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11 Best Vegan Foods to Help You Build Muscle

Building muscle as a vegan might sound like a challenge. After all, when most people think of a stereotypical protein-packed diet, they picture copious amounts of eggs, whey protein shakes, and endless chicken breasts. But building muscle with plant-based foods isn't just possible; it's a great way to care for your health while also achieving your fitness goals.

Woman holding weights working out in living room

In the last decade, sports nutritionists have brought attention to how food quality – not just quantity – is key to achieving athletic and body composition goals. From tennis star, Venus Williams, to NFL quarterback, Cam Newton, and Patrik Baboumiam, one of the strongest men in the world, a new generation of professional athletes is proving the effectiveness of vegan foods for building muscle and improving performance. A recent study found that plant protein was just as effective as animal protein for gaining lean muscle, and plant-based diets come with a wide range of long-term health benefits.

Why Do You Need Protein to Build Muscle?

No matter what diet you follow, eating a wide variety of whole foods is key to achieving overall health. For vegans looking to build muscle, two macronutrient groups are especially crucial: protein and carbohydrates.

Most people have heard that protein is the building block of muscle, and many studies prove the importance of protein consumption for muscle gain.

When performing any resistance training or exercise, our muscles break down protein as they repeatedly activate. However, if the amount of protein broken down exceeds the amount of protein synthesized (made available to the muscle), it cannot grow. Muscles also require complete proteins containing all nine essential amino acids to function and grow.

While there are a handful of plant sources of complete proteins, you can also mix and match plant-based foods with various incomplete proteins to provide your body with a complete protein. (And no, they don’t all have to be eaten at one meal to be effective; just be sure to incorporate all nine amino acids throughout the day.) See the list below for ideas!

How Much Protein Do I Need?

Protein needs will vary based upon your height, weight, fitness goals, activity level, and age. The current recommended daily allowance is around .73-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. Still, experts advise that this recommendation be viewed as a minimum to meet your body’s basic needs and avoid getting sick.

Athletes should aim for around double that amount of 2.2-3.4 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. You can learn more about how vegans get protein here.

Why Do You Need Carbohydrates to Build Muscle?

While protein is the foundation of muscle, it's also important to consume plenty of carbohydrates within your diet. If your goal is to build muscle, you're likely powering through challenging workouts, and the majority of the energy your body uses to fuel those workouts comes from carbohydrates.

As you consume carbs, your body replenishes the glycogen stores in your muscles which become depleted when you exercise. If your body isn't getting enough carbs after exercise, it will turn to other sources like protein to help replenish glycogen stores – protein that should be going toward building muscle.

Complex carbs should make up most of your carbohydrate intake, but simple carbs like a piece of fruit can help a quick boost of energy before or after an intense workout. When you're pushing for that last rep, you'll be glad you fueled up wisely.

Vegan Protein Sources

1. Quinoa

Protein: 8g in one cup, cooked

2. Buckwheat

Protein: 5.68g in one cup, cooked

3. Amaranth

Protein: 9.3g in one cup, cooked

4. Hemp

Protein: 9.5g in 3 tablespoons
Try in: Grain-free & Nut-free Hemp Granola

5. Chia seeds

Protein: 4g in 2 tablespoons
Try in: Chia Pudding

6. Pistachios

Protein: 4g in 2 tablespoons

7. Pumpkin seeds

Protein: 2g in 2 tablespoons
Try in: Lentil Kale Salad

8. Spirulina

Protein: 4g per tablespoon
Try in: Tropical Smoothie Bowl

9. Tempeh or Tofu

Protein: 31g in 1 cup tempeh, 20g protein in 1 cup tofu
Try in: Tofu Vegetable Stir Fry

10. Plant-based protein powders

Protein: Varies by brand. We enjoy the following:

  • Orgain
  • KOS

11. Plant-based protein bars

Protein: Varies by brand. GoMacro’s plant-based, high-protein MacroBars all contain 10-12g of protein per bar for a clean and delicious way to fuel up.

Plant-Based Protein Food Combinations

As stated earlier, not all of your protein needs to contain all nine essential amino acids – you can combine one or more complementary foods to create a complete protein. For example, most grains contain almost no lysine, but legumes, such as peanuts, beans, and lentils, include a decent amount of the amino acid. On the flip side, legumes don't have much tryptophan, methionine, and cystine, but those amino acids are found in grains. By eating both, your body can get all the amino acids it needs to build muscle. A few examples:

  1. Brown rice + beans, lentils, or chickpeas (try chickpea curry over rice!)
  2. Oatmeal + nut butter or seeds
  3. Whole grain toast + peanut butter
  4. Pita + hummus and veggies
  5. Hummus Crostini

Why Follow A Vegan Diet for Building Muscle?

Gaining muscle and enjoying a vegan lifestyle do not have to be mutually exclusive. The benefits of a whole food, vegan diet have been widely confirmed in research, and by following a plant-based lifestyle, you’ll naturally get a variety of both the macro-and micro-nutrients your body needs to build muscle and power tough workouts. Eating a plant-based diet can aid in faster recovery, increased endurance, and lowered inflammation versus a diet heavy in animal products and highly processed foods. As a bonus, a vegan lifestyle is also a great way to help reduce animal cruelty and live more sustainably.

Be sure to add a plant-based protein source to each snack and meal throughout the day to ensure you’re getting adequate intake, and don’t forget to refuel with carbs after a workout.

Our vegan protein bars are packed with protein and both simple and complex carbohydrates, making them a wholesome snack to help you achieve your goals.