How To Build Muscle And Tone Up On A Plant-Based Diet

And where to get your hit of protein.

plant based diet
Image: iStock

Simon Hill has completed a Bachelor of Physiotherapy, completed a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate Course at Cornell University and is currently finishing his Masters in Nutrition at Deakin University. He is passionate about making nutritional information simple and accessible so that people can make informed decisions about the food they feed themselves and their family. You can find him at @plant_proof.

Historically, a vegan diet has earned itself a bad reputation in the fitness world. Mostly, people ponder: how could one possibly get enough protein and find strength on a diet that excludes meat, fish and eggs? However, overwhelming scientific research has proven there is little reason to be concerned. In fact, a well-balanced plant-based diet with an adequate calorie intake can provide more than enough protein for both casual gym goers and elite athletes—whilst also improving overall health and wellbeing. Professional athletes in the likes of Venus Williams, Lewis Hamilton and Novak Djokovic are walking examples of how a plant-based diet can suit any physical need.

Before we jump in, I want to get one thing straight: we can theoretically build muscle on any diet, and I am not here to tell you otherwise. After all, muscle grows when these two conditions are met: 1) we engage in resistance training that prompts our body to adapt to handling more load and 2) when we eat enough calories and protein to support muscle repair and growth.

The benefits of plant protein:

However, the point is that while any diet can make us look fit, the benefit of a plant-based diet is that beyond making us look fit, it can promote longevity and prevent long-term chronic disease. In fact, while animal protein may indeed contain a substantial amount of protein, it also contains a whole range of other things too, such as saturated fatcholesterol, and sodium which have been shown to increase one’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease. On the contrary, not only are plant proteins to supply us with adequate protein, their benefits extend far past their protein content: plant foods are generally packed with dietary fibrenon-heme iron and unsaturated fats making them an all-around healthier choice. I don’t know about you, but it seems like a no brainer to me!

plant-based diet
Image: iStock

So, how much protein do we actually need for performance results and optimal health?

The Australian Government’s Nutrient Reference Values indicate that the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for an average person is 0.84 grams of protein per kg for men and 0.75 grams per kg for women. For example, a woman who weighs 65 kg should aim for 49g of protein each day. For those who are particularly active and regularly engage in resistance training, this figure goes up to 1.3-1.8 grams of protein per kg (if the individual is in calorie maintenance or surplus) and between 1.8-2.2 grams of protein per kg if in a calorie deficit as the extra protein may help maintain muscle mass during a weight loss phase. Overall, it’s advisable to consume no more than 25% of calories from protein, the upper limit set by the NHMRC in the Australian Dietary Guidelines to allow for sufficient calories from healthful carbohydrates and fats.

What to eat for plant-based protein:

My favourite sources of protein are beans, tempeh, tofu, lentils and quinoa, but almonds, hemp seeds, peanuts, hummus and pulse pasta all provide plenty of protein per serving. It’s also worth noting that the majority of plant foods such as vegetables or fruits also contain some protein, which may not seem like much in itself, but over the course of a whole day they can definitely add up.

plant-based diet
Image: iStock

While it is preferable to source protein from food, for a convenient protein boost without many additional calories, plant-based protein powder can be a good idea especially for those who are particularly active. To ensure a complete amino acid profile, opt for a vegan protein powder that blends different varieties of plant protein such as pea, rice and hemp—these typically offer the best Leucine concentrations, an amino acid known to significantly affect muscle protein synthesis. Not only have these been shown to be as effective as whey powder when it comes to muscle synthesis, but they are also generally much easier on the stomach. My advice would be to make sure the product is organic, as conventional protein powders can often be laced with synthetic fillers and heavy metals.

The key takeaway:

Above all, try not to stress the protein too much: the truth is protein deficiency is extremely rare, and in fact, most individuals on a standard western diet are consuming too much of it, causing a strain on our kidneys and liver. The bottom line is that a well-balanced plant-based diet rich in legumes, nuts, grains, seeds and vegetables can easily supply the body with enough high-quality protein.

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