How to Build Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet

weights-652486_960_720Tanya writes:

“I recently decided to change to a vegan diet. I’m also an avid gym goer trying to build strength and muscle. The biggest reason I didn’t become a vegan sooner is that I’d heard that plant based proteins are not as “bioavailable” as animal protein. Not sure how true this is, so I ask my favorite nutritionist.”

It’s true that animal-based protein generally has a higher biological value than plant-based protein. Because animal proteins deliver essential amino acids in proportions similar to the body’s requirements, it’s easier for our bodies to use these amino acids to synthesize new proteins.

This doesn’t mean that vegans cannot build strength and muscle, but they will probably have to work a bit harder at it. 

As I talked about in a recent episode of the Nutrition Diva podcast, it takes a “dose” of about 30 grams of high quality protein to maximize muscle protein synthesis. If you’re still in your 20s, you can get away with just 25 grams. If you’re in your 70s, you might need 35 gram to maximize muscle growth.

One challenge for vegans is that it takes a lot more food (and calories) to get 30 grams of protein from plants than it does from animal sources.


Then there’s the issue of biological value–the concentration and distribution of essential amino acids in those proteins. Researcher Nancy Rodriguez has proposed that we think of protein sources not just in terms of the amount of protein they provide but also in terms of their essential amino acid density–or what percentage of your daily EAA requirements a serving provides.

Here again, you can see that animal protein sources tend to deliver more essential amino acids per serving–and per calorie.

Food serving size Calories Protein (g) EAA Needs
1 scoop (28 g) whey protein isolate 100 25 75%
3 oz beef tenderloin steak, grilled 168 26 72%
3 ounces sockeye salmon, baked 133 22 58%
1 scoop (28 g) soy protein isolate 95 25 55%
3 oz skinless chicken breast, baked 132 27 51%
3 oz canned tuna 109 20 51%
1/2 cup lowfat cottage cheese 81 14 45%
½ cup firm tofu 181 21 43%
1 container (7 oz) lowfat Greek yogurt 146 20 30%
1 cup lowfat (1%) milk 123 8 22%
¼ cup pumpkin seed kernels 166 9 19%
½  cup black beans, cooked 115 7.5 18%
1 large egg 72 6 17%
1 cup quinoa, cooked 222 8 16%
2 Tbsp peanut butter 191 7 12%
1 cup whole wheat pasta, cooked  175  7 12%
1 oz  almonds 164 6 11%

The vegan diet has many advantages but optimal protein quality is not really one of them. It’s certainly possible for vegans to hit these protein targets (hopefully you don’t have a soy allergy!), but it’s obviously much easier for those who include some animal products in their diets.

Of course, nothing says that you must maximize muscle protein synthesis at every (or any) meal in order to be healthy and strong.  There are a lot of ways in which my diet is only perhaps 80% optimal, for example, and I don’t sweat it that much. Let’s hear it for the “good enough diet!”

14 thoughts on “How to Build Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet

  1. Hi-I was wondering about the bioavailability of complementary protein compared to animal protein. Beans & rice are complementary proteins-do you need two cups of that to get the same amount as a serving of chicken?

    1. Brown rice has about 5.5 g of protein per cup. Beans have about 15 grams per cup. So you’d need about 3 cups of beans-and-rice to get 30 grams of protein.

      In terms of essential amino acids, a cup of rice supplies 12% of your daily needs. A cup of beans-and-rice would supply 24%.

      1. You forget to mention that all vegetables, seeds, and whole grains also have proteins so you don’t have to get all your proteins from beans and rice. If you eat a whole foods plant based diet you not only get enough protein but you don’t get the added saturated fats, cholesterol, and contaminants. This notion that we need to eat animal protein to thrive as athletes is wrong. My energy level, endurance, and strength have improved significantly since I switched to a WFPB diet. There are many performance athletes (including body builders and football players) who are vegan and not only do they perform better but recover faster. Please be careful when you suggest that it’s “difficult” and please also explain the benefits of not eating animal products. People look up to you so don’t patronize them by assuming it’s something too difficult for them to accomplish.

  2. Had recently joined gym but not willing to take any kind of supplement. I am stuck to a diet with 4 boiled eggs in the morning, 2 bananas shake after workout, again 4 eggs in evening and 2 bananas shake. In morning and after and night normal indian meal. Am i going right here?

    1. That’s an awful lot of eggs! Are you sure that’s necessary? Anything more than 30 g protein per meal is really overkill.

  3. Why focus on plant diet when you can have animal product diet and have both right? I guess you just need to be open minded for the sake of you body. Balance diet for the win!

    1. Going to a varied plant base diet (primarily whole foods) has helped me to eliminate cholesterol medication and avoid blood pressure medication (under guidance of my doctor of course). I wasn’t able to keep cholesterol to goal levels through a balanced omnivorous diet and exercise alone. At the same time, I’ve found I have better energy throughout the day, more easily maintain an ideal weight, and recover well from workouts. So, based on my personal experience, I don’t think one approach can be deemed inherently better than the other (omnivorous vs vegan or vegetarian); I think each person has to weigh the advantages and disadvantages and choose the approach that’s optimal for themselves.

  4. Monica, thanks for this post! Could you point to any example plant based meals that would provide optimal protein & EEA content for protein synthesis?

  5. Hi! I think there is a mistake in the table – as I was copying it, I noticed here you say 1/2 cup firm tofu has 21g protein, but on your protein cheat sheet it says there are 10g (which I then confirmed at (where I first “met” you!) to check which figure was correct). Happy new year!

        1. Yes, it’s very odd. Unfortunately, the USDA data doesn’t specify which brand they analyzed for their various listings but most of the brands seem to be closer to 10 than 20.

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