5 Tips for Building Muscle on a Vegetarian Diet

Jenna Braddock
by Jenna Braddock
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5 Tips for Building Muscle on a Vegetarian Diet

The goal for every athlete’s training plan is better performance. Whether you run, play a team sport or compete in CrossFit, you probably want enhance your strength and improve your body composition.

For a long time, it was commonly thought that the only important food group needed to build muscle was meat and lots of it. With the rise in popularity of vegetarian diets and scientific evidence supporting their merit, many athletes have made the switch to eating less meat or none at all. While a small segment of the popular consider themselves vegetarians, this number is steadily on the rise. Some world-class athletes like Venus Williams and NFL star Arian Foster have proven that body composition and performance are not compromised by making the switch to plant-based diets.

Simply going vegetarian does not mean you have to sacrifice your goal to build muscle. You can follow a plant-based (or mostly plant-based) eating plan and still build enough strength for your chosen sport.

Vegetarian Diets Defined

If you are an athlete or active person contemplating a plant-based lifestyle, it’s important to understand the different styles. While there are many variations, the four main styles are:

  1. Vegan: This style of eating chooses to abstain from any and all animal-derived foods including meat, seafood, dairy, eggs and sometimes honey.
  2. Lactovegetarian: This style excludes all animal products except dairy. Milk, cheese and yogurt may still be consumed.
  3. Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: This style of eating includes eggs and dairy but still abstains from meat and seafood.
  4. Pescatarian: This style of eating includes seafood but no other kind of meat. It may or may not include eggs and seafood based on a person’s preference.

Also keep in mind that every individual can define her own form of vegetarianism. The term “flexitarian” describes someone who eats mostly plant-based foods but may incorporate a variety of animal foods on an as-needed basis.

Why Protein Is so Important for Muscles

All forms of protein, whether in our own muscles, a piece of beef, an egg or tofu, contain a mix of amino acids. These amino acids are what are affectionately called “the building blocks of life” because they make up many of our living cells.

When it comes to protein in our diets, we need to eat it daily to ensure we have an adequate supply of all the amino acids needed to rebuild our tissue. Unlike fat and carbohydrates, our bodies don’t keep amino acids idly stored for later use. All the amino acids have a role. When amino acids need to be replenished (i.e. muscle building), they have to come from the diet. The tricky part is that most plant-based foods don’t contain all the amino acids in any one food; therefore, vegetarians must eat a variety of plants-based foods to get all the amino acids.

The Concern for Vegetarian Diets

In order for muscles to grow, there has to be a surplus of amino acids circulating in the bloodstream, at least temporarily. The concern for vegetarian diets is that they may not contain enough high-quality protein to build muscle as effectively as a meat-containing diet.

Many plant-based proteins are not “complete proteins,” meaning they do not contain all the essential amino acids, particularly lysine, methionine and leucine, that are needed by the body. That doesn’t, however, mean vegetarians cannot obtain all the essential amino acids they need. Research has found that by increasing the amount and variety of plant-based proteins in a vegetarian diet, you can make up for what is more easily acquired through a meat-containing diet.

5 Tips for Building Muscle on a Vegetarian Diet

Here are five important tips to ensure you are getting adequate protein in your vegetarian diet:

1. Eat enough calories.
You won’t build muscle if you’re under-eating calories. Make sure you are eating enough food to support your active lifestyle. You can use MyFitnessPal to track your daily calorie and protein goals.

2. Use the “1.2–1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight” rule.
Moderately active individuals can meet their protein needs with the Recommended Daily Allowance of 0.8 g/kg body weight/day. Athletes training five times or more a week do have higher requirements and should use 1.2–1.7 g/kg body weight/day. Eating more than this recommendation is not necessarily beneficial and could be detrimental. If you’re unsure, work with a registered dietitian to determine if a higher protein intake beyond this recommendation is beneficial for your body and performance.

3. Eat a variety of plant-based protein.
You may need to increase your total daily protein intake to promote muscle building. Quinoa, beans, tofu, edamame, hemp seeds and lentils are great vegan choices. Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs and seafood are excellent choices for other styles of vegetarianism.

4. Choose whole foods containing the amino acid leucine daily.
This is an especially important amino acid for vegetarians and muscle building. Spirulina (sea algae), eggs, fish, cottage cheese, soy, kidney beans, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds are good sources of leucine.

