How to Build Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet: Staple Foods, Meal Plans, and Philosophy

gym interior with equipment

Let’s face it, building muscle is hard, no matter what “diet” you follow. And supporting your athletic endeavors with a plant-based diet can be challenging too, especially if you’re new to the vegan lifestyle.

I’ve been there—desperately hoping to gain muscle and weight eating only plants. After decades of learning from personal failures and successes, I have officially cracked the code on how to truly build and sustain muscle. I’m sharing those keys to success with you today so that you too can achieve your bodybuilding and fitness goals.

When I first started my plant-based, muscle-building journey many years ago, there wasn’t much publicly available on the subject. So little, in fact, that I had to rely almost entirely on trial and error. Thankfully, over time I started to figure it out, and I grew from weighing 120 pounds in 1995 when I went vegan, to a 210-pound champion bodybuilder at my peak, built entirely by plants (and hard work in the gym).

Even if you’ve struggled with building muscle in the past (while plant-based or not), I’m confident you can bulk up when you apply the strategies, habits, foods, and exercises necessary to achieve your goals.

And it all starts with nutrition.

Understanding Your Caloric Needs

Your quest to build muscle on a plant-based diet relies on understanding your true calorie needs. Not guessing, or estimating, or assuming characteristics about your current habits, but real, raw data based on who you are and what you do.

Believe it or not, it’s much easier to figure out than you might think.

Start with finding your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) using the Harris-Benedict equation. BMR is the amount of calories you expend simply by existing, based on your gender, age, height, and weight.

Combine that number with your actual activity level—any additional movements beyond just existing, like walking the dog, running errands, hitting the gym, or walking up a flight of stairs. This gives you the approximate number of total calories you expend daily… your calorie needs.

If you expend 2,500 calories per day, you need to consume 2,500 calories per day just to maintain weight.

In order to gain muscle, you would need to consume more than 2,500 calories, ideally from mostly real plant foods. Combine that with resistance weight training, and you’re on your way to muscle-town.

Not that long ago I shared this technique, along with a breakdown of my own caloric needs, in an interview for the No Meat Athlete Academy. Check out this clip:

Red treadmill, track running at the stadium

As simple as this sounds, implementing this approach into daily life is the real struggle. But it doesn’t have to be…

You just need to consume the healthy foods you enjoy most, with sufficient calorie quantities, and you’ve got it made.

To determine which foods will help most, it’s important to consider not only calories but also nutrient density.

Calories vs. Nutrient Density

The nutrient density of a food is the amount of nutrients you can obtain from it, given the number of calories it contains. Nutrients give your body nourishment, allowing for growth, muscle recovery, energy, and quite frankly, the maintenance of life—think vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants, fiber, water, nitric oxide, and other phytonutrients. If you’re looking for the biggest bang for your nutrient buck, the best place to look is whole foods.

Simply speaking, there is nothing in fresh, whole food that doesn’t belong there. There’s a profound difference between eating 2,500 calories of whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds, and eating 2,500 calories of processed food-like substances such as chips, fries, pizza, candy, and ice cream.

You may be eating 2,500 calories either way, but the nutritional result is wildly different.

Therefore, low-calorie, nutrient dense foods provide a higher return on investment than foods that are high in calories but low in nutrition. Eating a high-calorie, nutrient-poor diet will make any fitness goals a struggle, whether burning fat and losing weight, building muscle, or improving endurance.

Here is a look at the rough calorie count vs. nutrient score for some common food types:

FoodCalories Per PoundANDI Score
Kale2231000
Arugula136604
Potatoes (baked or boiled)389181
Bananas40030
Apples23053
Carrots136458
Kidney Beans151164
Peanut Butter266551
Chicken Breast100024
French Fries140012
Almonds260028
Ice Cream9459
Olive Oil400010
Cola1701

Using Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s ANDI score method is an easy way to measure nutrient density. ANDI stands for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, and basically reports “nutrients divided by calories,” Fuhrman’s formula for healthy eating. The higher the ANDI score, the higher nutrient density.

