Protein deficiency is often a major concern people have when mulling over a plant-based diet—especially those who work out often.
We’re almost constantly told that we need to get enough of the stuff to progress anywhere towards our fitness goals.
Yet, while it’s true that switching to a plant-based diet requires some pretty big adjustments, your workout or protein intake isn’t one of them.
How much protein do you need to build muscle?
Yes, you need protein if your goal is to build muscle—just not as much as you probably think. “As Americans, we focus very highly on protein and consuming enough of it, but in general we eat way more than we need,” says Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, and Founder of Real Nutrition NYC. “I recommend about 0.8-1 grams of protein per kg of body weight.” That’s about 0.4-0.5 grams per pound. This goes up to 1.2 grams per kilogram (or 0.55 grams per pound) if you’re an athlete, wanting to build muscle, or recovering from surgery or an illness.
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Samantha Hass, a registered dietitian at F-Factor, a private practice in New York City, further explains that, while protein is the key nutrient to building and repairing muscle, too much of it can actually negatively affect your body. “Extra protein beyond the amount recommended has not been proven to offer added performance benefits,” she explains. Moreover, that added protein is either used for energy or stored as body fat.
Hass mentions other side effects such as possible metabolic imbalance, nervous system disorders, and potential problems for those experiencing or prone to kidney disease. That may sound grim, but it’s easy to avoid. Keep within the recommended amounts to stay in the clear.
Can you build muscle on a vegan diet?
In short: Yes! While a vegan diet eliminates all animal foods, it’s far from lacking in protein. In fact, all plant-based foods—save for fruit—contain some sort of protein, says Hass.
“A vegan diet is just like any other diet,” adds Brooke Alpert, RD, and author of The Diet Detox. “When done well it can be very beneficial for you and when done poorly you can be missing major nutrients.” Sounds simple enough, right? For people on a plant-based diet this means fitting enough of the right proteins—and the right amino acids, if you’re looking to gain muscle—into each meal.
“Our body builds muscles by using the building blocks of proteins called amino acids,” explains Shapiro. “Most plant proteins are not complete proteins (that means they do not contain all of the essential amino acids we need, that our body cannot produce itself), so food combining is important.” Basically, this means getting enough plant protein sources to cover all bases (aka all nine amino acids). Think combining legumes, nuts, and leafy greens into salads, soups, or snacks.. Mixing it up is key to building muscle.
Hass also recommends two pro tips: Spread your protein intake throughout the day (especially after strength training) and consume the right amount of protein at meals. For females, this is 3-4 ounces. For males, it’s 5-6 ounces.
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What are some vegan protein sources?
Like mentioned above, most plant-based foods contain some amount of protein. Here, all three dietitians share their favorite vegan protein sources:
- Soy milk
- Seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, chia, hemp)
- Beans (chickpea, black, white, lentils)
- Nuts and nut butters
- Sprouted bread.
- Plant-based protein powders
Try incorporating a variety of these foods into your meals, salads, snacks, and smoothies for an added boost of protein and amino acids to support muscle growth. For added support with workouts, check out the Aaptiv app.