Building muscles on a plant-based diet

Staple foods, meal plans, and philosophy

How to build muscle on a plant-based diet with nutrition, meal plans, and tracking to achieve effective results.

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Let’s face it, building muscle is hard, no matter what “diet” you follow. And supporting your athletic endeavors with a plant-based diet can be challenging too, especially if you’ve only recently gone vegan.

Even if you’ve struggled with building muscle in the past (while plant-based or not), I’m confident you can build up muscles when you apply the following strategies, habits, foods, and exercises necessary to achieve your goals.

And it all starts with nutrition.

Understanding your caloric needs

Your quest to build muscle on a plant-based diet relies on understanding your true macronutrient and calorie needs. Not guessing, or estimating, or assuming characteristics about your current habits, but real, raw data based on who you are and what you do.

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Believe it or not, it’s much easier to figure out than you might think.

Start with finding your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) using the Harris-Benedict equation. BMR is the amount of calories you expend simply by existing, based on your gender, age, height, and weight.

Combine that number with your actual activity level—any additional movements beyond just existing, like walking the dog, running errands, hitting the gym, or walking up a flight of stairs. This gives you the approximate number of total calories you expend daily… your calorie needs.

If you expend 2,500 calories per day, you need to consume 2,500 calories per day just to maintain weight.

To gain muscle, you would need to consume more than 2,500 calories, ideally from mostly real plant foods. Combine that with resistance weight training, and you’re on your way to muscle-town.

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As simple as this sounds, implementing this approach into daily life is a real struggle. But it doesn’t have to be…

You just need to consume the healthy foods you enjoy most, with sufficient calorie quantities, and you’ve got it made.

To determine which foods will help most, it’s important to consider not only calories but also nutrient density.

Calories vs. nutrient density

The nutrient density of a food is the amount of nutrients you can obtain from it, given the number of calories it contains. Nutrients give your body nourishment, allowing for growth, muscle recovery, energy, and quite frankly, the maintenance of life—think vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants, fiber, water, nitric oxide, and other phytonutrients. If you’re looking for the biggest bang for your nutrient buck, the best place to look is whole foods.

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Simply speaking, there is nothing in fresh, whole food that doesn’t belong there (and yes, whole plant foods contain plenty of protein). There’s a profound difference between eating 2,500 calories of whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds and eating 2,500 calories of processed food-like substances such as chips, fries, pizza, candy, and ice cream.

You may be eating 2,500 calories either way, but the nutritional result is wildly different.

Therefore, low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods provide a higher return on investment than foods that are high in calories but low in nutrition. Eating a high-calorie, nutrient-poor diet will make any fitness goals a struggle, whether burning fat and losing weight, building muscle, or improving endurance.

Here is a look at the rough calorie count vs. nutrient score for some common food types:

Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s ANDI score method is an easy way to measure nutrient density. ANDI stands for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index and reports “nutrients divided by calories,” Fuhrman’s formula for healthy eating. The higher the ANDI score, the higher the nutrient density.

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While calorie density is very important regarding weight gain and weight loss, nutrient density speaks to our health and the overall nutrition we are getting. Whole plant foods provide the perfect combination of relatively low-calorie density with high nutrient quantity, and some foods such as the staples I list a little further down, are kings and queens of the plant-based jungle.

As we know, eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mean limiting yourself to fewer food options than on an omnivorous diet. There are lots of options! While this is good news, it can also be overwhelming. But—like many things, it doesn’t have to be too complicated at all.

Five staple foods for building muscles

This is the section where calorie needs and nutrient density come together in a beautiful union.

By weighing a food’s calories against its nutrient density profile, you’ll set yourself up for success in building muscle. Of course, you want to consume as many nutrients as possible, but hitting your calorie goals on kale alone just won’t cut it.

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So where do you start? Here are five staple foods to include in your program, based on their nutrient-to-calorie ratios and caloric density:

  1. Oats
  2. Potatoes
  3. Beans and lentils
  4. Brown rice
  5. Bananas and other fruits

With variations of just these five staple foods alone, you can create lots of variety and overall nutrition to help you in your muscle-building efforts.

Now, let’s put that in action…

Muscle-building meal plans

Here are two amazing meal plans to hit your caloric goals.