While calorie density is very important regarding weight gain and weight loss, nutrient density speaks to our health and the overall nutrition we are getting. Whole plant foods provide the perfect combination of relatively low calorie density with high nutrient quantity, and some foods such as the staples I list a little further down, are kings and queens of the plant-based jungle.

As we know, eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mean limiting yourself to fewer food options than on an omnivorous diet. There are lots of options! While this is good news, it can also be overwhelming. But—like many things, it doesn’t have to be too complicated at all.

Five Staple Foods for Bulking Up

This is the section where calorie needs and nutrient density come together in beautiful union.

By weighing a food’s calories against its nutrient density profile, you’ll set yourself up for success in building muscle. Of course you want to consume as many nutrients as possible, but hitting your calorie goals on kale alone just won’t cut it.

So where do you start? Here are five staple foods to include in your bulking up program, based on their nutrient-to-calorie ratios and caloric density:

  1. Oats
  2. Potatoes
  3. Beans/lentils
  4. Brown rice
  5. Bananas/other fruits

With variations of just these five staple foods alone, you can create lots of variety and overall nutrition to help you in your bulking efforts.

Now, let’s put that in action…

Create Muscle-Building Meal Plans

In my new book, Plant-Based Muscle, my co-author Vanessa Espinoza and I provide a great collection of meal plans. I’d like to share two with you now to showcase the variety of foods that can help you hit your caloric goals.

Sample Meal Plan 1 with 2,500 Calories

Breakfast

Oatmeal

  • 1 cup cooked spelt
  • 2 tablespoons sunflower butter
  • 1 tablespoon raisins
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon                               
  • 1 sliced banana
  • Mix together in a bowl

634 calories, 95 g carbohydrates, 17.6 g protein, 20.4 g fat, 14 g fiber

Snack

Edamame

  • 1 cup

189 calories, 15 g carbohydrates, 17 g protein, 8 g fat, 8 g fiber

Snack  

Fruit

  • 2 cups blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries, or any combination of the three

92 calories, 20 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 0 g fat, 3 g fiber

Lunch  

Spinach and Kale Salad

  • 1 cup raw spinach
  • 1 cup raw kale
  • ½ cup cooked brown lentils
  • Any type of veggies you like
  • 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • ½ cooked sweet potato
  • 2 tablespoons Follow Your Heart brand vegan honey mustard dressing

495 calories, 71 g carbohydrates, 16 g protein, 16.3 g fat, 12.3 g fiber

Snack

Nuts and Seeds

  • Handful of raw nuts and seeds (no oil or salt): peanuts, walnuts, pecans, cashews, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

441 calories, 14 g carbohydrates, 15.2 g protein, 36 g fat, 9 g fiber

Dinner

Rice and Bean Bowl

  • ½ cup cooked black rice                                                        
  • ½ cup chickpeas
  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts
  • 1 tablespoon hemp seeds
  • 1 cup cooked broccoli or asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • Mix together on a plate

343 calories, 64 g carbohydrates, 15 g protein , 3 g fat, 10 g fiber

Snack

2 Banana Protein Muffins

  • 4 bananas
  • 1 cup dry oats
  • 2 scoops protein powder
  • ½ cup coconut flakes
  • ½ cup walnuts
  • ¼ cup vegan chocolate chips
  • Preheat the over to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large bowl, mash the bananas. Mix in the remaining ingredients until thoroughly combined. Form into 12 balls and place on a cookie sheet or in a muffin tin. Bake for 20 minutes.