5. Refuel after workouts.
The first 15–45 minutes post-workout are a very important time to replenish your body with easy-to-digest carbs and protein to best aid muscle building. Examples:

  • 1 medium banana + 1 tablespoon almond butter
  • 1 ounce dry roasted or raw almonds + 1.5-ounce box of raisins
  • 1 medium banana + 1 tablespoon almond butter
  • 1 hard-boiled egg and 1 thick slice of whole-grain bread
  • 1 medium tortilla rolled up with 2 tablespoons of hummus, 1 loose cup of spinach, and 1/4 cup shredded carrots, 1/2 cup cooked quinoa, 1 tablespoon hummus, 2 tablespoons dried cranberries and 1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
  • 8 ounces tart cherry juice and a cheese stick

By paying attention to diet details, any vegetarian can successfully achieve her fitness goals— including building muscle.


  1. Sports Nutrition Guidelines for the Vegetarian. The Vegetarian Resource Group. Available at: https://www.vrg.org/nutshell/athletes.htm. Accessed on November 14, 2015.
  2. Rosenbloom C, Coleman E eds.Sports Nutriton: A Practice Manual for Professional, 5th Edition. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2012

About the Author

Jenna Braddock
Jenna Braddock

Jenna is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified specialist in sports nutrition. She is a mom to two little boys and wife to a football coach. She shares real-life strategies for better health and doable, delicious recipes on her site Make Healthy Easy. She is active on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest


9 responses to “5 Tips for Building Muscle on a Vegetarian Diet”

  1. Mary says:

    Should the protein be considered as part of daily calorie needs, or in addition to calorie needs in order to build muscle?

  2. Whitney Bex says:

    The term ‘piscaterian’ should be banned. There is absolutely no ethical rationale for the people who eat fish but not meat. They choose their eating regime for self-preservation or fitness reasons and as such do not deserve any category at all. Flexitarian as a term is even worse. I might make it my New Year Resolution to shame these people into stopping trying to have an identity that makes them look good. Commercial fishing is not a humane way for any fish to die. So the only label a ‘piscaterian’ should have is hypocrite! (Or fussy eater in some cases).

    • Marta C. says:

      I could not agree more. Such a nice article completely ruined by dishing out misinformation. I hope that this article is going to be re-edited. Makes my blood boil whenever someone says “I’m vegetarian but I eat fish”.

    • Daniel says:

      That is so rude! I myself was a pescaterian for over a year before transitioning to a lacto-vegetarian diet. There was no way I was hypocritical since it’s officialy a vegetarian diet and not everybody becomes a vegetarian for ethic reasons. Unless you are a very strict vegan, who rides bikes everywhere & doesn’t eat honey etc, you can call yourself a hypocrite too.

  3. Well written article! I am not into vegan eating, but I understand your point. There is lots of ways to build muscles.

  4. Marta C. says:

    I can’t believe that someone trained in nutrition would make the mistake of including pescatarian and “flexitarian” (aren’t all meat eaters flexitarians???) in vegetarian diets. Both are NOT vegetarian diets, so please edit your article as you are misleading readers and offending vegetarians who have made a conscious choice of healthy and ethical eating.
    I usually really enjoy the articles here but this has made my blood boil. Being vegetarian is an ethical lifestyle choice which you have completely undermined. Please re-edit.

    • Genevieve Lanter says:

      I think it is frankly very rude of you to disrespect some people’s eating habits. The word “vegetarian” is a very broad umbrella and can be derived into many different categories so you should not assume that your kind of vegetarianism is the only kind there is. Also, you say “healthy and ethical” eating as if only your type of vegetarianism is healthy, but other types of vegetarian diets (such as pescatarian) are in reality very healthy.

  5. Angie says:

    I’m a pescatarian and proud of it! Look, I am fully supportive of you vegetarians and vegans but get a grip (and maybe a Xanax). There absolutely are people who choose to make the decision, for health AND ethical reasons, to be pescatarian. Yes, I eat fish and seafood however, I chose to cut animal products out of my diet because I firmly disagree with the methodology of the meat industry. My choice is not a “slam” to vegetarians, it is actually quite the opposite. I support vegetarian views on the issues surrounding the meat industry. Your view points may need to be challenged and another angle considered. If any person is taking steps to cut out, or reduce, their intake of animal products it should be encouraged and considered a small “win” for the cause. Any lifestyle change that reduces the cruel death of mammals, in my opinion, should be applauded.

  6. Daniel says:

    I agree that “pescatarian” is not an appropriate label to be lumped in with vegetarianism, but I also have to agree with Angie that any step in the reduction of eating meat products should be encouraged. The militant, black-and-white approach that many vegans/vegetarians take is off-putting to most people and undermines the underlying goal: an ethical and environmentally conscious diet.
    Being healthy is more popular than ever now, and unfortunately much more popular than dieting (excuse me, “life-styling”) revolved around animal cruelty and environmentalism. Let’s face it, a majority of people reducing their meat consumption on the basis of health will always have more of an impact than a handful of people consuming no meat on the basis of animal cruelty.

    So, whatever the hell you want to call yourself, shut up and stop undermining your own goals in the name of elitism!

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