Vegetarian Muscle Without Meat

When you look at someone as huge as Dorian Yates, you have to wonder how much meat he eats in a day. Most bodybuilders do eat a considerable amount of meat, poultry and fish to build and maintain their massive physiques, but is eating animal flesh essential to building muscle? Protein is essential; animal flesh is not. The trick is in getting enough high-quality protein from non-animal sources. Even vegetarians who have never touched a barbell find it difficult to meet the recommended dietary allowance for protein, let alone consume the amount required for building huge muscles, but it can be done. It just takes careful planning.

Most bodybuilders know that they must take in all eight essential amino acids in order to increase their muscle tissue. While the experts used to say that you had to ingest all the essential aminos at one time, recent evidence suggests that isn’t necessarily so. You can eat fruit, cereal and toast for breakfast, a relatively low-protein meal, and, as long as you eat the missing amino acids at lunch, say in the form of nuts or legumes, protein will be formed and used for protein functions, including building muscle. While that can be an advantage for the average vegan trying to consume 60 grams of protein per day, it doesn’t much help the bodybuilding vegan, who needs double or triple that amount.

Vegans are total vegetarians, and they avoid eggs and dairy products as well as meat, poultry and fish. To maximize total daily protein intake, vegan bodybuilders should consume all eight essential amino acids at every meal. Fortunately, science and food technology have come together recently to make high-protein vegetarian foods more appealing to the American public. Although the primary target is people who are at risk for heart disease and cancer, especially prostate and breast cancer, a pleasant side effect is high-protein vegetarian foods that taste good.

While soymilk and tofu have always been available in health-food stores, new entrees like tofu lasagna, ravioli and Stroganoff, not to mention numerous vegeburgers, milk shake like drinks and yogurt like desserts, are now available even in supermarkets. There are also more cookbooks that feature soy protein recipes. So far the public’s response has been very good.

Legumes are another protein staple for the vegan. The endless varieties available include pinto beans, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, great white northern beans and black beans, as well as lentils and split peas. You can use them in soups, in burritos and baked in sauces. You can also boil and mash them and make refried beans, serving them with rice, as in traditional Mexican cooking.

The quality of legume protein increases measurably if you eat it with a grain-based food, such as rice, bread or tortillas. If you’re new to legumes, start with a small amount, such as a quarter cup, and work up gradually to avoid intestinal discomfort, or take Beano, a product that reduces gas. You’ll be more comfortable, as will the people around you.

Nuts, seeds and nut butters are protein powerhouses for vegans as well. While the general public tends to limit nut consumption due to the high fat content, the fat works for, rather than against, vegan bodybuilders. Even if you can triple your protein intake with vegetarian protein foods, you won’t benefit fully if your calorie intake falls short. Your body will be forced to use your protein calories for energy, rather than muscle building, to make up for the shortage. The oils found in them are primarily monounsaturated, like olive oil, so they’re heart friendly. They provide some fiber as well, and their protein and fat contents make them a must for bodybuilding vegans.

There are also a number of vegetarian protein powders on the market that are made of soy protein isolate, another must. Such products are an easy way to get top-quality protein into your diet. You just add water, juice or soymilk.

If you train intensely for more than an hour a day, however, it will take more than vegetarian protein powder to build muscle. As mentioned above, you’ll need a tremendous number of calories to fuel your workouts. An intake of 150 grams of protein, which would normally be adequate for muscle building, won’t do you much good if you’re eating only 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day. Depending on the intensity and duration of your workouts, your calorie range should be closer to 3,000 to 4,000 per day.

That will take some creative planning, as most vegetarian foods, while healthy, tend to be low in calories, so don’t skimp on such items as nuts, nut butters, olive oil, canola oil and avocados. The following sample diet should give you some ideas.

Vegetarian Muscle-Building Diet


  • Fresh fruit
  • 3 slices (or more) 100 percent whole-wheat toast
  • 3 tablespoons natural, old-fashioned peanut butter
  • 3 teaspoons canola oil margarine
  • 2 cups whole-grain cereal*
  • Milk**, soy milk, Vitamite milk substitute or rice milk for cereal
  • 8 ounces soy milk, Vitamite milk substitute or rice milk mixed with
  • 1 tablespoon soy protein isolate (vegetarian protein powder)
  • 1 banana


  • 1 vegeburger, 2 vegetarian hot dogs or 1 tofu cheese sandwich
  • Vegetarian chili
  • Green salad with avocado slices
  • Olive oil- or canola oil-based dressing
  • Fresh fruit
  • Tofu ice cream or yogurt like dessert
  • Protein drink***


  • Vegetarian entree, such as tofu lasagna
  • 2-3 slices 100 percent whole-grain bread or whole-grain rolls
  • Canola oil margarine
  • Vegetable of choice
  • Salad with avocado slices
  • Olive oil-based dressing
  • Fresh fruit
  • 8 ounces soy milk, Vitamite or rice milk mixed with
  • 1 tablespoon soy protein isolate (vegetarian protein powder)
  • 1 banana

Snack 1

  • Trail mix:
    • 1/4 cup dry-roasted, unsalted peanuts
    • 1/4 cup dry-roasted, unsalted cashews
    • 1/4 cup dry-roasted, unsalted sunflower seeds
    • 1/4 cup raisins

Snack 2

  • 2-3 tablespoons natural, old-fashioned peanut or almond butter
  • 12 (or more) low-sodium wheat crackers
  • Soy milk or rice milk

Snack 3

  • Apple slices dipped in a mixture of
  • 2 tablespoons nut butter
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon sunflower seeds
  • 1/4 banana, mashed Vitamite mixed with sorbet
  • 1 tablespoon soy protein isolate

*Examples include Wheaties, Grape Nuts, Mueslix, Wheat Chex, bran flakes and low fat granola.
**If you eat dairy products.
***Sorbet, juice and 1 to 2 tablespoons soy protein isolate.

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