For 2 banana muffins: 259 calories, 34.8 g carbohydrates, 10 g protein, 14.8 g fat, 5.6 g fiber

Totals

2,453 calories, 313.8 g carbohydrates, 93.8 g protein, 98.5 g fat, 61.9 g fiber

Sample Meal Plan 2 with 2,900 Calories

Breakfast

Quinoa Breakfast Bowl

  • 1 cup cooked quinoa
  • 1 tablespoon peanut or almond butter
  • 2 tablespoons chia
  • 1 banana
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon hemp seeds

699 calories, 96 g carbohydrates, 23.8 g protein, 24.4 g fat, 20 g fiber

Snack

Fruit and Nut Butter

  • Apple and 1 tablespoon peanut butter

275 calories, 31 g carbohydrates, 7.5 g protein, 15.3 g fat, 6.4 g fiber

Or, Protein Shake

  • Vegan protein shake with 1 cup unsweetened almond milk, water, and ice

211 calories, 13 g carbohydrates, 24 g protein, 7g fat, 5 g fiber

Lunch

Sweet Potato Plate

  • 6 ounces baked tofu using different types of seasoning
  • ½ cup sweet potatoes
  • 2 cups roasted or steamed veggies

698 calories, 62 g carbohydrates, 45 g protein, 30 g fat, 5 g fiber

Snack

Veggies and Hummus

  • Raw veggies of any kind (I like to keep chopped up celery, carrots, cucumbers, and radishes in the fridge)
  • 2 tablespoons hummus

78 calories, 9 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 3.8 g fat, 2 g fiber

Snack

Nuts and Seeds

  • Handful raw nuts and seeds (no oil or salt): peanuts, walnuts, pecans, cashews, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

441 calories, 14 g carbohydrates, 15.2 g protein, 36 g fat, 9 g fiber

Dinner

Black Bean Bowl

  • 1 cup black beans
  • 1 cup cooked brown basmati or black rice, farro, or quinoa
  • ½ avocado, diced
  • ½ cup salsa of your choice
  • Sprinkle nutritional yeast
  • Mix together in a bowl

658 calories, 96.6 g carbohydrates, 27 g protein, 18.3 g fat, 26.2 g fiber

Snack

Fruit

  • 1 cup strawberries and 1 cup blueberries

122 calories, 28 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 0 g fat, 6 g fiber

Or, Protein Shake

  • Vegan protein shake with 1 cup unsweetened almond milk, water, and ice

211 calories, 13 g carbohydrates, 24 g protein, 7 g fat, 5 g fiber

Totals

2,971 calories, 336.6 g carbohydrates, 122.5 g protein, 127.8 g fat, 74.6 g fiber

With optional protein shakes:

2,996 calories, 303.6 g carbohydrates, 161 g protein, 126.5 g fat, 72.2 g fiber

Combine an Effective Exercise Program for Desired Results

I’ve talked a lot about nutrition in this article, but before you think gaining muscle is all about eating, an effective exercise program is unsurprisingly a key component. I won’t go into too much detail here (there are plenty of lifting routines out there), but I do want to share the fundamental principles everyone should follow:

  1. The foundation of your workout program should consist of barbell and dumbbell free weight exercises.
  2. Perform exercises you enjoy. Ultimately, if it isn’t fun, you will find a way to avoid it.
  3. Create a workout program that targets all major muscle groups, including, legs, chest, back, shoulders, arms, and abs, to ensure you stimulate muscle growth throughout your whole body, not just your chest and biceps. You can train one muscle group per day, for five or six major workouts per week, or you can combine multiple muscle groups into a single workout.
  4. Consistency is key to success. You will need to put in the requisite time in order to attain desired results.
  5. Set attainable goals.
  6. Document your workouts as a way to hold yourself accountable.

The key is to train hard with consistency and with a level of intensity geared toward igniting and eliciting change and forward progress.

Set Goals and Objectives and Track Your Progress

A great exercise and nutrition plan creates an excellent foundation for your bodybuilding goals. The next step is to create actionable goals with attainable objectives.

Here’s an example of what that looks like:

Goal: Add 10 pounds of total mass over the next 6 months. (Pro-tip: Share your goal with some friends and on social media, and hold yourself accountable by providing regular updates, good or bad.)

Timeline: Add 2 pounds of mass per month (muscle, fat, and water weight), and evaluate progress monthly.

Action Plan: 5 days per week of resistance weight training, and develop a nutrition plan that supports your goal by meeting your calorie and other nutritional needs.

It’s also important to track your progress daily. Not only your gains, but also track the food you eat.

This may seem tedious at first, but I’ve found that over time, it becomes second nature, and with little effort you’ll be able to construct a nutrition program that will set you on the path to success.

