Want to build strength, gain definition or just tone up? Vegan nutritionist, YouTuber and muscle builder Derek Simnett tells us how it’s done
When I transitioned into veganism, I was in my mid-20s and, at the time, was an avid runner. As I found my stride with plant-based eating, I started to notice my recovery times were quicker and my ankles and knees seemed to hurt a lot less.
I was stoked and believed so strongly in the benefits of plant-based eating that I decided to pursue a career in nutrition.
After graduating, I started to take on clients and quickly realised that many people didn’t want to have the physique of a runner.
What they wanted was a more muscular physique — but when I told them about veganism, I was often met with, “I’m sure it’s a healthy way to eat, but I want to put on some muscle!”
I knew that building muscle on a plant-based diet could be done, but I wanted proof. I knew I had to increase my calories and start focusing on eating more protein rich foods, so that’s exactly what I did.
While the protein needs of the average person is 0.8g per kg of bodyweight, for those looking to put on muscle it can double or go even higher — anywhere from 1.6 all the way up to 2.2g per kg for serious lifters.
There is definitely a point of diminishing returns though, so more is not necessarily better — it depends on individual needs.
Of course, when looking at these numbers, it is important to note that I am talking about lean bodyweight, not total bodyweight.
Fat doesn’t have the same metabolic needs as muscle does, therefore if you are overweight it’s best to calculate protein needs based on your ideal or lean bodyweight, not your current weight.
I generally get around 1.6g per kg of my bodyweight and have made considerable gains from that amount.
Dispelling the myths
One myth that I often see perpetuated is that vegans have to combine amino acids at each meal.
People believe this has to be done in order to get a complete protein as they believe many plants are ‘incomplete’, lacking one or more of the necessary essential amino acids. This is false.
While some plant foods may be low in a few amino acids, all plant foods contain all nine essential amino acids and our bodies are constantly breaking down and recycling protein.
Focusing on properly combining at each meal is not necessary… eating a variety of foods every day is!
Tracking your intakes
The most important thing for muscle growth, other than resistance training, is total calorie and protein intake. To build muscle you need to eat in a slight surplus.
I am not a fan of the bulk and cut mentality as our bodies can only put on so much muscle at a time which can easily be kept up by a slight surplus of a couple hundred calories extra a day.
Tracking your food in the beginning can be helpful to get an idea of how many calories, protein and nutrients you are getting.
I never track my food or macros, and don’t think most of us need to. My focus is total calories and consuming a few higher protein foods throughout the day. It seems simple but it works.
A few of my favourite protein-rich sources are: lentils, beans, tempeh, tofu, hemp seeds and quinoa. A scoop of plant-based protein powder can be helpful but definitely isn’t necessary.
Mock meats can be a rich source of protein but shouldn’t be the mainstay of your diet. Processed foods lack many of the nutrients that are important for building muscle. After all, it isn’t just protein that builds muscle.
I knew that building muscle on a plant-based diet could be done, but I wanted proof for myself.
Carbohydrates are super important too. Our bodies turn carbs into glucose which is our body’s primary fuel source.
Carbohydrates are the best for helping our muscles recover more quickly. I always have a carbohydrate-rich meal after my workouts.
I will have a large fruit smoothie or a bowl of oatmeal and find my recovery couldn’t be better.
Fat is also important as healthy fats help your body absorb more nutrients from the foods you eat. My favourite sources are ground flax seeds, hemp seeds, avocados and nuts. I love adding tahini to my salad dressings, too.
Other nutrients like iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium and selenium all have a specific role in keeping the body healthy and supporting muscle growth.
These nutrients are all provided by whole, plant foods, along with the three macronutrients that our bodies obtain energy from.
One nutrient that needs to be supplemented is B12. Although it is found in fortified foods, it is also a good idea to take a supplement a few times a week.
The same goes for vitamin D. Unless you spend a lot of time outdoors and live in an area that has eternal summer, low vitamin D status can lead to reduced strength, weak bones and even reduced immune health.
In the end, gaining muscle on a plant-based diet is no different than gaining muscle on any other type of diet.
It takes patience, adequate nutrition and most importantly, resistance training.
The biggest mistake I see people make with building muscle isn’t a lack of protein, it’s not a lack of supplements, it’s lack of consistency and intensity in the gym.
Vegan nutritionist Derek Simnett has over 446k YouTube subscribers. Head to his channel — Simnett Nutrition — for recipe videos and fitness tips.