How To Build Muscle On A Plant-Based Diet

It’s a common misconception that you need to be eating meat, and lots of it, to build muscle. Muscle growth relies on a number of factors, and while protein is definitely key to this, it doesn’t need to come from eating meat.

You can easily achieve muscle growth on a plant-based diet by following these steps:  

Muscles need stimulation to grow. You need to consistently engage your muscles in resistance-based strength training to stress your muscles fibres and create micro-tears in order for them to grow. You can seek the help of an expert to develop a program tailored to you & ensure it is adjusted as your strength improves. You then need to support this training program with a sufficient calorie intake.

To build muscle mass effectively, you need a positive energy balance, which means sufficient calorie intake. This often calls for a general increase in your daily dietary intake of food.  

Most of us are aware that protein is important for building muscle, but did you know that carbohydrates are essential too?! Carbs are required for building muscles for a number of reasons and should be the first nutrient you focus on!

Firstly, carbs are essential because your muscles need be fuelled in order to do the training to stimulate your muscles to grow! Carbohydrates are your muscles primary fuel source, so without sufficient carbs, you won’t be able to fuel your muscles and have the energy to train your muscles. Secondly, carbs contribute to the positive energy balance (i.e. required calorie intake) needed to grow muscle and recover from training, which also prevents muscle breakdown. And thirdly, carbs stimulate your muscles to absorb the amino acids from protein through increasing the hormone insulin. So, without carbs, your muscle can’t absorb protein and grow!

To build muscle, you need to be consuming a minimum of 1.2-2g of protein per kilogram of body mass to ensure your protein needs are met. When following a plant-based diet, protein can come from a number of foods including lentils, beans (e.g. black beans, lima beans, kidney beans etc), tempeh, tofu, edamame, soy products (e.g. soy milk, soy yoghurt etc), seeds (e.g. chia seeds, sunflower seeds, flax, pumpkin etc), wholegrain rice/oats/quinoa etc & nuts (e.g. walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews etc). Plant-based protein supplements can be used if needed, such as a brown rice or pea protein powder.

Eating frequent meals and snacks is key to building muscle mass on a plant-based diet. Frequent eating will help you maintain a positive energy balance and fuel your muscles accordingly. There is a limit to how much protein your muscles can absorb at one time, so you need to spread your protein intake out across all your meals and snacks during the day. Trying to cram all your protein into one meal for example, won’t work. And skipping meals and snacks will lead to muscle breakdown.

Instead, include regular plant-based protein food sources in each meal and snack you eat to consistently fuel your muscles and allow them to grow. Regular meals and snacks containing protein will also optimise amino acid levels in the blood and facilitate muscle development.

Eating a carbohydrate-rich, moderate-protein snack or meal immediately (within 30minutes) after training will also help your muscle grow by increasing the production of anabolic hormones, reducing protein breakdown and supplying amino acids for protein synthesis. 

Rebecca Gawthorne (BNutrDiet (Hons I, APD, AN) is the Resident Dietitian for Sumo Salad.

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