Meal tracking can be the secret sauce to your muscle-building plan. But of course, sometimes, life gets in the way.

Recently, I spent many months editing, revising, and re-writing a book I spent nearly two years writing. I was working 12- and 15-hour days leading up to the day I submitted the manuscript for printing. Subsequently, I took some days off from the gym, and my nutrition plan took a hit too, and things like frozen vegan burritos made their way into my diet…

I’m not afraid to admit it. I wasn’t tracking or focused on my goals, and inevitably, things went awry.

But, after submitting my manuscript, I got back to documenting meals and workouts, and in just one month, the results were obvious:

Transformation

Had I put more effort into tracking what I ate throughout those busy weeks and months, I wouldn’t have slipped as far as I did.

Tracking holds you accountable, and gives you a clear picture of what you’re eating, what you’re not eating, and where you’re falling short.

I use Cronometer, MyFitnessPal, or the Shred It! 13-Week Training Journal to document my daily meals and workouts to have an accurate account of my efforts. This way I can look back at my progress to see where I’ve hit my goals or where I need to make some adjustments.

You Have the Tools, Now Make it Happen

My experience in building muscle on a plant-based diet took decades of trial and error—but your experience can be so much better! The systems and approaches I outlined above have proven effective time and time again, not only for me but also for the thousands of plant-based athletes who have followed these principles.

Your exact approach will be filled with variation and interpretation, but the core concepts remain true and lead to success: set meaningful goals, eat healthy with whole plant foods, perform exercises you truly enjoy, and be consistent.

Now make it happen. I believe in you.

About the Author: Robert Cheeke is the best-selling author of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, Shred It! and Plant-Based Muscle, a two-time champion bodybuilder, and the founder/president of Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness.

Save

Save

8 Comments

 


Dig this post?
Spread the word!

Keep in touch:

How to Eat Plant-Based and Get All the Protein You Need



Want to eat a whole-food plant-based diet, but worried about protein?

wooden signpost near a pathOur 7-Day Kickstart Plan is unique in that it focuses on the highest quality whole foods (including the 7 foods worth eating every day), while also providing protein-boost options, in case you're especially concerned about protein. The Kickstart Plan includes:
  • A 7-day meal plan, built around the foods worth eating every single day
  • Daily protein boost options to give you the confidence that you're getting what you need
  • Focused on simplicity and speed, to minimize stress and time commitment
It's the best way we know of to get started with a whole-food, plant-based diet, for just 7 bucks. Learn more here!

Comments

  1. Great article. Appreciate all the detail, clear examples and photos of your results.

  2. Shannon Dixon says:

    Love all, Robert Cheeke’smstuff. Guess I have a new book to buy. Thanks Robert for being a voice and an inspiration. Wow, amazing transformationin just 30 days!

  3. This is really informative. Thank you! I’m also going to check out your new book.

  4. Holly Muskus says:

    I’ve got a question slightly off the subject. In trying to go completely vegan (I’ve been almost that for most of my adult life) I have developed dental caries for the first time in my life (and I’m 70 years old). Research has indicated that the higher phytic acid content of grains and legumes often does contribute to cavities with vegans. Your recommended recipes are high in these ingredients. Any thoughts?

  5. I’m trying to lose fat while building muscle. Are these incompatible goals since you need to increase calories to gain muscle but decrease calories to lose fat? Do you have to do one before the other? If so, how do you safely raise your calorie intake to allow muscle gain without regaining the fat? Thanks in advance for your help

  6. Laura Moore says:

    I have the same question as Jennifer. I’ve also heard to lose fat you need to cut it down but I’ve also read you need fat to fight fat? Everything is confusing could you please explain the correct way this is supposed to be done. Thank you so much laura

  7. Sandra, Italy says:

    Great article, will be bookmarked as of now! 😊

  8. This is a good article covering strategies for bulking up but it does not provide any guidelines for cutting. I was wondering what Robert’s recommendations are, such as how to do it effectively, when to bulk and when to cut etc..

Leave a Comment

*