What Vegan Bodybuilding Diets Are Really Like
Vegan bodybuilding. Nope, not an oxymoron.
On the surface, it may be hard to believe that bodybuilding, a sport marked by extreme muscle definition, can coexist with a plant-based regime. But vegan bodybuilders can build muscle and boost strength as well as—and some argue better than—their meat-munching, egg-snacking, whey-blending omnivorous competitors. (Related: No, Plant-Based and Vegan Aren't Necessarily the Same Thing)
FYI, there are a few different categories of bodybuilding—bikini, figure, physique, and bodybuilding—which emphasize muscle size to varying degrees. As a whole, bodybuilding requires competitors to simultaneously lose fat and put on muscle. Bodybuilders achieve this through a combo of strength training and diet so that, by competition day, they're strutting across the stage with very low body fat. (See more: One Bodybuilder Shares What It Takes to Be a Champion).
Is it really possible bulk up and slim down using on a plant-based diet? "Yes. It's 100 percent possible," says Anthony Balduzzi M.D., founder of The Fit Mother Project. "But just like smart vegan eating and competitive bodybuilding, it requires some proactive meal planning and nutrition strategies."
Here, nutrition experts and two professional vegan bodybuilders who are #poweredbyplants share how their top tips for bodybuilding as a vegan. Ready?
1. Bodybuilding Nutrition 101
If vegan bodybuilding sounds like something you might be interested in dabbling in, then you'll have to understand some food and nutrition bodybuilding "rules" that apply to everyone.
Most bodybuilders—meat-eaters and non-meat eaters, alike—split their season into two phases: a bulking season and a cutting season. During the bulking phase, the athlete's diet is high in calories and protein-rich, and they strength training intensely order to put on as much muscle mass as possible. Then, during the cutting phase, athletes aim to decrease their overall body fat, usually by gradually cutting calories and fat intake. (BTW: Science says Plant-Based Diets Are Ideal for Weight Loss.)
Both of these phases require the right amount of calories and the proper balance of the three key macronutrients: proteins, carbs, and fats. "Our bodies need the right about of calories and fuel in the form of proteins, carbs, and healthy fats to recover, become stronger, and drop weight," says Dr. Balduzzi.
The amount of calories and macronutrient breakdown is going to be different for every person. Most athletes work with a nutritionist or coach to help them figure out their calorie and macronutrient needs at each phase of prep, says vegan bodybuilder Natalie Matthews, IFBB Bikini Pro and founder of Fit Vegan Chef. That said, there are a few calorie and macronutrient basics that might be helpful. More on those below.
2. How Many Calories You Need
While counting calories is a contentious subject that some (including nutritionists!) argue it's better to opt *out* of, counting calories is a major part of bodybuilding nutrition.
"When you're trying to put on muscle mass, your body needs fuel in order to build and increase the size of our muscle fibers," explains Dr. Balduzzi. Similarly, when you reduce the number of calories you're eating, it can result in fat loss, which can actually make you look more muscular and "cut"—even if you're not necessarily gaining new muscle tissue, he explains. (Related: How Many Calories Should You Eat to Lose Weight?)
There are online calculators (like this one) that you can use to figure out how many calories you should be eating at different phases in your season.
"These can be great tools to figure out an estimate of how many calories you should be eating. But I recommend using this as a starting point, and then experimenting because everybody is different," says Jon Venus, vegan bodybuilder and Youtuber. That's because things like activity level, metabolism, hydration, stress levels, sleep quality, and time in your menstrual cycle all affect how many calories you need as well as weight and muscle loss, maintenance, and gain.
None of this differs between omnivorous and vegan bodybuilding: "The daily calorie intake is going to be the same for vegan and omnivore eaters," says Venus. "Some people assume vegans need to consume more calories, but this isn't true."
3. Macronutrient Breakdown
"One of the biggest mistakes people make when starting a vegan bodybuilding meal plan is failing to eat enough quality calories, which can really slow down muscle-building results," says Dr. Balduzzi. So, what determines a meal's quality? Its macronutrient breakdown. (Related: Your Complete Guide to the Macro Diet).
The macronutrients—aka protein, carbohydrates, and fat—are the major nutrients the body needs to function properly and efficiently. The concept of "counting your macros" is basically making sure you get a specific balance of each per day.
"The macro diet is also known as flexible dieting because you can use whatever foods you want to hit them, as long as at the end of the day you're hitting your target," explains Matthews.
Is this breakdown different for vegan and non-vegan athletes? Nope! "The macronutrients are the same," says Matthews. "My coach gives me and omnivores the same macronutrient breakdown, I just use vegan foods to hit them."
There's no hard-and-fast rule for what your macronutrient breakdown should be, and the ratios will likely change depending on how far out you are from competition day. "Generally, with bodybuildling, you want to keep your carbs high, fats low to moderate, and protein high enough to support muscle growth," says Venus. "Then, usually as you start "cutting" before a competition, you'll decrease calories and carb intake, and slightly increase fat intake."
