It seems that vegan or plant-based diets have become more and more popular in the past decade. People often chose this lifestyle for many reasons. Most of the reasons people opt for a plant-based diet seem to stem from either health or ethical concerns.
When trying to build muscle the biggest obstacle people face with their diets is whether or not they are getting enough protein. Vegans have an especially tough time with this because they are not able to eat some of the go-to foods like chicken breasts, beef or eggs.
I have not worked with a strict vegan client for a while and over the years there have only been a handful. Most of the vegetarians that I trained were not vegans because they did eat some eggs or dairy. The strict vegans I worked with (who ate no animal products at all) had to really overhaul their nutrition because their diets did not contain enough protein or fat.
When aiming for the standard 30/40/30 (30% protein, 40% carbs and 30% fat) ratio that I usually start off recommending, it was easy get the carbs. Most carbs that people eat are plant-based so there was no problem getting enough of them.
There are some very good fat choices for vegans with foods like avocados, nuts and oils. The challenge was finding plant-based protein sources that offered a complete protein. Most plant-based proteins are incomplete proteins.
The other challenge I had when designing their meal plans was that there are some plant-based protein sources that have complete proteins, they usually also have carbohydrates with them so it was difficult to formulate a vegan plan that would be low carb.
Fast forward to today and there are many more mainstream options for vegans that were hard to find just a few years ago. I’ve chosen my top muscle building foods for vegans and based it mostly on the protein content. While some of my choices might not be very high in protein, all of them are complete proteins. I did that because getting enough complete proteins can sometimes be very limiting for vegans.
Whether you are a vegan or not, there are some good foods this list that can provide the body with many nutrients as well as some protein.
While quinoa is a carb, it does offer a complete source of protein which is rare for a plant-based food. The protein content is 14% by mass which means a cup of cooked quinoa has 8 grams of complete proteins, which is decent for a starch. Quinoa is also full of vitamins and minerals and is gluten free.
Quinoa is a good source of Magnesium, Phosphorus, and a very good source of Manganese.
Quinoa has a texture that is similar to cous cous and you can use it instead of any grain. It makes a good substitute for rice or pasta and it’s very popular to serve it as a salad with veggies or fruits.
Click here to check out my full article on quinoa.
Hemp seeds are another complete protein that contains all the essential amino acids that can’t be produced in the human body. (The lysine is a little low though.)
They have a good balance of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. They are 33% protein by mass and offer around 10 grams of protein per 3 tablespoons.
While they do come from the same species of plant as marijuana, they contain only trace amounts of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) so you won’t be getting high while eating this. Hemp also has a good amount of magnesium, zinc, iron and calcium.
Hemp seeds can be served like quinoa or can be ground into a powder to top deserts or salads. Hemp protein powder has also become very popular and is an option for a pre or post workout shake.
Beans and rice
Beans and rice are a traditional side dish for many cultures and are another source of complete protein. While this is not exactly a single food item, these two foods are combined very frequently and make a nice addition to a meal.
These two foods are actually incomplete proteins that complement each other to form a complete protein. Most beans are low in the amino acid methionine and have a lot of lysine. Rice is the opposite and has a lot of methionine but is low in lysine. When combined, these form a protein that has a pretty high biological value.
While the nutrients will vary depending on the types of rice or beans that are used a cup of beans and rice will have around 7 grams of protein. Beans and rice will also be a good source of potassium, folate, iron, manganese, and magnesium.
This was a food that I did not choose for the protein alone and is the only fruit on the list. Avocados are rich in fat which actually makes up about 75% of its caloric value. Avocados have a lot of monounsaturated fat which is important for the absorption of many nutrients.
Avocados aren’t necessarily a high protein food, but the protein it contains is a complete protein. Since most people are eating avocados for the healthy fat it provides, getting a good balance of essential amino acids is a good benefit.
You can add avocados to many dishes. It’s a very popular addition to any salad but can also provide a good creamy accompaniment to a shake.
Click here to check out my full article on avocados.
Yes, these are the same seeds from those 80’s commercials for the chia pets. Who knew these little seeds also had a good nutritional value.
