Protein is important for building muscle (and losing fat). But what do you do on a vegetarian diet? Eric Helms, Ph.D, shares how to follow a plant-based diet and still get all the protein, vitamins, and nutrients your body needs.
Figuring out what buttons to push to meet your own nutrition needs can be difficult and stressful. With so many food choices, claims, and hype — not to mention specific eating preferences, allergies, and food sensitivities — it’s no surprise that consistently eating well is a big hurdle.
Following a vegetarian diet is a common approach for most people looking to follow a healthier lifestyle. The catch? It can feel difficult to fill the gaps on a meatless diet, especially when it comes to protein, which is a key to building muscle and losing fat.
So we turned to Eric Helms, Ph.D. Not only does Dr. Helms have a master’s in sports nutrition and a doctorate in exercise science, but he’s also been following a plant-based diet since 2011. Here is his advice on following a plant-based diet, and how to build muscle on a vegetarian diet.
Ok, you reflected on what you want and decided to follow a vegetarian lifestyle. But you’re also interested in building muscle (or making sure you don’t lose the muscle you’ve already earned). How do you do it?
You might be surprised that building muscle on a vegetarian diet isn’t that different from a meat-filled plan. In fact, no matter what eating style you follow, if you want to build muscle then you need to eat slightly more calories than you burn in a day (called a “caloric surplus”), and make sure you emphasize protein. All that changes is the source of protein you need when following a vegetarian diet. Do that while training consistently and voila! You will add muscle.
Vegetarian Diet Muscle: Start with Calories
Your first step is to figure out your “maintenance level,” or the number of calories you must eat to keep your weight consistent. To do that:
Identify your goal weight. Think “where you want to be,” not “where you are.”
Use that figure to calculate an estimate of your daily intake using this equation: goal weight x (workout hours per week + 9.5) = daily number of calories
Track how much you eat. Online logs like MyFitnessPal can be helpful.
Monitor your intake and your scale weight for a couple of weeks. (Weigh yourself first thing in the morning, after you’ve went to the bathroom but before you eat or drink anything.)
If your body weight holds steady, you’ll know that you’ve accurately hit your maintenance number.
If you’re losing weight, you can bump up calories. Add about 100 per day across a week — so, if you were eating 2000 calories per day last week, you’d bump up to 2100 calories per day this week.
If you find you’re gaining weight, do the opposite. Drop a hundred calories per day.
When you reach a number that keeps your weight consistent, voila! You’re at the maintenance level.
But if your goal is to add muscle, you can’t just stop there. To gain muscle, you need to eat more calories than you burn. How many more?
Let’s say you are an intermediate level lifter, meaning that you have been training for a few years.
If you are a woman or a smaller guy, you’re probably going to want to eat an extra 100 to 200 calories above your maintenance amount.
If you are a larger, taller guy, you’ll want to focus on an extra 200 to 300 calories.
This should result in you gaining one to two pounds per month. It’s a rough guideline, but one that will cover most people (although not everybody).
[Ed. note: Could you gain more muscle than this? Sure. But this is a realistic rate of growth. Don’t buy into promises that sound great on paper but will only leave you frustrated and want to quit.]
From there, you’ll want to monitor your weight and ask yourself: Am I gaining at the rate of weight that I want? If the answer is “yes,” then great. But if “no,” then continue to bump up your intake incrementally.
How Much Protein, Fat, and Carbs Do Vegetarians Need?
Let’s imagine that you’ve determined how many calories you need to gain muscle. For the sake of keeping the math easy, let’s say you need 3,000 calories per day.
From there you can budget your macronutrients, or how many grams of protein, fat, and carbs you should aim for in a day. Do it in this order:
1. Start with protein. Note that your protein intake will not actually be based on your total energy intake. Your target protein number should be based on how much lean body mass you have. [Ed. note: “Lean body mass” is the weight of everything in your body that isn’t fat — muscle tissue, bone, etc.]
Most people don’t have an easy way to calculate that accurately. So, instead, a good surrogate number to use for calculating protein is your goal body weight (If you are 180 pounds and want to weigh 200 pounds, then that is your goal weight). Multiply that weight by .8 to 1.0, and you’ll have your target protein intake in grams.
You can eat more than that, but you don’t need to. The times when you might want to consume more protein would be if you are gaining weight too quickly because you are hungry all the time. Protein is pretty filling, and going above your bodyweight-based target may help you feel fuller longer.
2. Next up, calculate fat. Let’s go back to the example of 3,000 calories per day with a goal weight of 200 pounds. That means you want 200 grams of protein per day. That equals 800 calories from protein (since protein is 4 calories per gram). You have 2,200 calories remaining for fat and carbohydrates.
