What Vegan Bodybuilder Diets Are Really Like

Here, vegan bodybuilders and nutritionists share their top tips for powering your body with a vegan bodybuilder diet.

plate of vegetables and rice, a meal that would work for a vegan bodybuilder diet
Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

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 just as well as (and some argue better than) their meat-munching, egg-snacking, whey-blending omnivorous competitors. (See More: A Beginner's Guide to Bodybuilding)

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.

Is it really possible to bulk up and slim down using on a plant-based diet? "Yes. It's 100 percent possible," says Anthony Balduzzi N.M.D., founder of the Fit Father Project and the Fit Mother Project. "But just like smart vegan eating and competitive bodybuilding, it requires some proactive meal planning and nutrition strategies," he adds.

Here, nutrition experts and two professional vegan bodybuilders share how their top tips for bodybuilding as a vegan. Ready?

First: Bodybuilding Nutrition 101

If vegan bodybuilding sounds like something you might be interested in dabbling in, then you'll first 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 train intensely in 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.

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 Balduzzi. (Here's how to calculate macros like a pro.)

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 later.)

Figure Out 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 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.

There are online calculators (such as 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, a former vegan bodybuilder. That's because factors such as 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. Some people assume vegans need to consume more calories, but this isn't true," notes Venus.

Learn Your 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 Balduzzi. So, what determines a meal's quality? Its macronutrient breakdown. (See More: 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.

So, 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," she explains.

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 bodybuilding, you want to keep your carbs high, fats low to moderate, and protein high enough to support muscle growth. Then, usually, as you start 'cutting' before a competition, you'll decrease calories and carb intake, and slightly increase fat intake," says Venus.

For instance, general guidelines usually call for a 20/60/20 ratio of protein/carbs/fat, while Matthews eats a higher protein diet with a 40/40/20 breakdown. Because this breakdown shifts during cutting and bulking seasons, you probably want to work with an expert to figure out the right ratio. "When you're (a) bodybuilder, it's incredibly helpful to have a second pair of eyes to make sure you're eating right," says Matthews.

Consume a 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 owner of Essence Nutrition in Miami.

"I get hundreds 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," she adds. Her favorite vegan protein sources are lupini beans, tofu, textured vegetable protein, bean pasta, tempeh, seitan, fava beans, vital wheat gluten, and hemp seeds. (P.S. There are tons of health benefits of hemp hearts.)

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 Balduzzi. Plus, even foods such as 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," meaning your body can make them on its own, and "essential," meaning 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 Balduzzi. All animal sources — turkey, chicken, pork, dairy, eggs, beef, fish — contain all nine, but most plant-based foods don't have all nine essential amino acids.

"There are three exceptions: quinoa, buckwheat, and soy," says Balduzzi. FYI: tofu, tempeh, soy-based textured vegetable protein (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 Balduzzi. For instance, rice and beans individually are incomplete proteins, but when combined together, they have all the essential amino acids.

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 the 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, consume iron with some vitamin C, which has been shown to dramatically increase absorption, recommends Balduzzi.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency is also somewhat common since it's most common in animal-based foods, says Moreno. This isn't a strictly vegan occurrence: About a third of the population has low vitamin D levels.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

You might also consider taking an omega-3 supplement, recommends Balduzzi. "Chia seeds and flaxseeds contain omega-3s, but I still take a vegan, algae-based omega-3," says Matthews.

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.)

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 bodybuilder diet (or any meal plan, 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," explains 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 bodybuilder diet — Matthews and Venus are proof — but you have to know what you're doing.

Getting inspo for your vegan bodybuilding meal plan from Instagram 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.

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