The Secret to Building Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet

|Updated Jun 11, 2020
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The myth that you can’t gain muscle on a plant-based diet has been busted, in part thanks to the documentary The Game Changers, but the question remains: How does one do it? 

Athletes swear by plant-based protein, to recover from workouts and build lean muscle. Which ones are right for you? We interviewed Ryan Dolan, a certified food scientist (CFS) and COO of PTM Food, to help you get the most out of your workout and build lean muscle. Not all proteins are the same. When assessing protein powders you need to understand the quality of it, the quantity of it, and the overall balance of nutrients you need. 

What Quality of Protein Should Vegans Choose?

Look out for organic, or at the very least non-GMO.  “Always opt for organic plant proteins where you can because with organic farming methods,” Dolan says, to  know that you’re “avoiding the potential for toxins that could disrupt your normal biological processes.”

Next look for what is called “Complete” proteins. A complete protein has all nine essential amino acids in adequate quantities. The best source for a plant-based complete protein is pea protein. “If you can get a complete protein from a single source like pea protein that’s great, but typically you will get the full spectrum of nine amino acids from a blend of sources, which is preferable toward muscle building.

You need to get three branched-chain amino acids or BCAAs. Most specifically, Dolan says “Ideally you want to be getting extra leucine because this building block triggers the process of muscle protein synthesis”. Leucine - one of these three BCAAs - has been shown in multiple studies to act as this light switch to flip on the process of muscle protein synthesis.  

What Kind of Protein Should Vegans Choose?

To gain strength and build muscle most athletes actually overdo the protein. The agreed-upon amount of protein you need to ingest to build muscle has changed over the years, but recent studieindicate that an active male athlete needs less than 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. 

For an active guy like myself who weighs 190lbs and actively lifts weights, this would translate to a range of 133-190 grams of protein daily. Instead of getting all of it through diet, I eat about half from diet and the other 70 to 80 grams in a protein shake. 

“If you’re plant-based, getting enough protein requires a ton of effort and can be exhausting,” says Dolan. He suggests adding a daily protein shake that offers a variety of protein sources and then blending into a smoothie with fruits to unlock nutrients from whole food, and add in a healthy fat such as almond butter, “since adding these whole foods are good for delivering other beneficial foods to the diet.”

What Time Should You Take Protein?

Athletes are always so careful to time their shake to right before or right after their workout, but it may not have the effect you think, according to research. One study on athletic performance and when athletes drink their shake found that contrary to current practices, the window is much larger than 1 hour, and can be up to three hours. In fact, the amount of protein they took had a greater effect than the timing of the shake. The window appears to be wider -- up to three hours. “Any positive effects noted in timing studies were found to be due to an increased protein intake rather than the temporal aspects of consumption,” the study found. So if a protein shake is heavy or makes you feel weighed down, you can drink it within about a three-hour window before or after your workout to still benefit from the protein in rebuilding muscle.

Overall Nutrient Balance

Your body can’t build muscle with protein alone. “While protein is associated as the macro with gains, it’s only one part of the equation,” Dolan explains. Carbohydrates are critical because your body stores energy from carbs in your muscles as glycogen, which is used to power your workouts. Without that it’s like the car runs out of gas and starts to burn itself, so while you may finish that long run or ride, you’ll need to replenish your energy to build muscle. If you are seeking to lean down, then fewer carbs will help you do that.

It’s equally important when you’re working out all the time, or training for an event, to add healthy fats, such as those from avocados, nuts, or olive oil, to increase your levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol, Dolan adds. This helps your body produce growth hormones needed for muscle growth. “Ideally find yourself a protein product that also supplies healthy low glycemic carbs and heart-healthy fats in addition to the protein.”