Written by Carina Fabia
Last updated on: Sep 18, 2022
Kimura Athletic may earn a small commission through our links. Learn more.
No vegans do not lose muscle mass, if they are consuming the right nutrients and training correctly. It is a common for those leading a vegan lifestyle to worry about any detrimental effect on both their performance and their ability to maintain or build muscle.
There are some concerns about a lack of certain essential nutrients in the diets of some people following a vegan diet. However, recent studies have shown those who go vegan do not seem to suffer a detrimental effect to endurance and muscle strength. In fact, the opposite may be true when it comes to endurance. One study, found endurance levels might actually be better in those who go vegan when compared with omnivores (1).
If you have gone or are going vegan lifestyle and you want to maintain or build muscle, it is important to ensure you are getting the correct level of all the nutrients your body needs. These key nutrients include, protein, healthy fats and omega 3.
You can make sure you get enough grams of protein to reach your daily requirements by eating protein rich plant based foods. This includes tofu, pulses, and quinoa. If you hit your protein requirements you should achieve your muscle development goals (2). Plant based protein powders can really help you up your protein intake and can assist with both the growth and preservation of muscle.
Another important aspect of your diet which will help with muscle retention are healthy fats, like avocado, nuts, and dried fruits. The body uses these healthy fats to build muscle (13). Omega 3 is also a really important nutrient as it helps to boost recovery time. Omega 3 can be found in walnuts, flaxseeds and chai seeds.
These three nutrients are not the only important aspects to help bodies retain and build muscle. The number of calories you consume and the food sources you are getting these calories from is very important. It is advisable to keep track of the foods you are eating on a daily basis. This will allow you to monitor calories and make sure you are hitting a calorie surplus if your goal is muscle gain. You can also track which nutrients you are consuming. A lot of people following vegan diets fall into the trap of consuming too many carbohydrates and not enough protein.
To get the best results with any fitness goal, consistency is very important. Not only do you need a consistent diet. But if you are aiming to build muscle you need a consistent exercise regime. This also must consist of the right exercises with the right volume and resistance. It is often a good idea to seek professional advice, especially if you are unsure which diet and exercise routine is right for you.
Protein is an essential nutrient which our bodies need for both muscle growth and repair. This is why athletes, bodybuilders and those following a vegan diet carefully consider their protein intake (3). Studies have found consuming protein shakes alongside a healthy diet is a great way to improve your lean body mass index. Whilst also improving upper and lower body strength (4). This is because during exercise you are breaking down your muscles. Your body then uses protein to build and repair the muscles.
Lots of people that choose a vegan-based protein powder worry that it will not provide them with the same amount of protein and essential amino acids as whey protein does. However, studies have shown that vegan protein powders are able to match the levels of protein and amino acids found in whey-based proteins (5), as most powders are fortified with the BCAA leucine. It is important to select your vegan protein powder carefully and ensure you are reading the pack to know the exact measurements you need to reach your protein intake goal. For example, if your supplement is low in one of the essential amino acids, it is not a big problem. You just know you need to supplement the missing essential amino acid elsewhere in your diet.
The amount of protein you need will depend on a lot of factors. These factors include your age, weight and exercise programme (6). Most people should aim to get 20 to 40 grams of protein per meal . For vegans looking to build muscles such as bodybuilders or athletes. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) give the guideline of consuming between 1.4 to 2g of protein per kg of bodyweight (2).
Many who follow a plant based diet fall into the trap of consuming too many high fibre carbohydrates. This can cause stomach complaints. This is because fibrous non-digestible carbohydrates, are resistant to digestion and absorption, and promote early satiation this is the feeling of being full up.
This can cause stomach complaints and make it harder for the body to store as they can be resistant to digestion and absorption (2) High fibre carbohydrates include, oats, lentils, beans and whole grain bread. Instead experts recommend to choose some foods lower in fibre when developing high-carbohydrate meals (2). Such foods include carbohydrates include rice, pasta, noodles and buckwheat.
Studies have found a calorie surplus is vital when attempting to build muscle. The extra calories consumed create an energy surplus, which facilitates skeletal muscle hypertrophy in the body (7). However, researchers do recommend a conservative approach is taken when creating an energy surplus. And the source of these extra calories should be carefully considered.
Studies have shown, eating healthy fats is a great way to obtain extra calories. This is because fats help with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins. The body uses these vitamins to supports the use of protein to develop muscles. Nuts and nut butter, provide not only a good source of protein, but have the additional bonus of being great sources of healthy fats.
Healthy oils are also another great form of healthy fats as well as providing a good source of omega 3. Such oils include, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado and hempseed.
Tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds is also a good source of both protein and fat. Other great sources of healthy fats include quinoa, dried fruit, legumes, sweet potatoes and rice.
