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How to Build Muscle on a Vegan Diet: Tips to Get Enough Protein

How to Build Muscle on a Vegan Diet: Tips to Get Enough Protein

Are you a vegan who wants to build muscle and wondering if you can get enough protein from plant-based sources? The good news is that you can! Contrary to popular belief, a vegan diet provides all the essential amino acids needed for muscle growth and repair.

In this article, we’ll dive into the world of vegan protein and provide you with essential information and tips to help you build muscle on a vegan diet. We’ll cover everything from the best plant-based protein sources to optimal meal timing and nutrient combinations. So, let’s get started!

The Importance of Protein: Why It Matters

  1. Provides energy.  Protein provides 4kcal per gram and is the most satiating macronutrient so it can help with weight loss by reducing hunger.
  2. Required for growth and development. Protein is required for the formation of bones, muscles, and organs.
  3. Builds and repairs cells and tissue.  Protein is needed for muscle protein synthesis.  Building muscle isn’t just about looks; it can increase resting metabolic rate and improves blood sugar control.  
  4. Important for body processes such as blood clotting, immune response, vision, and production of hormones, antibodies, and enzymes.  A fun fact is that everything active in the body is a protein!
  5. Provides structure.  Protein is part of skin, nails, muscle, and bone.
  6. Balances body fluids. Protein is found in most body fluids and proteins regulate the process to maintain fluid balance.

Amino Acids: Essential and Non-essential

Protein is not a single molecule; it is a macromolecule made up of chains of amino acids. There are 20 common amino acids that are categorized as essential or non-essential.

Essential amino acids cannot be synthesized by the body and must be obtained from food.  Non-essential amino acids can be synthesized internally so food sources are not required. Non-essential amino acids can become ‘conditionally essential’ in special cases like times of illness, stress, or wound healing. 

Essential Amino Acids Non-essential Amino Acids (*Conditionally Essential)
Histidine Alanine *
Isoleucine Arginine
Leucine Asparagine
Lysine Aspartic acid
Methionine Cysteine *
Phenylalanine Glutamic acid
Threonine Glutamine *
Valine Glycine *
  Proline *
  Tyrosine *

Complementary Proteins: Tips for Getting All the Amino Acids

There are several misconceptions about plant-based protein, including that it is not as high quality as animal-based protein. While plant-based protein may not have all nine essential amino acids in one source (sans soy), they can be easily obtained through complimentary protein combinations.

Complimentary proteins do NOT have to be eaten at the same time. Popular examples of complete proteins include rice and beans, hummus and pita, and peanut butter on whole-grain bread. Other combinations include quinoa and vegetables, lentils and rice, and tofu and broccoli.

Lysine is one amino acid that vegans should make sure to get enough of. Lysine is found in peanuts, beans, lentils, peas, soybeans (tofu, tempeh, soy milk), and to a lesser extent pumpkin seeds and quinoa. An amino acid for athletes to consider (vegan or omnivore) is leucine since it important for muscle protein synthesis.

Vegan Protein Sources: High-Quality Foods

High quality plant-based protein sources include legumes (beans, lentils, peas), nuts and seeds (almonds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds), tofu and tempeh, and whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat bread). Protein from vegetables and fruits can also minimally contribute.

Plant-based proteins have the advantage of containing fiber and phytochemicals that meat do not. However, phytochemicals are mostly removed in processed foods like soy protein isolate. Below is a list of fiber and phytochemical containing protein rich foods.

Food 1 Portion Size Kcal Protein (Grams)
Tofu 0.5 cup (126g) 181 22
Tempeh 0.5 cup (83g) 160 17
Lentils 0.5 cup (99g) 115 9
Edamame 0.5 cup (78g) 94 9
Black bean 0.5 cup (83g) 114 8
Quiona 1 cup (185 g) 222 8
Chickpea 0.5 cup (82g) 135 7
Kidney bean 0.5 cup (89g) 113 7
Peanut Butter 28g (2 tablespoons) 166 7
Almonds 28g (2 tablespoons) 167 6
Chia seeds 28g (2 tablespoons) 136 5

How to Calculate Your Protein Needs  

The recommended daily value for protein is a hotly debated topic. Additionally, protein intake can vary depending on age, pregnancy or breastfeeding, illness, disease, injury, and activity level.

Average person (vegan or omnivore): 0.8-1 g/kg  

Elderly (impaired absorption): 1.0-1.3 g/kg  

Athlete, Regular Exercise (training type / volume / muscle mass goal): 1.4 g/kg- 2.0 g/kg   

Body builders: 2.2g/kg- 3.0 g/kg   

Muscle protein synthesis: 20-40 grams per meal or 0.25 g/kg  

Research suggests that it is ideal to spread out protein intake within 2–4-hour intervals pre or post workout. However, Total daily protein intake is more important than timing. 


You will easily get enough protein if you are eating a varied diet mostly free of processed foods and sugar. If you are after a superhero like six pack or have specific athletic performance goals, protein timing and amount requires planning. There is little concern about too much protein unless you have impaired kidney function.

Remember that protein can only form muscles if you are doing enough exercise to utilize it. An excess of protein is treated the same way as other nutrients and stored as fat. Additionally, focusing too much on protein can crowd out other important nutrients.

Protein gets a lot of special attention, and it is well deserved. However, the media often puts protein on a pedestal as the one macronutrient we can never have too much of. There are two other important macronutrients, fat and carbs, that are also vital for body function. They are not the villains that they are sometimes made out to be! We will cover this in future blog posts.

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