A good range for fat in your diet is anywhere between 20% and 40% of total calories from fat (Note: exceptions do exist, such as if you choose to follow a ketogenic diet.). For the 3,000 calories-per-day example, here’s what it would look like:
Goal weight: 200 pounds
Protein: 200 grams
Fat calculation: 20-40%
If 20% of 3,000 calories = 600 calories from fat (or 600/9* = 67 grams of fat/day)
If 40% of 3,000 calories = 1,200 calories from fat (or 1,200/9 = 133 grams of fat/day)
[*Ed. note: fat is 9 calories per gram]
3. Carbohydrates take up whatever calories are remaining. Divide that remainder by four and you’ll find the number of carbohydrates you want to eat in grams. So for each of our examples above:
1,600 calories/4 calories per gram = 400 grams of carbs
1,000 calories/4 calories per gram = 250 grams of carbs
In this sample, you would eat:
200 grams of protein 67 grams of fat 400 grams of carbs
200 grams of protein 133 grams of fat 250 grams of carbs
What Are the Best Protein Sources for Vegetarians?
When you go on a vegetarian diet, it’s hard to find many foods that are pure protein. That’s because many vegetarian protein sources have a lot of crossover – i.e. a grain like quinoa will be high in protein but also high in carbs, or nuts will have protein but also a lot of fat.
That’s especially true as you move toward a strict vegan diet. Picture all plant-based diet on a spectrum, with flexitarians or pescatarians (people who’ll eat fish, eggs and dairy) on the left and strict vegans on the right. The closer you go to veganism, the more difficult things will be.
If you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian, eggs and dairy alone provide you with ample opportunity to get sufficient protein. If you have a few protein servings from one of those sources at each meal, you should be set.
For a lacto-vegetarian, again, it’s not hard to keep your protein up. You can consume whey protein or non-fat Greek yogurt, and both are high in protein while being low in carbs and fat. They might as well be meat in terms of their macronutrient breakdowns (although with some extra carbs in there).
For an ovo-vegetarian, egg whites provide basically the same thing: a food that’s high in protein and low in everything else. You could stick with just those if you were trying to control calories. Or you could mix in as many yolks as you want to hit your fat target for the day.
Best of all: In both cases (lacto and ovo), you’re getting a high-quality protein source. What I mean by that, from the perspective of someone who wants to gain muscle, is that they are high in essential amino-acids like leucine, which is one of the triggers for muscle protein synthesis (the process of building of new muscle).
If you’re a vegan, you have to worry to some degree about complementary proteins. Basically, many plant-based protein sources don’t have all nine essential amino acids. [Ed. note: if you don’t have all the essential aminos, then you can’t put those aminos to use for building muscle.] So you’ll have to mix different sources of plant-based protein together in order to get a complete set of amino acids.
A common example is rice and beans. Together, those two foods provide a complete protein source.
You don’t need to worry about complementary proteins on a meal-to-meal basis. You just want to look globally at your diet. Are you consuming multiple sources of proteins — rice, beans, quinoa, tofu to some degree — that are complementary in nature? Eating a variety of protein sources as a vegan ensures that you’re getting all of the essential amino acids.
Here are some of the vegetarian diet protein sources:
Edamame (1 cup, cooked) = 16g of protein
Tempeh (3 oz.) = 16g
Seitan (6 oz.) = 15g
Textured Vegetable Protein (¼ cup, dry) = 12g
Hemp Hearts (3 tbsp.) = 10g
Spelt (1 cup) = 10g
Red lentils (½ cup) = 9g
Peas (1 cup) = 8g
Red Beans (½ cup) = 8g
Kidney Beans (½ cup) = 8g
Quinoa (1 cup) = 8g
Tofu (3 oz.) = 8g
Black Beans (½ cup) = 7g
Great Northern Beans (½ cup) = 7g
Almonds (1 oz.) = 6g
Garbanzo Beans (½ cup) = 6g
Pumpkin seeds (1oz.) = 5g
Collard greens (1 cup, raw) = 5 g
Hubbard Squash (1 cup, cooked) = 5g
Asparagus (1 cup) = 4 g per cup
Spinach (1 cup) = 4g per cup
Sweet potatoes (1 cup, roasted with skins)= 4g
Beet Greens (1 cup) = 4g
Brussel sprouts (1 cup) = 3.9g
Mushrooms (1 cup) = 3g
Broccoli (1 cup) = 3g
Broccoli Rabe (1 cup, cooked) = 3g
Mung Bean Sprouts (1 cup, cooked) = 2.5g
Kale (1 cup, raw) = 2.5g
Zucchini (1 cup, sliced) = 2g
Cauliflower (1 cup, chopped) = 2g
Vegetarian Diet Protein Powder: A Primer
If you are a vegan, it’s likely that you’ll want to invest in a pea protein (or pea protein blend).
Why pea and not soy, the most common one?
There’s some research showing that soy protein, in large amounts, could potentially affect sperm quality and quantity in men. There’s other research indicating that soy could potentially affect estrogen levels, but that’s less consistent. Some studies show it, some don’t.
Women probably don’t have to worry about this stuff because even if estrogen changes, you’d still be within normal, acceptable ranges compared to how much estrogen you’re normally producing. But, I’m not comfortable enough with the ambivalence of the research, and the potential consequences, to advise having soy as a large part of your diet, as a vegan or a vegetarian.
