If you call yourself a vegan, a vegetarian, a plant-based, or whatever else that entails you don’t eat animals and their products, one common question people ask you when you reveal this fact to them is along the lines of “how do you get enough protein?”.
Their concern about your protein intake, muscle mass, and strength, will further increase if you’re particularly looking to build muscle. To tell you the truth, their worrying is kind of justified. After all, building muscle and maintaining your muscle mass requires that you consume plenty of protein.
You’ll understand where they’re coming from even more when you know that 62% of adults in the United States get their protein from meat, eggs, and dairy. In fact, this number may be higher since 8% of the consumed protein couldn’t be classified (perhaps slim jims or hotdogs?) according to the NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey).
Protein sourced from plants made up only 30% of total protein intake, and the largest contributor here is bread, which isn’t exactly famous for being rich in protein. That said, if you’re wondering whether plant protein can build muscle and how much protein do vegans need to build muscle, then you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’re answering these questions and more as we share a complete guide on gaining muscle through a vegan diet. Let’s get started!
Protein On a Vegan Diet
Since we want to give you a comprehensive answer to today’s main question, we have to back up and make sure you’re sufficiently familiar with the basics of protein composition.
You probably already know that our bodies need to consume certain nutrients to function properly. According to the quantities we should consume, these nutrients are categorized into macro and micronutrients.
A healthy human diet calls for 3 main macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Protein molecules are made up of long chains of hundreds of amino acids. Think of amino acids as the building blocks of proteins. What determines the characteristics of different proteins is the sequence in which the amino acids are arranged as well as the length of the chains.
When you eat foods containing protein, your body digests the protein content by breaking it down into amino acids so it gets absorbed easier. Once they enter your bloodstream, your body uses the amino acids in lots of other processes in addition to building muscle.
Types of amino acids
Diving deeper, there are two major groups of amino acids: essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids. Inside these two groups, there are 21 different types of amino acids that the human body uses in various operations including MPS (muscle protein synthesis). The thing is, our bodies are incapable of producing 9 out of the 21 amino acids, which means we have to get them from external sources (food), hence the name “essential”.
Essential amino acids, or EAAs for short, include histidine, lysine, tryptophan, methionine, threonine, phenylalanine, isoleucine, leucine, and valine. While we’re at it, keep in mind that the last 3 amino acids are also branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
Amino acid profile
Since we have to rely on food to satisfy our daily needs of essential amino acids, you need to learn more about the concept of quality. For foods serving as a source of protein, their quality can be determined through their amino acid profile.
The amino acid profile of a certain food is simply a list of the amino acids it contains and the amount present in each one. This is where we start to see a difference between animal and plant proteins.
The amino acid profiles of animal foods such as chicken, meat, cheese, and eggs are known to be more complete or optimal. This means that such products contain ideal ratios of all the 9 essential amino acids for our bodies to efficiently benefit from.
On the other hand, the amino acid profiles of plant foods usually offer a less than the ideal ratio of the 9 essential amino acids, which is why they’re considered to be non-optimal or incomplete.
Protein Combining: Is it a Myth?
We established that proteins from plant foods are often low on 1 or 2 of the essential amino acids. In the past, this triggered the popularity of something called protein combining or complementing.
The idea behind this practice was to make up for the missing portions of some of the essential amino acids in plant sources by consuming a combination of different plant foods in each meal. This way, your body gets all the required nutrients in optimal proportions.
You may be thinking “well, that sounds convincing”, but in reality, this is just an ancient plant-based diet myth (by ancient, we mean the 1970s) that we’re about to debunk by comparing the essential amino acid profile of lentil and brown rice.
Looking at both profiles, it’s obvious that neither food is optimal. Yes, both foods contain all 9 essential amino acids, but the amount of a couple of them falls short, namely lysine and methionine.
In rice, you’ll notice a lower content of lysine and higher content of methionine, whereas lentils have a higher content of lysine and a lower content of methionine.
The reason we chose to compare these two plant foods, in particular, is because each of them belongs to a food group that’s used in implementing the protein combining myth. These food groups are:
- Legumes — these include lentils, peas, and beans. Legumes are typically low in methionine but contain more than enough lysine.