Sample meal plan 1 with 2500 Calories

Breakfast

Oatmeal:

634 calories, 95 g carbohydrates, 17.6 g protein, 20.4 g fat, 14 g fiber

Snack 1

Edamame:

189 calories, 15 g carbohydrates, 17 g protein, 8 g fat, 8 g fiber

Snack 2

Fruits:

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189 calories, 15 g carbohydrates, 17 g protein, 8 g fat, 8 g fiber

Lunch

Spinach and kale salad:

495 calories, 71 g carbohydrates, 16 g protein, 16.3 g fat, 12.3 g fiber

Snack 3

Nuts and Seeds:

441 calories, 14 g carbohydrates, 15.2 g protein, 36 g fat, 9 g fiber

Dinner

Rice and bean bowl:

343 calories, 64 g carbohydrates, 15 g protein, 3 g fat, 10 g fiber

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Snack 4

2 banana protein muffins:

For 2 banana muffins: 259 calories, 34.8 g carbohydrates, 10 g protein, 14.8 g fat, 5.6 g fiber

Totals: 2,453 calories, 313.8 g carbohydrates, 93.8 g protein, 98.5 g fat, 61.9 g fiber

Sample meal plan 2 with 2900 calories

Breakfast

Quinoa breakfast bowl

699 calories, 96 g carbohydrates, 23.8 g protein, 24.4 g fat, 20 g fiber

Snack 1

Protein shake:

211 calories, 13 g carbohydrates, 24 g protein, 7g fat, 5 g fiber

Lunch

Sweet potato plate

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698 calories, 62 g carbohydrates, 45 g protein, 30 g fat, 5 g fiber

Snack 2

Veggies and hummus

78 calories, 9 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 3.8 g fat, 2 g fiber

Snack 3

Nuts and seeds

441 calories, 14 g carbohydrates, 15.2 g protein, 36 g fat, 9 g fiber

Dinner

Black bean bowl

658 calories, 96.6 g carbohydrates, 27 g protein, 18.3 g fat, 26.2 g fiber

Snack 4

Fruit and nut butter:

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275 calories, 31 g carbohydrates, 7.5 g protein, 15.3 g fat, 6.4 g fiber

Totals: 2,971 calories, 336.6 g carbohydrates, 122.5 g protein, 127.8 g fat, 74.6 g fiber

Combine an effective exercise program for desired results

I’ve talked a lot about nutrition in this article, but before you think gaining muscle is all about eating, an effective exercise program is unsurprisingly a key component.

I won’t go into too much detail here (there are plenty of lifting routines out there), but I do want to share the fundamental principles everyone should follow:

  1. Although you may start with at-home workouts, the foundation of your workout program should eventually consist of barbell and dumbbell-free weight exercises.
  2. Perform exercises you enjoy. Ultimately, if it isn’t fun, you will find a way to avoid it.
  3. Create a workout program that targets all major muscle groups, including, legs, chest, back, shoulders, arms, and abs, to ensure you stimulate muscle growth throughout your whole body, not just your chest and biceps. You can train one muscle group per day, for five or six major workouts per week, or you can combine multiple muscle groups into a single workout.
  4. Consistency is key to success. You will need to put in the requisite time to attain desired results.
  5. Set attainable goals.
  6. Document your workouts as a way to hold yourself accountable.

The key is to train hard with consistency and with a level of intensity geared toward igniting and eliciting change and forward progress.

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Set goals and objectives and track your progress

A great exercise and nutrition plan creates an excellent foundation for your bodybuilding goals. The next step is to create actionable goals with attainable objectives.

Here’s an example of what that looks like:

Goal

Add 10 pounds of total mass over the next 6 months. (Pro-tip: Share your goal with some friends and on social media, and hold yourself accountable by providing regular updates, good or bad.)

Timeline

Add 2 pounds of mass per month (muscle, fat, and water weight), and evaluate progress monthly.

Action plan

5 days per week of resistance weight training, and develop a nutrition plan that supports your goal by meeting your calorie and other nutritional needs.

It’s also important to track your progress daily. Not only your gains but also track the food you eat.

This may seem tedious at first, but I’ve found that over time, it becomes second nature, and with little effort, you’ll be able to construct a nutrition program that will set you on the path to success.

Meal tracking can be the secret sauce to your muscle-building plan. But of course, sometimes, life gets in the way.

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Tracking holds you accountable and gives you a clear picture of what you’re eating, what you’re not eating, and where you’re falling short.

Summary

The systems and approaches I outlined above have proven effective time and time again, not only for me but also for the thousands of plant-based athletes who have followed these principles.

Your exact approach will be filled with variation and interpretation, but the core concepts remain true and lead to success: set meaningful goals, eat healthy with whole plant foods, perform exercises you truly enjoy and be consistent.

Now make it happen.

Last updated on October 24, 2021, and last reviewed by an expert on September 10, 2021.
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