For instance, general guidelines usually call for a 20/60/20 ratio of protein/carb/fat, while Matthews eats a higher protein diet with a 40/40/20 breakdown. Because this breakdown shifts during cutting and bulking season, you probably want to work with an expert for this. "When you're bodybuilder, it's incredibly helpful to have a second pair of eyes to make sure you're eating right," says Matthews.
4. Variety of Vegan Protein Sources
One of the most common misconceptions of a vegan diet is that it's low in protein; considering that bodybuilders generally consume more protein than the average population, it's not surprising that there's a misconception that it's more difficult for vegan bodybuilders to get enough protein, says Monica Auslander Moreno, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition.
"I get 100s of messages asking about how vegan bodybuilders get enough protein every week," says Matthews.
But experts confirm that it's 100-percent possible to get enough protein as a vegan bodybuilder. "There are way more vegan protein sources than people realize," says Matthews. Her favorite vegan protein sources are lupini beans, tofu, textured vegetable protein, bean pasta, tempeh, sieten, fava beans, vital wheat gluten, and hemp seeds.
Venus likes to consume those as well as chickpeas, lentils, garbanzo beans, and vegan protein powder—which, BTW, research has shown is just as effective at building muscle as whey protein. Amaranth, nut butter, nuts, kidney beans, black beans, and oatmeal are also great protein sources, says Dr. Balduzzi. Plus, even things like potatoes, greens, chlorella, mushrooms, and Brussels sprouts have protein.
It's worth mentioning that not all vegan protein sources are created equal. Proteins are made up of amino acids, some of these amino acids are classified as "nonessential" (your body can make them on its own) and "essential" (your body can't make them and needs to get them from food).
"There are nine essential amino acids and our bodies require all nine of these essential amino acids to do things like build muscle," explains Dr. Balduzzi. (See More: What Are Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins)
All animal sources—turkey, chicken, pork, dairy, eggs, beef, fish—contain all nine, but most plant-based foods are don't have all nine essential amino acids.
"There are three exceptions: quinoa, buckwheat, and soy," says Dr. Balduzzi. FYI: tofu, tempeh, soy-based TVP, and soy protein powders are all soy-based, and therefore contain the nine essential amino acids.
However, if you're eating a variety of plant foods, your body can store and combine the amino acids together to form complete proteins, says Dr. Balduzzi. For instance, rice and beans individually are incomplete proteins, but when combined together they have all the essential amino acids.
5. Consider Supplements
With poor planning and lack of variety, any diet can be deficient in certain nutrients, and a vegan bodybuilding diet is no exception. Eating a wide variety of foods, and prioritizing produce that's in-season can help reduce risk of deficiency, says Matthews.
These other nutrients, however, are worth paying attention to:
Vitamin B12: "The only vitamin you can't find in plant-based foods is vitamin B12, so most doctors recommend vegans supplement with B12," says Venus. (He and Matthews both take a B12 supplement).
Iron: "While you can get iron from plant sources like spinach, beans, and raisins, this form of iron (called non-heme) tends to be poorly absorbed, so many vegans struggle with deficiency," says Moreno. To boost absorption of iron, Dr. Balduzzi recommends consuming iron with some Vitamin C, which has been shown to dramatically increase absorption.
Vitamin D:Vitamin D deficiency is also somewhat common, says Moreno, since it's most common in animal-based foods. Besides, three-quarters of all adults are low in vitamin D. (Here's How To Pick A Vitamin D Supplement).
Omega-3s: Balduzzi also recommends taking an omega-3 supplement. "Chia seeds and flax seeds contain omega-3's, but I still take a vegan, algae-based omega 3," says Matthews. (Related: These Are The Best Omega 3 Supplements For Vegans).
But before you start popping pills, "speak with your healthcare provider to determine if you are at risk of or have a deficiency and work with them to determine what supplements you should try, instead of buying them willy-nilly," says Moreno. (Not to mention, dietary supplements are largely unregulated, so you want to make sure you're taking quality ones.)
6. Mix It Up
When you're counting macros and calories or meal-prepping, you might be tempted to eat the same foods over and over again. But a good vegan bodybuilding meal plan (or any, for that matter) is one that includes variety.
"Variety will help you get the micronutrients your body needs and make sure you're getting all the essential amino acids you need," says Dr. Balduzzi. This is especially important during "cutting" when poor meal planning is even more likely to result in nutritional deficiencies, he says.
Don't worry: "There are so many creative things you can do for vegan meals! Lupini seitan, vegan sausage, tofu scramble, vegan sushi bowls, protein-rich overnight oats…and that's just the tip of the iceberg," says Matthews.
The Bottom Line On Vegan Bodybuilding
It absolutely is possible to gain muscle and lose fat while on a vegan bodybuilding diet—Matthews, Venus, and this powerhouse couple are proof…but you have to know what you're doing.
And getting inspo for your vegan bodybuilding meal plan from Instagrams, like below, isn't a substitution for working with a pro: "Vegan bodybuilding can get very tricky and really requires detailed individualized attention. So it's best to work with a coach or dietitian to help you execute this in as healthy a way as possible," says Moreno.