How to build muscle and lose fat on a vegan diet

How to build muscle and lose fat on a vegan diet

This article is going to show you how you can build muscle and lose fat on a vegan diet. If you’re someone who does’t like eating lots of meat, or you struggle to eat enough protein, you might find it helpful too.

Anytime you want to cut out a food from your diet you need to pay extra attention to what you’re eating instead. If you replace your daily steak, eggs and cheese with chips, bread and vegan cake, you’re probably not going to get enough protein or nutrients from your diet.

Ps. I’m not a dietician and I’m not vegan. I hope to give you non-biased information on how you could hit your protein target when vegan to build muscle and lose fat. I encourage you to speak to your doctor if you’re unsure about anything.

Why is protein so important? 

Whether your goal is to lose fat, build muscle, or maintain a healthy body, eating enough protein should be a priority.

For fat loss, protein helps you to retain lean body mass when you’re eating in a calorie deficit.

For muscle gain, protein provides the building blocks for the body to make new muscle tissue.

Overall protein is a component of many metabolic processes in the body and is essential to our survival. It forms the structure of enzymes, some hormones, your hair/nails, muscle tissue, and plays a large role in your immune system. You need enough protein to be healthy!

How much protein do you need if vegan?

Exactly how much protein you need depends on your preferences. The guide below assumes that you weight train a few days a week.

I would aim to get 0.6g-1.3g of protein per pound of lean body mass.

Ideally this will be around 1g per pound of lean body mass for fat loss or muscle gain. If you’re vegan and already struggle to eat protein, then starting at the lower end of the range would make sense.

The more you care about retaining muscle during a fat loss phase, the higher up the range you should go. 

For example…

Say you weigh 130 pounds and your body fat percentage is 25%.

Your lean body mass is your body weight minus your fat mass.

So your fat mass is = 25% x 130 = 32.5 pounds

LBM = 130 – 32.5 = 97.5 pounds

Let’s choose a target towards the lower end of the range since you’re probably vegan if you’re reading this…

Protein target= 97.5 x 0.8g= 78grams

Your protein target would be 78 grams of protein per day.

Now that you know how much protein you need, it’s a matter of working out what foods to include in your diet to reach this target.

What are the differences between plant based and animal sources of protein?

There are differences in both protein quality and protein quantity.

Protein is broken down by the body into amino acids so that it can be utilised.

Non-essential amino acids can be made by the body whereas essential amino acids cannot. If your diet is lacking in any of the essential amino acids, the ability grow, repair or maintain tissue is compromised.

Animal sources of protein are rich in all of the essential amino acids.

Plant based sources have a limiting quantity of one or more of the essential amino acids.

This means that if you were to eat just one type of plant based food to get all of your protein for the day, you might not get the recommended daily intake of some of the essential amino acids.

Soy, quinoa and hemp contain all the essential amino acids. Rice is very low in lysine whereas legumes are high in lysine. Legumes are low in methionine and cystine, and grains are good sources of these amino acids. If you eat rice and beans together, you’ll get all of the essential amino acids.

The good news is that you don’t really have to worry about specific food combinations for each meal. Your body pools amino acids. So long as you include a variety of plant based foods (including grains/starch and fruit/vegetables) in your diet over the course of the day and you hit your protein target, you’ll get all the amino acids your body needs.

The digestibility of plant based protein is not as high as that of animal sources.

To compensate for this, you might want to aim for a protein target on the upper end of the recommended range.

Plant based sources of protein are also lower in protein per gram than animal sources.

This is where things start to get complicated.

If you’re cutting out an animal source of protein, then you should replace it with a plant based source. However, the plant based source will likely have more calories for less protein.

For example, 100 grams of chicken breast gives you 22 grams of protein for 105 calories, whereas 100 grams of pasta gives you 12.7 grams of protein for 348 calories.

100 grams of broccoli gives you 4.7 grams of protein for 32 calories and to get 22 grams of protein you’d need to eat 470 grams of broccoli which would give you 149 calories. 

It’s still possible to reach your protein target without going over your calorie target, you just have to be careful.

What are the best sources of protein for vegans?

You should aim to include a variety of plant bases sources of protein in your daily food intake. This includes grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Whole grains: pasta, oats, rice, barley, rye, spelt

Fruit: prunes, dried apricots, guava, blackberries, raspberries

Vegetables: broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale, watercress, sweet corn, bean sprouts, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, artichokes

Legumes: black beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, kidney beans, lentils, edamame, peanuts, green peas, tofu, tempeh

Nuts: almonds, walnuts, cashews, macadamias

Seeds: quinoa, buckwheat, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds

Obviously you can eat other sources of fruit and vegetables but these are some that are fairly high in protein per 100grams.

