- Getting enough protein is essential to effectively build muscle.
- Protein can be found in meats as well as plants, but the types and quantities are not identical.
- Increasing your muscle mass is possible while eating a plant-based diet.
Building muscle takes hard work. Likewise, switching to a plant-based diet isn’t always, well, a picnic.
Trying to do both at once? That can seem downright overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be.
In fact, approached in a specific way, consuming only plant-based protein can be just as effective as animal-based protein at building muscle for everyone from bodybuilders and athletes to the average person.
First, let’s take a look at the basics. How does your body build muscle?
“During weight-bearing exercise, microscopic tears are created in muscle fibers which lead to inflammation and increased blood supply to the affected area,” Megan Hilbert, MS, RDN, with Top Nutrition Coaching, told Healthline.
“This brings lots of substances to the area that help repair and grow muscle tissue,” said Hilbert.
Protein is one of those substances.
Proteins are made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids. There are many types of amino acids, but 20 of them are considered essential to maintaining your body’s healthy functioning.
Meat from animals contains all of the essential amino acids your body needs. Not so with plants.
While plant-based diets often do contain all of the essential amino acids in aggregate, any one plant-based food item will not. This can mean taking a little extra care when choosing the composition of your meals.
And because muscle-building is directly reliant on having enough available protein, the extra attention is doubly warranted for anyone trying to increase muscle mass.
Protein is critical for building muscle, but that’s not its only function.
“Proteins are the chemical building blocks of bone, cartilage, and organs. They also drive metabolic reactions, maintain pH and fluid balance, and play an important role in our immune function and hormone health,” said Hilbert.
From a muscle-building standpoint, it’s not just bodybuilders and athletes who need to think about protein.
“All of us as we age begin to lose muscle tissue. This begins in your 40s, gradually continues as you get older, and can impact metabolism, loss of endurance, and balance. We all should be aware of maintaining and even gaining muscle mass, especially as we age,” Hilbert said.
Stephanie Nelson, registered dietician and nutrition expert with MyFitnessPal, told Healthline she agreed.
“Our muscle fibers break down all the time and need to be replaced,” said Nelson.
“Everyone is building muscle daily — even if they aren’t actively trying to put on muscle mass — and [must] meet their daily protein needs to prevent muscle loss,” Nelson added.
Kate Cohen, registered dietitian at the Ellison Clinic at Saint John’s, part of the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine and Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, told Healthline that there are other groups of people who might have specific muscle and protein needs.
“The decrease in estrogen in women after menopause can also contribute to muscle loss, so consuming an efficient protein source is a priority for a huge range of people — not just weightlifters,” Cohen said.
“[Protein sources are] a concern for people who want to lose weight, those who can’t tolerate a high-fiber diet, or for people with a decreased appetite,” Cohen added.
So how can you make sure you’re building muscle while also consuming a plant-based diet?
“Research has shown that there is no difference in the outcomes between those who eat a plant-based diet vs omnivorous diet in the ability to build muscle with adequate protein intake,” said Hilbert.
But how then to achieve that protein intake without consuming meat?
Gabrielle Reyes, author, vegan chef, and MyFitnessPal partner, told Healthline that a helpful first step is the proper framing of the goal.
“Instead of thinking about avoiding meat, think about consuming colorful, vibrant meals,” Reyes said.
“The easiest way to get in a healthy amount of plant protein and stay fueled throughout the day is with a big green smoothie made with dark, leafy greens, frozen berries, plant protein powder, and hemp seeds,” said Reyes.
“If you are not used to eating plant protein, purchase steak, poultry, and pork seasonings to glow up any recipe,” Reyes suggested.
The key to a plant-based diet is variety, as that’s the only way to ensure you consume all of the essential amino acids. It can also help prevent burnout.
Reyes recommends including four categories in each plant-based meal:
- a carb element, which can be cauliflower, quinoa, tortillas, brown rice, or full-grain bread
- a hearty element like tofu, mushrooms, chickpeas, lentils, or seitan
- a fresh element, like leafy greens, fresh herbs, tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, noodles, pomegranate seeds
- a creamy element like cashew cream dressing, avocado sauce, protein pesto hummus, or creamy tofu ranch
But why eat a plant-based diet to begin with?
While a plant-based diet might take a little more planning — at least at first — there are numerous benefits to consuming less (or no) meat. And, not surprisingly, at the top of the list are benefits to your personal health.
“Eating plant-based has beneficial effects on heart health because plant-based foods are low in saturated fat and high in unsaturated fat. Replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat is one of the most effective ways to lower cholesterol levels,” said Nelson.
“The other effective way to lower cholesterol levels is to increase fiber intake with plant-based foods that are high in fiber. This is important because heart disease is the number one cause of death in America,” Nelson added.
“Increasing plant foods also increases the amount of antioxidants we consume, which help fight off inflammation and decrease risk for numerous diseases like certain cancers and cardiovascular disease,” said Hilbert.
The impact of the commercial meat industry on the larger global stage is also gaining awareness.
“Animal agriculture in particular can be very environmentally taxing as it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution,” Hilbert said.
“If every person in America cut their meat consumption by just 25%, it would have a dramatic impact on annual greenhouse gas emissions,” said Cohen.
Building muscle while on a plant-based diet can sometimes be a challenge, though. What can you do to stay ahead of it?
“If you are completely cutting out animal products, stay mindful of nutrients like vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids in your diet by consuming good plant-based sources of these foods, or even supplementing. Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that is necessary to supplement for [people] on a completely plant-based diet,” said Hilbert.
“Try dividing your protein needs by the number of meals and snacks you eat daily, and work on hitting the protein and total calorie goal for just one meal. Once you’ve mastered that meal, move on to the next one. Eventually, you’ll learn which foods to add to certain meals to help you reach your protein goal,” suggested Nelson.
“There are lots of great products that combine peas, nuts, seeds, hemp, and other plant sources, just be mindful of the trade-off: some are higher in fat, sugar, or carbs — so be a label-reader. Canned, low-sodium beans are a fantastic and easy staple to have in your pantry,” said Cohen.
“The plant-versus-animal protein teams have become very polarized in recent years, and it’s diverted people from the important message that a diverse diet is best. I believe the smartest protein strategy is reflected in the Mediterranean diet,” Cohen added.
Reyes echoed the diverse diet messaging, recommending you keep it vibrant.
“Don’t feel bad if you have no idea what to eat or feel lost, but instead start with a colorful plate of roasted vegetables and build on top with a variety of hearty plant proteins and delicious sauce. No matter what, have fun and eat the rainbow,” said Reyes.