake in the blink of an eye and allowing you to consume the high caloric value you need to help you gain muscle more easily. Plus, you can also smear some delicious nut butter over your apples, bananas, oatmeal, or mix it quickly to your favorite fruit smoothies
9. Include Flaxseeds And Flaxseed Oil
If you are not consuming fish or fish oil, to provide a replacement amazing source of essential fatty acids, turn to flaxseeds and flaxseed oil. These are a primary source of essential fatty acid your body needs if you are not eating salmon, sardines or tuna.
10 . Consider Supplementation
Iron is one of the nutrients that you may be in deficient if you are on plant-based diet. If your iron levels are low, it may result in fatigue, which can lead to a less intense workout session (big NO if you are wanting to put on muscle). Iron is also important in red blood cell production, something you wouldn’t want to risk being low in (note you can get iron from many non-animal protein food sources, but it tends to be less bioavailable in these plant sources).
Another supplement you may want to consider is branched chain amino acids. These should be taken before you start your workout session and after you have finished it, to combat muscle breakdown during the session.
B-12 is also a supplement you should consider as this micronutrient is crucial for maintaining energy levels and is only easily available for the body from red meat animal protein sources.
If you are planning to be on a plant-based-diet for long, you should consider supplementing with iron, B-12, and branched chain amino acids for maintaining your overall health, especially when building muscle.
My last suggestion would be to stay POSITIVE throughout the whole muscle-building process. It may take longer than those with a diet containing animal protein, but you can still reach your much-desired end results!
Written by: Morgan Antoinette
Wishing you all the best in health and wellness,
–Ricci-Lee Hotz, MS, RDN
Denver’s Dancing Dietitian
A Taste of Health, LLC
“Improving Quality of life one bite at a time”