How do you hit all of your macros on a vegan diet?

If you don’t know what macros are you can learn more here.

Hitting all your macros when vegan can be more difficult since protein sources for vegans are either tagged along with carbs or fats. So you’ll have protein with fat or protein with carbs. You’ll learn how to eat these in the right quantities to hit your macros by practising.

I would start by choosing what you like eating out of the foods listed above and log them in a food diary app.

In doing this, you’ll learn which ones are higher in protein, and which ones have a lot of fat or calories for the protein content.

You can then play around with portion sizes and food combinations until you get close to your daily calorie and protein target. As long you get close to your calorie and protein target, you’ll be able to build muscle and lose fat on a vegan diet. By including a variety of foods, you’ll get all the amino acids you need too.

Note: If you want to build muscle and lose fat on a vegan diet I would aim to hit protein and calories and not worry about being perfect with fat and carbs. By tracking your macros, you’ll learn whether you generally go for foods that are more carb heavy to hit your protein, or more fat heavy. From there you can adjust your food intake to reduce protein/fat foods and increase protein/carb foods (or vice versa) if you really want to be spot on with all your macros.

What if you’re struggling to hit protein still?

This is where a plant based protein powder could come in handy.

Obviously I wouldn’t recommend getting all of your protein from supplement form and eating vegan cake for the rest of the day. If you’re eating lots of whole foods and still falling short, then this is a convenient way to reach your protein target.

The most important things to look for when it comes to vegan protein powders are the ingredients and protein quantity per 100 grams.

Ideally, to get optimal amino acid levels, you should choose a protein powder that is made from a mix of rice and pea protein or any other combination of ingredients that combine to make a complete protein source.

When looking at the nutrition panel, you want to make sure that the amount of protein is high (around 20 grams or more per 100 calories). You should also check that the carbs and fats are low (5 grams or less of each is a good guide).

What about vegan meat?

The problem with meat substitutes is that they can be full of shit. Some aren’t even high in protein.

The less ingredients, and the more natural the ingredients, the better. For example, a veggie patty made out of chickpeas is better than one made out of hydrolysed wheat. You also want to check the sodium content of these products. If it’s high, you probably don’t need to add additional salt. Most vegan meat substitutes are heavily processed and are best enjoyed as a treat food.

Speaking of treats, just because something is vegan doesn’t make it healthy. Vegan treats like cakes and chocolate are often higher in calories than the non-vegan version. You can still enjoy them. They need to fit into your calorie requirements for your goal. 

Are there any other issues with a vegan diet?

Apart from protein, there are other deficiencies that can result from cutting out animal products. So long as you’re eating a variety of whole foods in your day, you probably won’t have to worry. It’s always best to talk to your doctor or a dietician to be sure.

Vitamin B12– This can be obtained in fortified grains/cereals or in supplement form.

Iron– Plant based sources include lentils, chickpeas, tofu, nuts, beans, chia seeds, kale, dried apricots, raisins, quinoa and fortified cereals. Vitamin C can help with iron absorption.

Omega 3s– Plant based sources include chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, seaweed/algae, and edamame.

Calcium– Plant based sources include fortified soy/oat/nut milks, calcium set tofu, chia seeds, dried figs, fortified breads and dark leafy greens (e.g. bok choy,  broccoli and kale). Some leafy greens are higher in oxalate than others (e.g. spinach and arugula) and this impedes calcium absorption.

Zinc– Plant based sources include beans, lentils, tofu, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, cashews, and quinoa.

So how do you build muscle and lose fat on a vegan diet?

At the end of the day the basics still apply to build muscle and lose fat on a vegan diet.

To lose fat you need to eat in a calorie deficit. You need to eat enough protein to maximise muscle retention and to help keep you full. Weight training will help with this.

To build muscle you need to eat in a calorie surplus and follow a structured weight training program. You should also eat enough protein to support the building of new muscle tissue.


In summary…

If you want to build muscle and lose fat on a vegan diet:

  • include a variety of plant based protein sources to ensure you’re getting all of the amino acids.
  • choose real foods over processed vegan foods as much as possible.
  • when you would normally eat an animal source of protein you should replace that with a plant based food high in protein (not vegan cookies).
  • plan out your meals to ensure you’re hitting your protein without going over your calorie target.
  • be patient. It might be difficult to begin with but once you get used to what portions of foods fit well together it’ll get easier.

Ps. To learn how to calculate your own calorie target for fat loss or muscle gain then read this. 


Further reading

Rogerson, D., 2017, Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers, JISSN, 14:36.