Notice I said “large part.” Having a serving of soy per day is not a big deal. So if you want to have tofu once a day, that’s all good. If you have a scoop of soy protein once a day, that’s totally fine. You just wouldn’t want to have 40-50% of your protein intake come from soy. That’s probably not a good idea.
Instead, you probably want to invest in a protein blend that is high quality, complete, and doesn’t have those issues. Pea protein or a rice-pea blend is what you want.
In fact, pea protein performs really well in research. It’s comparable to whey protein in terms of its leucine content. A term that I’ve seen thrown around is “vegan’s whey,” which is roughly a 70/30 blend of pea protein and rice protein. You actually get a very similar essential amino acid profile to whey.
Outside of just the amino acid profile, we’ve actually seen studies where people perform just as well in terms of body competition change (ratio of muscle to body fat) and performance when they eat pea protein after a workout, compared to whey.
The one thing to note about pea/rice blends is that they bulk up a lot. No matter how much water you add to it, it will have an earthy flavor. The mix is pretty filling, I’ve found, but drinking it can feel a little bit tiresome due to that mouthfeel. If you are accustomed to whey protein, which is very thin, this will be different than what you are used to.
A way to work around that is to mix small amounts of vegan protein powder into things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You can’t put a huge amount in there or it can start to get a little gritty and weird, but sneaking in a little bit will help you up the protein count of your meals – and save you from having to drink shake after shake.
How to Tell if a Vegetarian Diet is Working for You
When your goal is building muscle, start by tracking your weight. You’ll also want to track your workout performance. Whether or not the weights you are using, or the reps you can perform, are going upward or downward can tell you a lot about how well your lifestyle is supporting your goals.
But remember: external goals aren’t the only thing that matters. You also have to live in the body you’re building every day. So create a rating scale for yourself, say, from 1 to 5. Each day, rate how you feel on the qualitative aspects of your life. This includes:
workout quality or enjoyment
Those subjective ratings are important. Also, while it’s a little bit uncomfortable to talk about, you may even want to monitor whether it’s easier or harder to use the toilet. If you’re eating appropriately and drinking sufficient water, it should get easier.
While we’re on the subject, here’s another thing to note: When you increase your vegetable consumption, you may experience an increase in gas. Really, that’s true whenever you make a large-scale change to your diet. Two things to note:
Try Gas-X (it’s a lifesaver).
Typically, things should start to normalize as your gut microbiome gets more accustomed to what you’re taking in. You’ll likely notice an improvement over a few weeks to a month.
Your energy levels shouldn’t fluctuate that much if you’re doing it right. If you feel really off, even though your macronutrients and your total calories are the same, that can indicate some type of micronutrient problem. That’s not always the case, but it’s worth watching. If the issue is persistent, try a blood test.
For Long-Term Success, Be Clear About Why You Want to Be a Vegetarian
Whenever I first start talking to someone who wants to make a shift over to a vegetarian or vegan diet, but who is also interested in athletic performance, the first thing I ask is: Why do you want to do this?
A common response is, “Well, we know vegetarian diets are better for health and performance.” That’s where we have to stop and take an objective look at what we really know about vegetarian diets.
There are two things that often skew people’s viewpoints:
1. The “rose-colored glasses” problem. It’s natural for people to see only the positives in data, especially when their ethical beliefs are driving it. Someone who promotes vegetarian diet, or who believes it is unethical to not eat vegetarian, may only highlight or acknowledge research showing that vegetarian diets are healthier.
2. The confounding variables problem. When you look at the broad spectrum of quality research, you see that, yes, vegetarians are healthier and live longer compared to the general population. The thing is, a person from the general population is not someone who really thinks about what they are eating, other than perhaps to ask, “Do I want more salt on this?”
So in these studies, as soon as you look at a vegetarian, you are bringing in someone who has made a serious decision about their nutrition. Which usually means they are more attentive to their health in general. They’re typically more active. They drink and smoke less. They are more conscious of calorie intake. They usually have a lower BMI. All of these things predict a longer life and better health. So yes, compared to the general population, vegetarians typically do better.
Here’s the “but.” But, when researchers get comparable controls to vegetarians (i.e. people who tick those other boxes about less drinking/smoking, lower BMI higher activity levels, and so on), it starts to wash out those differences. You don’t see such drastic health benefits.
That’s not to say a vegetarian diet can’t be healthy. Fruit and vegetable intake are highly important for health. But you can eat meat, fruit and vegetables, and likewise be healthy.
I would say that the only “evidence based argument” to do a plant-based diet would probably be for ethics – and even then, it’s going to be subjective, and specific to your personal ethics.
I encourage you to assess your own beliefs. Figure out what you feel the most ethically comfortable with. Instead of just rigidly trying to follow someone else’s plan, ask yourself, “What am I trying to accomplish?”
Vegetarian Diet for Muscle Building: Quick Notes
Building muscle on a vegetarian diet is very possible. The basic rules are the same: Eat a little more, prioritize protein, get sufficient rest and sleep, and then kick ass in the gym.
If you’re a flexitarian, pescetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, you have plenty of options for getting sufficient protein. Whey protein is your friend. So is Greek yogurt and eggs.