Can you build muscle on a vegan diet?

We are nearing the end of January meaning a record number of people will have ditched meat and dairy in favour of a plant-based approach over the last four weeks in what is now known as veganuary

There are plenty of reasons to quit or at least dramatically reduce your meat intake, be it ethical, environmental or health-related. One thing that stops some from committing to a plant-based diet full-time, however, is a concern that they’ll miss out on vital nutrients such as protein, which is a crucial element of any diet, but considered particularly important to those who work out regularly as it helps to repair damaged muscle tissue after exercise and aids recovery.

So if you’ve made it thus far on the veganuary wagon and are considering a longer-term approach: is a vegan diet sustainable if you live a very active lifestyle? And can you build muscle on a plant-based diet? 

Edric Kennedy-Macfoy, a fireman-turned-fitness coach, argues you can in his new book about how he fuels his fitness regime with a plant-based diet. As a keen weight lifter, who used to take part in bodybuilding competitions, he once guzzled glasses of milk at breakfast – even though he didn’t like the taste – downed whey protein shakes and piled meat and dairy products into every meal of the day because he believed it was the only way to build muscle, “a typical day might include six eggs, salmon and avocado for breakfast, chicken and rice for lunch and something similar for dinner,” he says.  

But his approach has changed dramatically now that he follows a strict vegan diet and he says he’s physically in the best shape he’s ever been. In his book, The Fit Vegan, he documents how he has built muscle mass and changed his body composition while going green.

There is a growing trend among some athletes who are choosing to follow vegan diets and the recent Netflix documentary The Game Changers featured the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan, Lewis Hamilton and Novak Djokovic. Grand slam star Venus Williams also lives on a plant-based diet and there’s now even a growing community of vegan bodybuilders.

So what do the experts say?

(Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash)

In a 2017 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, noting a general lack of available literature on how to manage a vegan diet for sport or athletic purposes, David Rogerson of Sheffield Hallam University set about reviewing existing papers to find out if  a vegan diet really can meet the needs of an athlete.

He found that, on the whole, vegans tend to consume less calories and their diets are usually lower in things like protein, fat, B12 (a vitamin which is predominantly found in meat, fish and dairy), iron, calcium and some fatty acids, along with other micronutrients, compared to meat eaters, but that they also tend to be higher in carbs and fibre, which is partially why it can be hard to achieve a high energy intake on a plant-based eating regime because plant-based foods typically make you feel fuller.

Rogerson also noted that some plant-based protein is less well absorbed than animal-based protein, so there could be an argument for upping your intake on a plant-based diet. But overall , he concluded that a vegan diet could meet requirements of an athlete providing special attention is paid to calorie consumption (making sure you’re getting enough) and macro and micro nutrient recommendations, alongside appropriate supplementation. 

Renee Mcgregor, registered dietician and sports and eating disorder specialist, says: “If you are weight training specifically and want to gain muscle mass, it’s a question of being in a positive energy balance, and you are going to have to eat quite a high volume of food to get there on a vegan diet, it’s not going to be as simple as it would be if you were doing it with all food groups.

“That’s the first barrier I face when I’m working with vegan athletes, trying to get enough energy in – you can’t make up the energy with chickpeas and lentils because they are very low in calories naturally. Trying to give them enough variety is another thing I really struggle with, and finding enough instant sources – it’s much harder,” she adds. “Yes, there are more dairy free options but they don’t have the same carbs and protein, so you’re often relying on having to make your own by adding pea protein to your oat milk for example, which is just more of a faff.”

The protein question

When it comes to getting sufficient protein from a vegan diet, it’s important to understand that not all plant-based sources of protein are created equal when it comes to their amino acid profile, and Kennedy-Macfoy says he thinks a lack of awareness of things like this is why some people find it difficult to sustain a vegan diet.

There are 20 amino acids, also known as the building blocks of protein, of which nine are essential, meaning your body cannot make them up (like it can the other 11) and needs to consume them through food. Meat, fish and dairy products are known as complete proteins as they contain all nine essential amino acids, but only a few plant protein sources do, and they include things like quinoa, chia seeds and soy. Lentils, grains and legumes, however, do not and are known as incomplete proteins.

“It’s knowing things like if you’re eating legumes, you’re not getting a complete profile, but if you eat grains with legumes like black beans and rice, or pasta and peas then you’re covered, because together they have all nine essential amino acids.” Since following a plant-based regime, he says he has cut his protein intake in half since his milk-guzzling days from 2-3g per kilo of bodyweight and now aims for around 1-1.5g per kilo, which is relatively low compared to current British Nutrition Foundation guidelines. 

