THERE’S THIS NASTY rumor that’s been going around for years. Maybe you’ve heard it, or maybe you’ve even spouted it yourself: There’s no way a guy’s going to get enough protein from a vegan diet to build the kind of ultra-ripped body you’re aiming for.
“You can absolutely be a vegan power athlete, be a vegan and build muscle,” says Nanci Guest, R.D., C.S.C.S., a Toronto-based sports nutritionist who works with vegan Olympic sprinters and vegan professional UFC fighters.
While it’s certainly easier to load up on protein when it comes from animals, your muscles don’t actually reward the seemingly superior source. A study earlier this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found it didn’t matter whether protein intake was from animals or plants—as long as men and women were getting at least the recommended daily allowance (that’s 0.8g/kg of bodyweight), carnivores and omnivores had roughly the same muscle mass and strength.
Of course, switching over to veganism is totally different from trying a new diet like Paleo or high-fat, low-carb. But once you learn the basics, it’s actually really, really easy. So if you’ve been thinking about ditching meat—for animal advocacy, environmental impact, or maybe just because you watched What the Health and haven’t been able to look at chicken since—we’re serving up everything you need to know.
The basics of gaining muscle while vegan
Your basic dietary tenets still apply:
Eat protein after a workout.
Eat fewer carbs late at night.
Eat a balance of fat, protein, and carbs at every meal.
The primary difference:
Eating only plants is totally different for your digestive system. Not all your calories will be getting digested in the same way.
You’ll need to eat more in one sitting.
You’ll get hungry more often.
In essence, all the ways you needed to control your intake before will have to change. The most important thing is eating enough to fuel those HIIT workouts to shed body fat. And as long as you’re hitting your protein goals, you’ll have no problem being an ultra-ripped vegan.
Here’s a guidebook on how you can give up all meat, poultry, fish, and dairy—pretty much every source of protein you probably eat right now—and still get totally ripped.
Ease into veganism
If you’ve gotten on board with going V, chances are you want to dive right in. But Guest actually advises against going cold tofurkey.
She has two really good reasons: First, a lot of people experience bloating and gas when they first switch over. “If you’ve been eating a super high-protein diet and not all that much fiber, your gut bacteria is pretty brutal,” she explains. Suddenly eating so many more vegetables, whole grains, and legumes is radically different on your system. Over time, your stomach will build up its stores of good bacteria, but in the interim, the bloating can be enough to freak out any body-conscious dude—potentially to the point of retreating back to the safer chicken-and-yogurt way of eating.
The second reason: Nixing animal products all in one go implies a vastly different way of grocery shopping, cooking, snacking, and eating out. Until you learn your go-to meals, it’s going to be more mentally exhausting to eat than normal—especially if you’re super-busy and can’t devote a ton of time to finding non-dairy grab-and-go snacks. Just like with any diet, that mental exhaustion increases your risk of giving up.
Guest suggests you start by cutting out any animal flesh—that’s beef, chicken, fish, pork—but keep in eggs and yogurt over about four to six weeks before you go full vegan.
Give soy a chance
Giving up chicken, meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs, whey, and casein means you’re definitely adding in soy (among other proteins). But if you still equate eating soy with growing man boobs, you need to get with the 2017 science. “As much as people want to say there’s an issue with soy, the science says it’s just fine,” Guest says. “There is some research showing the testosterone spike you get from a workout is slightly blunted when you consume soy post-workout compared to other proteins, but testosterone has no bearing on muscle protein synthesis or how much strength gains you’ll get, and it doesn’t affect your other testosterone levels.”
Can switching to a soy protein powder help you hulk out like the whey, casein, or egg white kind can? We won’t argue that whey is the golden child of protein powders. That’s largely because it’s higher in a key muscle-building amino acid called leucine compared to all other plant- or dairy-based proteins. With less leucine, you have less muscle protein synthesis, or so goes the theory.
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