- Cereals — these include rice, oatmeal, and wheat. Cereals are typically low in lysine but contain plenty of methionine.
Following the practice of complementary protein, you’d need to combine foods from both of the categories above to make sure you get an optimal profile of amino acids. Otherwise, the whole thing would be useless (or some absurd consequence of the same effect).
This isn’t true, not by any chance. As proof, take a look at this passage from the Position Paper of the American Dietetic Association regarding vegetarian diets:
“Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults, thus complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal”.
So what’s the right thing you should do to make sure your body receives all its essential amino acid needs? The general recommendation is for you to eat a variety of plant foods (cereals, legumes, nuts, and seeds) during the day, not in each meal. This way, if one food doesn’t give enough of certain essential amino acids, another food will fill in what’s missing.
As such, your job is to create a diverse diet using a variety of high-protein plant foods (more on this later). This will result in a vegan diet that easily meets all your nutritional requirements for building muscle.
What’s more, you don’t have to be super strict about it. It’s okay if your dinner or mid-day snack is a bit short in a couple of amino acids. There’s always a pool of muscle-free amino acids (about 120 grams in a normal male) existing in our bloodstream that the body can pull from to use when necessary.
The bottom line is that the human body is a lot smarter than most people give it credit for. It’ll use what you give it as efficiently as possible. Just don’t be unreasonable and go on a single-food type diet such as an oats-only diet.
Vegan Protein Anabolic Capacity
The anabolic capacity of any protein source refers to how well it contributes to muscle building. You know now that plant proteins can give you all your essential amino acid requirements as you eat a variety of them throughout the day, but what about their anabolic capacity? Is it the same as animal protein?
The best way to answer this question is to take a look at the ratio of essential amino acids compared to that of non-essential amino acids in both sources. The one with the larger proportion is preferred as it best promotes muscle growth.
The reason for this lies in 2 points:
- The rate of muscle synthesis quickly becomes limited when there’s a decrease in any essential amino acid. This means that an abundance of essential amino acids in your bloodstream is always better for building muscle.
- Essentials amino acids encompass a subgroup called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which play a vital role in triggering muscle building.
Including valine, leucine, and isoleucine, BCAAs make up 35% of essential amino acids present in muscle protein. What’s more, they boost muscle protein production and reduce its breakdown.
Studies also show that leucine is possibly the most important player of these mechanisms. What’s more, the amount of leucine in your food can directly affect muscle strength and hypertrophy. The content required for maximizing muscle protein synthesis is around 3 to 4 grams per serving.
Bearing this information in mind, when we compare a plant protein source to an animal one, the animal source will contain more essential amino acids in the vast majority of cases.
This translates into a lower muscle-building capacity for plant proteins than animal proteins.
Vegan Protein Digestibility
Another factor that affects the efficiency of a protein source in supporting muscle hypertrophy is digestibility. This refers to the ability of your body to digest the protein and put it to use.
For example, if you consume 100 grams of a certain protein and your body absorbs 80 grams, this means it has a digestibility of 80/100 = 80%.
Unfortunately, the digestibility of vegan proteins tends to be lower than animal-sourced ones. Here are the digestibility values for some foods to give you a better idea of what we’re working with:
How Much Protein Do Vegans Need to Build Muscle?
The dietary reference of the United States and Canada tells us that consuming approximately 0.8 to 0.9 grams of protein per kg of body weight is enough for most adults (98%) to meet their daily nutrient requirement.
The thing about this particular recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is that it’s calculated to suit the general population. This means it’s based mostly on individuals who aren’t vegan nor particularly athletic.
For people participating in resistance or endurance exercises who are aiming to increase their muscle mass, the amount of protein will surely increase. The question is, how much more?
The answer lies in the results of a huge meta-analysis that involved all the studies done on the impact of protein supplementation on the increase of muscle mass and strength in healthy adults undergoing resistance training.
The bottom line was this: “Protein supplementation beyond total protein intakes of 1.62 g/kg/day resulted in no further RET-induced gains in FFM”.
In other words, if you consume around 1.62 grams of protein for every kg of body weight (approximately about 0.7 grams per pound), you’ll achieve maximum muscle growth and strength gains, and eating more than that wouldn’t benefit you further.