Mcgregor meanwhile recommends between 0.8-1g per kilo of bodyweight for the general population and between 1.6g and 2.2g per kilo for athletes, depending on requirements. “If you’re new to weight training, then your requirements are very high for your first three to four months,” she adds, though this does eventually settle down, “even when it does you wouldn’t drop much below 1.4-1.6g to kilo bodyweight of protein.”

The truth is, how much protein you need is a hotly debated topic in the nutrition world, and is likely to be highly personal to you and dependent on a number of things, including how you work out and how often.

The important thing is to avoid displacing one food group with another, Mcgregor warns. “That’s my biggest fear with vegans sometimes you look at a diet and it looks healthy, colourful and full of veg, but then when you look at the calorie content, the energy is so displaced because they are filling up with quite a high volume of vegetables.”

The Fit Vegan (Hay House, £12.99) by Kennedy-Macfoy is available now. Below he has shared two of his favourite high-protein vegan recipes from his book. 

The Fit Vegan (Hay House, £12.99)

Coconut quinoa delight

Until recently, I thought of quinoa as a savoury ingredient, but then I visited a café where I tried quinoa porridge; it really changed my mind. Whether sweet or savoury, quinoa tastes great and it’s super‑nutritious. It’s also low on the glycaemic index (GI) scale, meaning it digests slowly, so won’t cause a rapid spike in your blood sugar levels followed by an inevitable crash. It’s also a great source of protein.

  • 90g/1oz/½ cup quinoa, cooked to packet instructions
  • 880ml/1½ pints/3 cups coconut milk
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tbsp agave/maple syrup
  • tsp vanilla extract
  • tbsp chopped kiwi
  • 2 tbsp chopped mango,
  • 2 tbsp chopped pineapple,
  • 1 tbsp chia seeds
  • 1 tbsp flax seeds
  • 1 tbsp sunflower seeds

Combine the quinoa, coconut milk, cinnamon, agave syrup and vanilla extract in a saucepan and cook until the quinoa can be fluffed with a fork.

Divide the quinoa between two bowls and top with kiwi, mango and pineapple. Drizzle a little coconut milk over the fruit and top with seeds. I often have this without the agave syrup as I find the fruit makes it sweet enough. You may want to try with and without.

Nut but stew

Serves 6

This amazing West African dish is one of my winter favourites. It warms and nourishes not just my body but my soul too. It was one of my mother’s signature dishes. It’s super easy to make and, if you’re a peanut butter lover like me, you’re in for a real treat with this one.

For the coriander (cilantro) rice

  • 500ml/1 pint/2¼ cups vegetable broth
  • 400g/14oz/2 cups uncooked basmati brown rice
  • 240ml/16fl oz/1 cup water
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • ¼ cup fresh lime juice
  • 1½ tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp Italian seasoning
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • Ground black pepper to taste
  • Sea salt to taste
  • 3 handfuls fresh coriander (cilantro), chopped

For the stew

  • 640g No Chick Strips (or similar meat substitute), chopped
  • tbsp olive oil
  • garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • tsp ground black pepper
  • tbsp olive oil
  • 2 large onions, finely chopped
  • tsp ground cumin
  • tbsp tomato paste
  • 4 tbsp organic peanut butter
  • 1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into small cubes
  • 1 litre/1¾ pints/3½ cups vegetable broth
  • 4 handfuls kale, stems removed, chopped
  • 2 tbsp sriracha hot sauce/1 scotch bonnet pepper (optional)
  • 1 tsp sea salt

To make the coriander rice, place the brown rice and vegetable broth in a pan and bring to the boil on a high heat. Stir well and cover. Reduce to a low heat and allow to simmer for 45 minutes until cooked. Remove from heat and let it stand for 5 minutes. Mix up the lime juice, garlic, olive oil, Italian seasoning and cumin in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste and then drizzle the mixture evenly over the rice.

Finally, add the coriander and combine.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat and throw in the No Chick meat substitute and cook to packet guidelines. Halfway through cooking, add half the garlic, salt and ground black pepper. Once the No Chick is evenly browned, remove it from the heat and set aside in a container or wrap in foil to preserve the heat.

Add the oil to the pan and crank the heat up to high before throwing in the onions and cooking them up for 10 minutes. Keep the onions moving in the pan. Once cooked, turn the heat back down to medium, throw in the rest of the garlic, cumin and tomato puree, and combine gently. Cook for another 5 minutes before adding the peanut butter and stirring it in. Add the sweet potato to the mix. Pour in the vegetable broth as you stir and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Throw in the No Chick meat substitute and kale, then stir. Add the hot sauce or pepper, and the salt, and leave to cook on a low heat, occasionally stirring, for 20 minutes or until the sweet potato is cooked and tender.

For added richness, lift out the sweet potato with a slotted spoon and mash before returning to the pan. Allow to simmer on a high heat uncovered for a further 5 minutes. Serve warm with the rice and garnish with coriander and lime juice.


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