You don't have to be a meat-eater to gain muscle and build mass so long as you're eating high-protein food sources.
Julie D. Andrews and Men's Fitness Editors 1 / 10
You can still maintain strong bones as a vegan or vegetarian and gain muscle. What’s key, says Leslie Bonci, RD, LDN, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is packing in calcium-rich dairy subs while following this simple formula for successful muscle protein synthesis: Weight training plus adequate protein—that is, getting enough protein and spreading intake throughout the day.
Then, aim to get .5 to .7 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily, suggests Bonci, divided evenly among meals. For a 150-pound man, that’s 75 to 105 grams daily. Ideally, slip 25 to 35 grams of protein and at least 2 grams of leucine (an essential amino acid and protein building block largely found in whey-fortified foods including Better Whey of Life yogurt, Detour bars, and Mix1 shakes) into each meal.
A good time to pump up the protein is before or after lifting sessions. One Romanian Olympic athlete study found those who took 1.5 grams of Supro soy protein daily for two months experienced greater increases in body mass, strength, serum proteins, and calcium, as well as dips in post-training fatigue, compared to athletes who didn’t take soy protein. Also try soy protein powder with soy milk and frozen fruit, says Bonci, or a Clif Builder’s protein bar to supercharge workouts. (If you're not a vegan, shakes and bars with high-quality, but dairy-deprived, whey protein are also good options.)
To further boost your plant-based diet, take a daily multi-vitamin with health-promoting calcium, iron, magnesium, Vitamins D and B-12, and zinc. Enlisting the help of Carolyn Brown, nutrition expert and co-founder of Foodtrainers, we compiled the best vegan and vegetarian muscle-building food sources.
Squeeze more bone-fortifying calcium into your diet—without indulging in dairy—by loading up on nuts like peanuts, almonds and pistachios. One serving (1oz) of each has about 160 high-quality calories (according to Calorie Counter) because they're composed of a well-balanced blend of protein, fiber and fat. Aside from being the perfect snack on the go or in the office, nuts are a great power food that will help fill you up and trim you down. "Nut and seed butters are higher in fat than protein but these 'good' fats actually make you lean," Brown says.
People tend to overlook the power of plant-based protein, but they're the second-highest source of protein after meat. All bean varieties (black, pinto, navy, kidney, etc.) average about 15 grams of protein. What's more, beans are exceptionally low in fat, high in fiber and best of all—they're cheap! “And though it’s true that beans are not complete proteins, they do have many of the essential amino acids necessary for muscle building. Add in 1/2-1 cup per day for protein and fiber benefits,” Brown adds.
Legumes are similiar to beans, only they tend to grow in pods, so think: lentils, peas, chick peas, soybeans. They're low in fat, have no cholesterol and they're one of the greatest sources of protein for vegetarians and vegans. Cooked lentils boast nearly 18 grams of protein; add the brown variety to soups and the green to salads for an added boost.
“For optimal muscle building, you want your diet to be as nutrient dense as possible,” Brown says. “Peas, spinach, kale, broccoli are the highest protein vegetables.” Kale, mustard greens, spinach and the like can help you up your protein intake. Two cups of kale has about 4 grams of protein; the same amount of mustard greens yields 3 grams, and spinach has 2 grams. This isn't a lot, but if you add leafy greens to morning smoothies, have a salad for lunch and cook spinach for dinner, you can easily consume up to 15 grams of protein in one day.
Just one cup of calcium-fortified hemp milk has about 3 grams of protein and 30 percent of your daily calcium needs (Calorie Counter). And for an even bigger protein punch, drink soy milk. One cup packs 8 grams of protein (Calorie Counter). Have a glass with breakfast, pour some in cereal, or add a splash to your smoothies.
Cruciferous vegetables can yield a considerable amount of protein—broccoli especially. Two cups of raw broccoli has 5 grams of protein; add it to salad or eat some as a midday snack. (Bonus points if you add hummus.)
"We're seeing a lot more of these proteins popping up in protein powders," Brown says. "Pea protein is one of the best protein sources out there, nutritionally- and amino acid-wise, because its similar to animal protein." Looking for pea protein, try Naked Pea and Nutiva Hemp Protein.
"Loaded with protein, good fat and omega 3’s, chia seeds are one of the greatest to snack on or add to dishes,” Brown says. “Make chia pudding or sprinkle chia seeds on yogurt for a boost of protein.” One tablespoon of chia seeds is 60 calories and yields three grams of protein.