By Allison Kraft, MS
It’s a common misconception that it is difficult to build muscle on a vegetarian diet. After all, a chicken breast or steak provides much more protein per ounce than beans or whole grains. But building muscle as a vegetarian is not as difficult as you may think.
Why Should Vegetarians Care About Muscle?
Before we discuss the how, you might be wondering why it is important to build muscle. Increasing your muscle mass is a worthwhile goal for several reasons:
- Muscle burns more calories than fat, so increases in lean body mass can speed up your metabolism.
- Gaining muscle mass can decrease your overall body fat percentage.
- Strength training helps you build stronger bones AND stronger muscles.
- Having strong muscles can make it easier to perform daily activities, such as carrying multiple grocery bags or opening a stubborn jar of pickles.
How To Build Muscle
Obviously, protein is essential for increasing muscle. As a vegetarian, the sources of protein in your diet will differ from the average person consuming meat. Plant-based proteins may include beans, lentils, whole grains (like quinoa, brown rice and farro), nuts, seeds, soy products, and dairy. Plant-based protein powders can also be a source of protein for the busy athlete but are certainly not needed to meet protein needs as a vegetarian.
Tips for Building Muscle
While protein sources may differ between meat-eaters and vegetarians, other recommendations for building lean body mass are the same for both groups. These tips will help you increase your muscle in no time.
- Eat protein throughout the day. For optimal muscle growth, aim to eat 20-30 grams of protein at each main meal. Vegetarian foods that pack a protein punch include:
- Beans & Lentils – Versatile and nutritious, beans and lentils provide 15 grams of protein per cup when cooked.
- Dairy products – Dairy is an easy source of protein when you are on the go. A cup of milk provides 8 grams of protein, while the protein in ½ cup of Greek yogurt or cottage cheese is closer to 12-15 grams.
- Soy products – Soy milk packs just as much protein as dairy milk, and other soy foods such as tofu and tempeh are also great sources, packing 10-12 grams of protein per cup.
- Whole grains – Along with many other nutrients, whole grains add a surprising source of protein to the diet. Among grains with the highest protein levels are quinoa and whole wheat pasta (8 grams per cup), old-fashioned or steel cut oats (5 grams per ½ cup), and whole wheat bread (5 grams per slice).
- Nuts & Seeds – Making a great addition to salads, smoothies, and yogurt, nuts and seeds also provide a good amount of protein. Examples include hemp seeds (10 grams per 3 Tablespoons), almonds (6 grams per ounce), and peanut butter (4 grams per Tablespoon).
2. Variety is key. Consuming protein from a variety of sources leads to a greater variety of nutrients in your diet and can keep eating fun!
For example, you might consume a bowl of oatmeal with walnuts and a glass of milk at breakfast, a black bean quesadilla for lunch, and a salad with hemp seeds, tofu, and a hard-boiled egg for dinner. These meals alone provide over 60 grams of protein. If you throw in snacks such as Greek yogurt and a peanut butter sandwich, that number jumps up to nearly 100 grams – an amount of protein that would easily meet the needs of a 150-pound person working to build lean body mass!
3. Don’t be afraid of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are essential and provide energy for all sorts of activities. If you limit your carbohydrates, you will not be able to perform your best or build lean body mass efficiently.
4. Lift weights. Regardless of how much protein you consume, you will struggle to build muscle without lifting weights or doing some other form of strength training. If you are new to strength training, you can try out a circuit class, find a personal trainer, or watch YouTube videos to get started.
Allison recently graduated from the Coordinated Master’s Program in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Utah. With a concentration in sports nutrition, she has a passion for teaching others to take charge of their nutrition to lead healthy, active lives that they love.