Nutrition Q&A: Can You Be A Vegetarian—And Actually Gain Muscle?
With the right sources of vegan and vegetarian protein, you can build muscle fast. Here's everything you need to know.
Q: "My friend went on this completely plant-based, whole foods diet. I’m interested in limiting or eliminating animal products—but is it actually possible to get the protein and calcium my muscles and bones need?"
A: Absolutely. 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.
Squeeze more bone-fortifying calcium into your diet—without indulging in dairy—by loading up on almonds, beans (black, pinto, navy, hummus—you name it), corn tortillas, leafy greens including kale and mustard greens, and calcium-fortified soy milk, hemp milk, or o.j. Also try calcium-fortified cereals.
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.
Prepare for this green-machine shift by stockpiling this major protein: soy (think edamame, roasted soynuts, soy milk, soy burgers, and tofu). Stash protein-rich nuts and seeds for snacking and add a half-cup of high-protein beans (remember, also calcium-rich) to as many meals as possible. Make peas your go-to veggie for extra protein punch.
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.
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.) And further boost your plant-based diet by taking a daily multi-vitamin with health-promoting calcium, iron, magnesium, Vitamins D and B-12, and zinc.
MF EXPERT: Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN, is the Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and author of Sport Nutrition for Coaches.