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Is It Possible to Build Muscle on a Vegetarian Diet?

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

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.”

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!”

  • When you’re trying to build muscle, it's essential that you eat a lot of calories.
  • 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.

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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
  • zeaxanthin) in your diet

Focus on Protein in Plants

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
  • edamame beans

Pumping Up the Protein

The Best Protein Powders for Fitness and Figure Competitors

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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.

  • 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.
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