While I’ve always been an avid exerciser, my personal favorite activity is weightlifting. For me, nothing compares to the feeling of being able to lift something you previously couldn’t.

When I first switched to a plant-based diet, I had concerns about whether plant-based foods would be enough to sustain the amount of exercise I do, especially when it comes to building lean muscle.

I was skeptical at first, but after a bit of research I found it’s not as difficult to pull together meals that not only helped me build muscle but aided in faster recovery and greater energy levels.

In short, plant-based nutrition is extremely compatible with exercise, as I’ve discussed before. All it takes is a little education and thinking outside the box to maximize its benefits.

And this is where I can help offer some inspiration.

Whether you’re new to the gym or a seasoned athlete, if you’re looking to adopt a plant-based diet but are concerned about muscle mass, I’ve got your covered.

Below are five of my favorite plant-based foods that can help aid in recovery and build lean muscle.

Potatoes

It’s important to keep caloric needs in mind when eating for muscle growth and recovery. Potatoes are a perfect option for this. They’re rich in carbohydrates, which provide a necessary energy source.

I love sweet potatoes in particular because they’re filling, sweet, and rich in antioxidants. Whichever potato you choose, I suggest eating them before your workout for energy or after your workout for recovery.

Try:

  • a loaded potato with beans, corn, and salsa
  • a potato salad with veggies and mustard (skip the mayo!)

Legumes

Legumes are an excellent source of iron and protein. Try to consume them after your workout to replenish your carbohydrate stores and provide a source of protein to promote muscle growth.

Their high fiber content aids in nutrient absorption, as fiber is linked to maintaining healthy gut bacteria, which promotes optimal digestion. This maximizes the nutritional value of the foods you eat.

There’s also a huge family of beans and lentils to choose from. They can be worked into a number of different dishes, so you’ll definitely find a flavor — and meal — that you enjoy.

Try:

  • a red lentil soup paired with your meal after a workout
  • a bean burrito, including a source of whole grains (think quinoa or farro)

Whole grains

Whole grains are heart-healthy carbohydrates, which already makes them a win in my book. They also contain protein, and some sources are rich in antioxidants.

Whole plants often have multiple benefits, and whole grains are a perfect example of this. Consume them before your workout for an excellent source of energy.

Try:

  • whole-grain oats with blueberries
  • whole-grain toast with avocado

Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds are high in protein and calorically dense. Just a palmful of walnuts, for example, has roughly 5 grams of protein. If you’re looking to add an easy source of calories to your diet, nuts and seeds are the way to do it.

The fats in nuts and seeds also boost the nutrient absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, K, and E, so it’s advantageous to include them in a nutrient-rich meal.

Try:

  • pistachios tossed in a salad
  • almond butter spread on whole-grain toast

Smoothies

While this is more of a meal or snack than a specific food, I felt as though smoothies still merited a mention. In my opinion, the smoothie craze in the health world is well founded. Smoothies are incredibly versatile and they pack a nutritional punch. And the right components make it the perfect pre-workout option.

Smoothie-making tips:

  • Start with a leafy green base. It’ll boost nitric oxide production, which improves blood flow (nitric oxide dilates, or opens, your blood vessels).
  • Add berries since they’re packed with antioxidants, which extend the life span of nitric oxide.
  • Add flax or hemp seeds to include a source of fat and protein.
  • Add another type of fruit for sweetness and the carbohydrates you need for energy.
  • Include dry oats for an extra boost of fiber.
  • Finally, include either plant-based milk or water.
    • kale, strawberry, mango, oats, flax seeds, coconut water
    • spinach, pineapple, blueberries, hemp seeds, almond milk

Try these combos:

Mini, single-day meal plan
  • Pre-workout or breakfast: oatmeal with berries
  • Post-workout or lunch: lentil soup paired with a loaded potato
  • Dinner: hearty salad tossed with nuts and beans

The plant-based options to help build muscle are endless

As you can see, there are endless plant-based options for maximizing your workout and building muscle. Remember, the key to building muscle is exercise. Ensure your nutrition keeps you strong and energized and consume enough calories to maintain muscle growth.


Sara Zayed started Posifitivy on Instagram in 2015. While working full time as an engineer after graduating from college, Zayed received the Plant-Based Nutrition certificate from Cornell University and became an ACSM-certified personal trainer. She resigned from her job to work for Ethos Health, a lifestyle medical practice, as a medical scribe in Long Valley, NJ, and is now in medical school. She’s run eight half-marathons, one full marathon, and strongly believes in the power of whole-food, plant-based nutrition and lifestyle modifications. You can also find her on Facebook and subscribe to her blog.