That being said, this meta-analysis took the extra step and attempted to factor in the differences between people when it comes to the amount of protein required just to keep their current muscle mass.
While 1.6 grams of protein per kg will optimally serve the needs of most individuals, the researchers recommended another value to support the needs of people whose bodies need more protein to perform better. The text regarding this point is: “ it may be prudent to recommend ~2.2 g protein/kg/d for those seeking to maximize resistance training-induced gains in FFM”.
As such, we can safely say that a vegan person needs to consume protein within a range of 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kg every day to maximize their bodies’ capacity towards building muscle. This can apply to vegan bodybuilders, fitness athletes, and cross-fitters.
How to Calculate Your Optimal Protein Intake To Build Muscle
Now that we have determined how much protein vegans need to build muscle, you might be wondering what does it mean for your and your fitness goals?
Calculating your optimal protein intake for muscle gain is pretty simple.
If you don’t know your weight yet, go ahead and step on a scale to figure it out. If it shows your weight in lbs, divide it by 2.2 to transform it to kilograms.
In this stage you can choose between if you want to maintain muscle or if you are looking to gain muscle mass (aka bulking)
For muscle maintenance, multiple your weight in kilos per 0.8g. Otherwise, if you’re wanting to put on some muscle and are training hard at the gym (which requires your muscles to recover) you can go for 1.6 – 2.0g of protein per kg.
If you are looking to lose weight instead but want to make sure to maintain your lean muscle mass, make sure to check out this article.
Vegan Protein Sources
If you’re a vegan trying to build muscle, here are a few suggestions for plant-sourced foods that are rich in protein content:
- Spirulina — blue-green algae consisting of 70% protein content. Spirulina is available in a convenient powder form that you can add to your favorite smoothie. Alternatively, you can take it as a standalone supplement.
- Nuts and peanuts — don’t forget about peanuts and other types of nuts such as almonds, pistachios, and cashews. These make for an excellent source of vegan proteins, whether whole or in the form of butter. You can munch on them as a snack, add them to a salad bowl, or use them as an ingredient in your smoothies.
- Legumes and beans — these are known to be great sources of plant protein, but you should be mindful of which ones you’re consuming. Generally, stick to soybeans, lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, split peas, and mung beans.
Additionally, beans and legumes contain a generous content of fiber, which promotes bowel movement and aids in fat reduction. You can try all sorts of bean burger recipes or whip up a bowl of edamame to snack on.
- Kernels and seeds — these include chia seeds, hemp seeds, sesame, and pumpkin seeds, sesame, and chia seeds. You can sprinkle some of these over an oat bowl, coconut yogurt, or salad. Alternatively, add them to your favorite smoothie.
- Tofu — this is a famous substitute for meat among vegans, which means it’s a highly versatile product. For example, you can use tofu to make a wide range of stir-fry meals, salads, and curries. Additionally, you can serve fried tofu as a side dish next to rice and vegetables.
- Oatmeal — oats aren’t just a terrific source of protein, but they’re also quite versatile. You can use oats to make breakfast bowls, post-workout smoothies, or even cookies to have as dessert.
Another advantage to oatmeal is that it has a mild taste, which means it goes well with nearly every other ingredient without clashing flavors. A delicious recipe you can try with oats calls for some soy milk, a handful of your favorite nuts, a tablespoon of peanut butter, and a few blueberries.
- Other vegetables — these aren’t as rich in protein as the foods we discussed above, but they provide a nice nutrient boost so be sure to add them to your meals. Examples of vegetables with a high protein content include green peas, quinoa, and Brussel sprouts.
- Vegan protein powder – While you should aim to get the majority of protein from whole foods, there is nothing wrong with supplementing with some vegan protein powder, especially if you are trying to bulk since eating that much protein with whole foods alone can be challenging. Aditionally, nowdays there are plenty of high quality vegan protein shakes with added benefits depending on your goals.
There you have it, a detailed answer to the question “how much protein do vegans need to build muscle?”. A vegan person needs to consume protein within a range of 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kg every day to maximize their bodies’ capacity towards building muscle. This can apply to vegan bodybuilders, fitness athletes, and cross-fitters