Although most people know me as a runner, when I first got into fitness in college, my measure of success wasn’t miles — it was muscle.
I’d always been a skinny guy, and thought that with the freedom and time college afforded me (not to mention an amazing fitness complex), I might be able to change that.
The problem, I soon found, was that no matter how many hours I spent in that fancy gym — following programs from Men’s Health to the letter — I just couldn’t put on the muscle that I thought I should be adding with all this heavy lifting.
I had the wrong nutrition strategy.
I was eating for general fitness, when what I should have been following was a targeted strategy specifically designed to give me the nutrients I needed (and, importantly, in the amounts I needed), based on my body and goals.
I learned, over many frustrating years of failure, that nutrition is just as important as strength training when it comes to building muscle and toning your body.
And once I nailed the nutrition, putting on muscle (and later, losing fat) became easy.
But what kind of nutrition?
For most of my life, I thought that nutrition for muscle-building meant steaks, lean chicken breasts, and whole-milk protein shakes. The idea that you could get results in the gym from a plant-based diet never occurred to me.
But I’ll dive into that topic here, and share three
First, Understand that the Types of Foods Matter
Most people know that if you’re trying to lose or put on weight, you’ve got pay attention to calories in versus calories out.
But when you’re trying to do something like add muscle mass, it isn’t just about the calories.
Accomplished vegan bodybuilders and coaches Giacomo Marchese and Dani Taylor put it this way:
Which macronutrients your calories come from will determine what kind of tissue you gain or lose (in conjunction with your training, of course).
For example, you can lose 20 pounds by restricting calories alone, but without planning your macronutrients, and weight training appropriately, the weight
lostcould easily be coming from muscle.
Conversely, you can definitely gain weight by eating a surplus of calories, but without a plan of where they are coming from, and without strength training of some kind, you can easily gain more fat than you intended.
So we’re talking about macronutrients… does that mean we’re focusing on protein?
While protein is a key ingredient to muscle growth, understanding the macronutrient profile that fits your body and supports your goals requires looking at carbohydrates and fat as well.
In a post they wrote for No Meat Athlete, Dani and Giacomo do a fantastic job outlining how to calculate your macronutrient needs for muscle gain and fat loss. So that’s the place to start. (I’ll refer back to this formula a lot. Make sure you check out that post before finishing this one, so you know what I’m talking about.)
But the process is pretty simple:
- Step 1: Find your maintenance
calories,or the number of calories you need to maintain your weight right now.
- Step 2: Find your deficit (assuming you want to lose body fat), or the number of calories below your maintenance level that fits your goals. There’s a tradeoff here — the larger your deficit, the quicker you’ll lose weight, but the more likely that weight is to be muscle instead of fat, so you want to find the balance that works for you.
- Step 3: Calculate your protein, fat, and carbohydrate needs, based on your weight, activity levels, and body composition. This is where Dani and Giacomo’s formula is most helpful.
Here’s that macronutrient formula again, which we’ll be referring to for the rest of this post.
But fair warning: Once you have those numbers, they can look a little daunting. After having never calculated nutrients, suddenly seeing over 100 grams of protein listed as your target makes it easy to question how you’ll get that on a whole-food plant-based diet.
But it’s possible, and it’s not that hard. I’ll show you what I mean.
Macronutrients, Muscle Gain, and the Plant-Based Diet
Instead of just throwing random numbers around, let me set this up by taking three example friends, all trying to gain muscle or tone their bodies:
1. Ann, a
2. Daniella weighs 150 pounds, and she needs 2,000 calories each day, with 67g of fat, 93g of protein, and 256g of carbohydrates.
3. Peter, a 165-pound male, needs 2,541 calories per day, with 84 grams of fat, 113g of protein, and 337 grams of carbohydrates.
Like I said, the numbers can look a little daunting. Getting a lot of carbohydrates on a plant-based, now that’s pretty easy, but 113 grams of protein for Peter, or 67g of fat for Daniella?
But more and more — with the growth of the vegan bodybuilder movements on social media or documentaries like Gamechangers changing the conversation — people are starting to come around to the fact that plant foods can be just as effective (and sometimes even more effective) for muscle gain than animal foods.
By eating the right plant foods, not only can you easily hit your macronutrient numbers; you can also get the right balance of amino acids and a ton of great
So what does a day of eating for these macronutrient numbers actually look like?
