Is It Possible to Build Muscle on a Vegetarian Diet?

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It’s possible to build muscle on a vegetarian diet, but it’s a little more difficult than doing so with a diet that includes meat, poultry, and fish.

I have always been a meat eater. My doctoral studies centered on feeding people beef and monitoring changes in cardiovascular disease risk factors. I admit that I’ve always been skeptical about the muscle-building effectiveness of vegetarian diets.

But after further examination of vegetarian diets and the people who build muscle while following them, I’ve discovered a couple of key points that you can take into consideration to maximize your chance of success.

People don’t understand -- you gotta eat (to bulk up). When I say I’m having green beans, I don’t eat a cup of green beans. I eat a pound of them!

Robert Dos Remedios, fitness author and college strength coach

Eat Big to Get Big

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When you’re trying to build muscle, it's essential that you eat a lot of calories. The level of caloric excess that you need varies from person to person, but you should start out adding 500 calories to your daily intake and go from there.

If you are naturally skinny, be prepared to pack in an additional 1,000 to 1,500 calories daily before your hypertrophic efforts truly ramp up. This is a lot of food, especially when you are eating only plants, which are naturally high in volume and low in calories.

My initial experience with building muscle on a vegetarian diet came when I spoke at a seminar with strength coaches Alwyn Cosgrove and Robert Dos Remedios. After the seminar, the three of us headed out for dinner.

“Wait until you see how much Robert eats,” Alwyn said. “He’ll shut the place down.”

Dos Remedios, known to most as “Coach Dos,” is the head strength coach for the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, and the author of two books published by Men’s Health magazine, "Power Training" and "Cardio Strength Training." At 6' 3" and 245 pounds, Dos Remedios is athletic and muscular, and he strictly adheres to a vegan diet.

Dos Remedios has been eating a vegan diet -- which is more restrictive than a vegetarian diet and more challenging for muscle-building -- since he finished his college football career with the University of California Golden Bears, when he tipped the scales at 290 pounds.

With more than 20 years of experience eating a vegan diet, Dos Remedios knows what it takes to eat a plant-based diet and still pack on the muscle.

After his third trip to the burrito bar, I understood how he could stay so big and muscular while eating a vegan diet: He's doing a lot of eating. “People don’t understand – you gotta eat,” he explained between bites. “When I say I’m having green beans, I don’t eat a cup of green beans. I eat a pound of them!”

“Vegetarian” Describes Several Ways to Eat

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Vegetarians don’t eat meat, poultry or fish, but some eat eggs, others eat dairy products and still others eat both. Vegans eat neither eggs nor dairy.

Whether you eat dairy and/or eggs or neither in your diet is your personal choice. Choosing to consume one or both of these foods may make muscle-building easier as doing so will put more protein sources and a broader spectrum of nutrients (such as calcium, vitamin D, cholesterol, choline, lutein and zeaxanthin) in your diet.

If you're looking to build muscle, you need to keep in mind that there are certain biochemical and physiological requirements for muscle building in the body. Importantly, to build muscle anyone (vegetarians, vegans and meat eaters) will still need excess calories and adequate protein in their diet.

If you put the focus on protein, you can easily increase your protein intake and total calories while packing on the muscle you want.

There are many people on vegetarian diets who eat too many carbs and not enough protein. This is something to be careful to avoid, as eating too many fast-acting carbohydrates will shift the balance of your weight gain from muscle to fat.

Focus on Protein in Plants

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If you’re trying to build muscle on a plant-based diet, you have options to make your efforts more successful.

Deciding to include eggs and/or dairy products in your diet automatically broadens your protein choices. Getting ample protein shouldn't be challenging if you bolster your protein intake with eggs, egg whites, whey or casein protein, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt and milk.

If some of these foods are on your “don’t eat” list and/or if you are vegan, then what are your other options? One important supplement is vegan protein powder. Your best vegan powder choices are high quality brown rice protein, pea protein, or soy protein, all of which contain ample levels of muscle-building, branched-chain amino acids. They mix well and have a decent texture.

If you're opting for soy, be sure to choose soy protein isolate over other kinds (check the ingredient list) because the purification process that yields soy protein isolate removes excess isoflavones -- phytochemicals that can mess with your hormone levels.

Foods such as nuts, beans, and lentils also can help you meet your daily protein needs. Non-vegetarian muscle-heads scoff at these foods because they don’t contain complete proteins. Yes, it's true that these foods lack certain essential amino acids, such as methionine. Yes, it’s important for us to be aware the concept of "complete vs. incomplete protein" as it is an issue in areas of the developing world where people are experiencing hunger and food scarcity.

For these people living with less abundance and availability of fresh food, it can be difficult for them to get enough essential amino acids in the diet by simply eating the a diet of beans and lentils. That said, this particular issue of "complete vs. incomplete protein" is not likely to be as much of a concern if you are an average American vegetarian or vegan gym-goer.

The truth is, you don’t need a complete spectrum of essential amino acids at every single meal if you make sure take in adequate levels of each of these amino acids over the course of the entire day.

If you make a point to consume a high-calorie, high-protein vegetarian diet that includes brown rice protein, pea protein, or soy protein isolate shakes at some point during your day, this should negate any concerns about consuming "incomplete proteins" such as lentils.

It's also essential to be aware of the carbohydrates-to-protein ratio of the foods you are eating. Put an emphasis on eating high protein foods such as almonds, cashews, pistachios, peanuts, black beans, kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas and edamame beans.

In addition, try to eat rice, pasta, potatoes and breads less frequently -- and primarily after exercise. Eating more grains and starches will increase only carbohydrates and calories in your diet, which could mean your protein intake for the day (as an overall percentage of total calories) is lagging.

Pumping Up the Protein

When you are on a weight lifting program the simplest way to get your body building muscle is to increase your food intake by 500 calories a day. An easy way to do this is by adding a protein-rich shake to your daily diet. Here’s a vegan shake I came up with that will give you 529 calories and 49 grams of protein:

Plant-Based Blender Bomb

• 40 grams pea, brown rice protein, or soy isolate protein • 1 tablespoon chia seeds • 2 handfuls baby spinach • 1/2 cup blueberries • 1/4 cup walnuts • 2 to 3 cups water • 3 to 4 ice cubes

Combine all ingredients in a blender, and blend thoroughly until smooth.