Chia seeds are great sources of omega-3s and fiber and like other foods on this list; they also are a complete source of protein. 2 tablespoons of chia seeds have 4 grams of protein.
Chia seeds also are high in calcium, phosphorus and manganese. They also have a good amount of antioxidants and 2 tablespoons have as much iron as a cup of spinach.
These seeds can be used to top many dishes or can be a great addition to a shake.
While it may not be the most popular vegan dish out there, buckwheat has been around for a while. The kernels (called groats) can be cooked and eaten whole, or it can be ground into flour and made into things like Japanese soba noodles.
Buckwheat is primarily a carbohydrate but it also contains all essential amino acids making it a complete protein. Even though buckwheat is primarily a carbohydrate, it ranks pretty low on the glycemic index so it won’t spike your insulin levels. It is also gluten free.
A ¼ cup of raw uncooked buckwheat groats contains 6 grams of protein. While this is not an extraordinary amount, it is complete so your body can fully utilize it.
Buckwheat is also a decent source of fiber and phosphorus. It also contains good amounts of magnesium, copper and manganese.
Spirulina is a member of the algae family and is technically a complete protein. (The reason I say technically is because it does contain all the essential amino acids, but certain drying methods can reduce levels of methionine, cysteine and lysine. This isn’t usually a problem for vegans because foods like grains, nuts and seeds are high in those amino acids and can balance it out.)
Spirulina is typically sold in powder form and can be added to your shakes or food. 1 tablespoon has 4 grams of protein.
There are many nutrients that spirulina is high in such as Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Iron, Copper and Manganese. Spirulina also has good levels of Vitamin K, Pantothenic Acid, Magnesium and Potassium.
Vegan Protein Powders
Last but not least is the savior for people whose protein needs aren’t up to par. Yes, a protein powder can really boost up your protein when your food alone just isn’t cutting it.
Back in the day the 2 major types of protein powder were whey and soy. Whey was great for after a workout and soy was the only option that vegans had. Now there are many products that use other plant-based proteins as their source.
Some of the protein sources include hemp, brown rice, quinoa, pea and amaranth. The good thing is that these will usually be complete protein sources and most do not have soy. Vega, Sun Warrior and PlantFusion all make some great products. They are offer a variety of flavors and many brands even sell an unflavored variety. They can be easier to digest than a whey powder but the downside is they are a little more expensive than whey protein.
The powders are most commonly used to make shakes and smoothies but they really can be added to virtually any food to give it a protein boost.
I did not include…
Soy. Even though this is probably one of the most popular vegan proteins, I was going back and forth whether or not I should include soy. Yes, it is a complete protein with a high biological value but I decided against including it for a few reasons.
The first and most well-known is that soy contains isoflavones which produce phytoestrogens. This has been shown to raise levels of estrogen in the body which can decrease the effectiveness of muscle building. This is a real downside for males and postmenopausal women. Premenopausal women do not seem to be as affected by elevated phytoestrogens in food.
The other reason that I did not include soy on the list is because most of the soy that is grown in the US is genetically modified to resist pesticides. This leaves residue from toxic pesticides.
Soy has also been shown to contain anti-nutrients (like phytic acid) which can interfere with nutrient absorption and protein synthesis when consumed in high levels. It also contains goitrogens which can interfere with thyroid hormone production. Soy products are supposed to be listed on all ingredient labels because it is one of the top food allergens.
Fermented soy products are not as bad since the fermentation process reduces to toxins. Some of the fermented soy products include soy sauce, miso and natto.
Almonds. They are one of my favorite fats. Each ounce has 14 grams of fat, most of which is monounsaturated. They have a lot of Riboflavin, Magnesium and Manganese, and Vitamin E. Even though I recommend these to many of my clients for the fat I did not include it in this list because it is not a complete protein.
Almonds are low in lysine, methionine and cysteine. An ounce does have 6 grams of protein though and it can be easily paired with grains or beans to make up for the limiting amino acids.
Even though I did not officially include them on the list, I did want to mention them because unlike soy, they are a great food.
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