Let’s use our three examples from above and see how they eat for a day. First up, Ann…
Ann’s Meal Plan: 1800 calories, 62g of fat, 84g of protein, and 232g of carbohydrates
- Breakfast: Easy Tofu Scramble with Whole-Wheat Toast with Hummus
- 519 calories, 32g protein, 18g fat, 55g carbohydrates
- Snack: Celery & Nut Butter
- 234 calories, 5g protein, 20g fat, 12g carbohydrates
- Lunch: One-Pot Peanut Butter Noodles
- 376 calories, 20g protein, 15g fat, 42g carbohydrates
- Post-Workout Snack: Chocolate Cherry Smoothie (2 Scoops)
- 267 calories, 24g protein, 6g fat, 32g carbohydrates
- Dinner: Chickpea Chili with Baked Potato
- 371 calories, 15g protein, 2g fat, 77g carbohydrates
Ann’s day adds up to 1767 calories, 61g fat, 96g of protein, and 218g carbs.
Daniella’s Meal Plan: 2,000, 67g of fat, 93g of protein, and 256g of carbohydrates
- Breakfast: Soy-Free, Gluten-Free Pancakes with Maple Syrup and Mixed Berries
- 523 calories, 24g protein, 17g fat, 87g carbohydrates
- Snack: Crackers & Hummus
- 293 calories, 7g protein, 15g fat, 40g carbohydrates
- Lunch: Chipotle Sloppy Joes
- 380 calories, 28g protein, 6g fat, 30g carbohydrates
- Post-Workout Snack: Lean & Green Smoothie
- 209 calories, 23g protein, 5g fat, 20g carbohydrates
- Dinner: Crock Pot Stuffed Peppers with a Side of Quinoa
- 540 calories, 26g protein, 9g fat, 86g carbohydrates
Daniella just consumed 1945 calories, 52g fat, 108g protein, and 263g carbs.
Peter’s Meal Plan: 2,541, 113g of protein, 84g of fat, and 337g of carbohydrates
- Breakfast: Oatmeal with Nut Butter, Raisins, and Banana
- 634 calories, 18g protein, 21g fat, 95g carbohydrates
- Snack: Edamame (2 cups)
- 378 calories, 30g protein, 19g fat, 30g carbohydrates
- Lunch: Quinoa Mango Salad with Homemade Seitan
- 367 calories, 40g protein, 5g fat, 32g carbohydrates
- Post-Workout Snack: Pumpkin Pie Smoothie with Peanut Butter (2 Scoops)
- 438 calories, 32g protein, 22g fat, 25g carbohydrates
- Dinner: Veggie Loaf with Baked Potato
- 702 calories, 32g protein, 9g fat, 134g carbohydrates
Peter’s meals add up to 2,519 calories, 152g protein, 76g fat, and 316g carbs.
Did any of them hit the numbers perfectly? No, of course not.
But hitting the numbers perfectly isn’t the point. That would be far too stressful and difficult. Definitely not the No Meat Athlete way; to me, if it’s not sustainable, it’s not worth much.
Instead, they used the numbers as a guide, aiming to average out those macronutrients over the course of the week.
But here’s the kicker:
In all three cases, they were able to get more than enough protein through a plant-based diet. And fat was right around where it should be (and could easily be adjusted with a few handfuls of nuts or seeds).
So even though the numbers might have seemed jarring on paper, these meals probably aren’t that much different than what you’re already eating.
With an extra snack or two, and maybe a bit heavier of a breakfast than normal, you can easily take a pretty standard plant-based diet and turn it into one that works for your strength training goals.
When Building Muscle, Don’t Neglect Nutrition
If you’re trying to gain muscle, burn fat, or simply tone up you body, don’t make the same mistake I did for so long.
Don’t rely only on strength training to produce all the results.
Sure, a thoughtful, progressive strength plan is crucial, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.
The extra attention to diet is what creates the magic.
For best results, take the time to calculate your personal macronurients. Knowing exactly what you need for your body will make a real difference.
But if you’re itching to get started now, use the calculations above to ballpark your numbers and start tracking your food.
As always with No Meat Athlete, the ultimate goal is to get familiar enough with your needs and foods that tracking isn’t necessary. The simpler the better.
But until then, do the work.
Because ignoring the other half of the strength equation will just leave you frustrated, like I was for so many years until I figured it out, and finally got the results I wanted.