The trick to a good bodybuilding diet plan (no matter if it is plant or animal-based) is in a good balance of macros – carbs to fuel workouts, protein to repair and build muscles, fat for rest and recovery. It can easily be achieved with a balanced diet of whole grains, high fiber fruits and veggies, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
The only challenge is in bringing the carbohydrate count as low as possible for the pre-competition shred, but even that problem dissolves with a little bit of research and some meal planning.
The Protein Myth
There is so much to unpack here.
First, all foods have protein, it’s just that some have it a bit more than the others. It’s simple biology – if you are an organic life form, you are made out of protein. For vegans, the only issue is to figure out how to maintain the balance between carbs and protein in their diet because they don’t eat anything that is completely carb-free.
Second, you CAN get all essential amino acids from plant sources. Our bodies synthesize all but 9 of them – histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. For example, broccoli, which has 11 grams of protein per 100 calories (almost twice as much as red meat), and it has all of those aminos.
Third, there IS such a thing as too much protein. Any unused protein (as in, it didn’t go towards the rebuilding of muscle tissues or provides energy) behaves the same way as unused calories – it sticks to your tummy or backside. Some bodybuilders who have achieved mass but can’t get a good definition no matter what they do may trace the source of their woes to their overconsumption of calories and/or protein.
All of our bodies behave differently, especially when we strictly follow the same plans. One size doesn’t fit all. The best choice is to keep track of your progress and listen to your body before you listen to a random person at the gym.
How much protein should I have?
This is a sticky situation. The classic measurement that tends to float around bodybuilding circles is 1 gram per pound of weight. However, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that you should have 0.5 to 0.75 grams per pound, with 0.36 grams being the absolute minimum you should intake per pound of body weight before your body starts feeding on your muscles.
If you don’t know where to start, your body type can serve as a guide. Ectomorphs, who tend to be long and lean, grow the muscles the slowest so all unused protein will become energy. Mesomorphs, on the other hand, grow muscles quickly, so they can start with a higher amount. The endomorphs may need to do some experimenting. In theory, they should be smack in the middle with their protein intake (about 0.6 to 0.65 grams per pound), but in practice, they have to pay more attention to the balance between their nutrition and the intensity of their workouts.
Carbs are not evil.
For bodybuilders, carbs are equally important as protein. I’ve already mentioned that protein doesn’t only go towards muscle building and recovery alone. A similar thing may happen inside of your body as well. If you don’t have enough fuel to go through your session, your body will start to look on the inside to compensate.
It’s a lot easier to turn muscles into energy than it is to do the same with fat deposits. Lipolysis is a very difficult process, while protein behaves almost the same as carbs in terms of how easy they are to convert to energy. Guess what your body’s gonna go for in a pinch?
Vegan bodybuilders kind of have an installed failsafe since all plants have carbs. Still, you should pay attention to which carbs you’re eating. Pasta’s ok, whole wheat pasta is better – that kind of thing.
There is a good reason why bodybuilders consume up to or even over 3000 calories. The first goal is to build as much mass as possible before you concentrate on fat loss and shredding. Just think of it, you know that guy – drinks x amount of protein shakes and takes other supplements, but only eats a sandwich for fuel, then wonder why he isn’t making progress. Don’t be that person.
Completely avoiding carbs is only useful in that short period before a competition, when you’re trying to lose those few ounces of fat and get a more shredded look. But throughout the rest of the training, you should stick with a more balanced diet – not only for the sake of your health but for the sake of your gains as well.
The Soy Myth
Soy is one of the rare plant-based sources of protein that has all 9 essential amino acids. It’s packed with fiber, numerous nutrients, and minerals, and is one of the food staples of several groups of people that experience both longevity and vitality (Okinawa, anyone?).
But, isn’t soy supposed to be bad for you? No. That entire ridiculous claim comes mostly from those who don’t know how food behaves in our bodies, or who are trying to hack up a price of a product by slapping a “soy-free” label on it.
The truth is unless you have a real intolerance or an allergy, the list of foods that are bad for you is quite short. On the other hand, anything that is overprocessed or that you consume way beyond boundaries of moderation can cause problems. Just like you can develop gluten intolerance through eating very little more than bread and pasta for years, the same goes for almost any other food or beverage.
Should you eat soy on a vegan bodybuilding diet? Of course. A cup of ray soybeans comes with a whopping 68 grams of protein, which is about 30% above what an average adult needs. A cup of soy milk has 8 grams of protein, just the same as the same serving size of cow’s milk. A block of firm tofu has 36 grams, while okara (the pulp left over after making soy milk) comes with 4 grams of protein per cup.
Finally, soy protein powder can have about 20 grams of protein per serving, which is on par with animal-based products.
So, unless you have an allergy, it would be a shame to miss out on such a convenient source.
You will have no issues finding vegan aminos and protein powders these days. Most major companies are including pea, hemp, and soy proteins in their lines, so you should be just fine in this area.
Creatine can be a bit problematic so you should see what the back of the package says. Vegan-friendly creatine is synthesized from sarcosine and cyanamide. Both of them can be derived in the lab from non-animal products.
Most vegans already should supplement for vitamins D and B12, since they are the only one that they can’t find in plants. For bodybuilders, that “should” becomes a “must”, since they put their bodies under a lot of stress and will need that extra help.
What to Eat on a Vegan Bodybuilding Diet?
Next to already mentioned soy and broccoli, other plants that contain all 9 essential amino acids are quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and spirulina. When trying to make other combinations, you can follow this list:
- Histidine: rice, wheat, legumes, potatoes.
- Isoleucine: lentils, beans, oats, rye, brown rice, cabbage.
- Leucine: peas, brown rice, sesame seeds, pumpkin, seaweed.
- Lysine: beans, pumpkin seeds, pistachios.
- Methionine: sunflower seeds, hemp seeds.
- Phenylalanine: avocado, pumpkin, beans, rice, seaweed.
- Threonine: Leafy greens, hemp seeds, pumpkin.
- Tryptophan: oats, spinach, sweet potatoes.
How to Eat on a Vegan Bodybuilding Diet?
No matter what, don’t treat those numbers as ultimate law. If you need to tweak them a bit at some point, listen to your body and go for it.
Another thing – try to time your meals based on your goals, You should eat before your workouts if you want to grow muscles, and after if you want to lose fat/weight. This comes back to our talk of fuel – a hungry body has to look on the inside for fuel, while the fed body can put that protein to work on muscle building because it has all those carbs for fuel.
Intermittent Fasting and the Vegan Bodybuilding Diet
We have quite a bit of evidence that suggests that intermittent fasting is beneficial for multiple health and fitness goals. Some trainers and professional bodybuilders also credit it for their year-round shredded look, or for the speed at which they managed to get their desired results.
If it suits you, go for it. There are no dietary restrictions when it comes to who can give it a whirl. The easiest and most convenient feast to fast ratio is 8:16, where you can eat within 8 hours each day while sticking to water or unsweetened tea throughout the rest of it. It’s a good place to start and see if it’s worth your time.