The answer to this is it depends on the individual. Factors such as individuals age, current weight and exercise goals need to be considered. One study recommends that the range of 0.5g to 1.5g per kg of your body weight per day is a good target for vegan athletes (2). Another study suggests that off-season bodybuilders looking to create their own diet plan should consume 1 gram of fat per kg of bodyweight. So, a male body builder weighing 85kg would need to consume 85 grams of fat (8).
No matter what you are trying to achieve, for the best results it is recommended to track your intake of protein, carbohydrates and fat to help you know if you are meeting your dietary objectives.
If you are looking to build muscle, resistance training will play a crucial part. Resistance training is a primary exercise intervention used to develop strength and stimulate muscle hypertrophy (9). Resistance training, normally includes the use of weights. The intention of resistance training is to force the muscles to tear, so they can repair and rebuild stronger. The idea is over time you will be able to lift heavier weights and become stronger.
This method of training has been shown to be an effective way to build muscle. For efficiency it is advised to use exercises which target multiple muscles at once (compound exercises). Compound exercises include the bench press, squat, deadlift and the pull-up. It is recommended to build any resistance training which has the objective of inducing muscular hypertrophy around these exercises.
In any hypertrophy program consistency is key. Muscle can only be built over time. Any by following the correct diet and training program. Whilst resistance training will form the bulk of any exercise program designed for musclar hypertrophy, it is important to include some cardio exercise.
Cardiovascular exercise is a great way to burn fat and build stamina, whilst also helping to boost your metabolism. Building your stamina will also have a positive effect on your ability to lift weights. Great forms of cardio are running, walking, swimming and cycling.
If you are unsure how to personalise your training program to meet your muscle gain goals, seek help from a professional. They will be able to create a training schedule to help you achieve the progress you want as well as be able to offer you advise on your nutrient intake.
With any exercise program it is important to stick with it for a long enough period to see results. Your motivation can be kept high by adding fun into your workouts. One such way you can do this is by using music while you exercise. Once you make exercise a part of your daily routine it will eventually become a habit. This will make it easier for you to stick with any training program and get the results you desire.
Whether trying to build muscle, loose weight or maintain a healthy diet it is advisable to avoid alcohol. Alcohol can make you feel sluggish and have a negative effect on your health. If taken in excess it can cause life changing diseases.
Further to this, studies have shown alcohol consumption decreases the use of glucose and amino acids by skeletal muscles. And adversely affects energy supply whilst impairing the metabolic process during exercise (10). If you are serious about building or maintaining muscle it is a good idea to steer clear of alcohol or at the very least limit your intake.
Smoking can negatively affecting your body’s ability to build muscle. This is because smoking impairs the process of muscle protein synthesis. And simultaneously increases the expression of genes associated with impaired muscle maintenance (11).
If you are committed to maintaining your muscle mass or gaining more muscle and you are a smoker you will want to think about reducing the amount you smoke or stopping completely.
Stress can also hinder muscle gain. Studies have shown that the hormones released by our bodies when we feel stressed have a negative metabolic effect on skeletal muscle (12).
The good news is for most people, working out and having an established training regime is a great for reducing stress and providing a positive focus. Getting enough sleep has also been found to be a great way to reduce stress. Other ways to relax and reduce cortisol (a hormone caused by stress) include, playing an instrument, taking a walk, meditating and reading.
It is important that you build rest into your workout regime, as your body needs time to recover from the stress it endures during exercise. Remember exercise and particularly weightlifting is a process which breaks down your muscles. These muscles then use protein to rebuild. This is why when exercises it is essential to hit your daily protein requirements. Protein shakes are a great supplement to ensure you hit these requirements. Without enough protein intake your body will not have the raw materials needed to develop increased muscle mass. Research has found protein supplementation pre and post-workout increases physical performance, training session recovery, lean body mass, muscle hypertrophy, and strength (14).
There is no reason for you to lose muscle when following a plant based diet. You just need to make sure you are meeting your daily nutritional targets. And following the correct exercise regime.
A vegan protein powder is a great way to supplement your daily protein intake. But you must ensure you are eating foods high in protein. Foods such as tofu, pulses, quinoa and nuts (nuts are also a great source of Omega 3).
Healthy fats are used by our bodies to retain muscle mass so it is important to eat foods rich in healthy fats such as olive oil, hempseed and avocado. Healthy fats can also assist in increasing your calorie count when aiming for a calorie surplus. The reason you want a calorie surplus is to facilitate skeletal muscle hypertrophy in your body (7).
In order to preserve or build muscle on a vegan diet consistency is key. This means you need to have a consistent diet, consistent rest and an exercise program you stick to. To help you achieve this it is recommended you schedule rest, exercise and eating times into your day. Your workouts need to be directly targeted at supporting your hypertrophy goals. And then you need to ensure you get enough rest so your body can repair and rebuild your muscles after training. If you are unsure on any aspect of your training, nutrition or rest for your muscle mass goals it is recommend you seek provisional advice.