Can You Build Muscle on a Vegan Diet?

This post has been inspired by a talk that I attended at VegFest this October called ‘Having the Mindset of a Champion’ by Nimai Delgado.

Warning for the Ladies: this post contains a generous number of  images of a very attractive young man and his well chiselled muscles. So just in case, you might want to proceed reading this article out of your boyfriend’s/husband’s eyesight, and definitely not at work 🙂

Nimai is a natural, vegan IFBB professional bodybuilder and online fitness & nutritional coach. He was raised on a lacto-vegetarian diet since birth and has never consumed any meat in his lifetime. (Yes, you’ve read that right!) In his early twenties he decided to transition to a plant based diet after he recognized the unethical exploitation of animals for human convenience.

Here he is – Nimai Delgado. You’re welcome, Ladies.

How did Nimai end up being a vegan body builder?

By the time Nimai was born in Argentina, his parents had already converted to Hinduism which shares the same ‘non violence’ principle as the vegan lifestyle so the family avoided eating meat. After the family moved to the USA into a remote farm, Nimai found it hard to fit in. Things got especially tricky in social situations such as BBQs where he was regarded as an oddball despite his best efforts to blend in. However, Nimai stuck to his principles all along and accepted himself for being who he was, even though giving up his principles about the food he wanted to eat would have made things a lot easier for him. After graduating from college in Louisiana with a degree in Engineering, he moved to California on his own. During this time of being away from his friends and family, he started to do some soul-searching about what he really wanted to do with his life. He also started going to the gym which helped him make new friends – working out quickly became his passion. At that time, he was still following a lacto-vegetarian diet but he found himself being gradually drawn towards veganism as he became more aware of the health benefits and animal welfare implications of this lifestyle.

How did going on a plant based diet impact Nimai’s training?

When Nimai first became a vegan, he started to feel so much better in only a matter of a few weeks – he started to see more gains and recovered better as a result. People also noticed these differences in the way he felt and looked and suggested that he entered a local body building show. When Nimai won the event,  it motivated him to train even harder. Unfortunately, he found it very difficult to find a coach initially to help him prepare for his competitions as no coaches believed that it was truly possible to build enough muscle living on a plant based diet. Nimai took that as a challenge and became even more determined to build a winning physique as a vegan.

Eventually, he did find a coach who was able to help with his training but had no idea about the vegan diet – he just gave Nimai a plan for macro splits and left it to him to work out how he could hit those numbers on a plant based diet. This led Nimai to research vegan sports nutrition. He was tracking what and how much he was eating and was closely monitoring the effects in the lead up to his first big competition. He ended up winning the competition and returned home with a big collection of trophies.

From that moment, Nimai knew that body building was what he really wanted to pursue in life.  People kept approaching him in the gym to ask him about his success and that is when Nimai saw the value in sharing what he did to achieve that win.  He realised that his success and popularity was an opportunity to become a vegan role model, using his social media channels to educate and encourage people to take up this lifestyle. He felt that he had finally found his calling, after feeling like an outcast and a misfit for so long in an industry that is heavily built on fuelling physical training with animal proteins.

Vegan body building for Nimai is a type of activism – deep down, we all want to feel, live and look better, so that we can live longer and spend more quality time with our loved ones. Veganism is an avenue for Nimai to achieve that and bodybuilding is a platform to spread the message about veganism.

Living it up

But what difference would it make if I became a vegan, I’m just one in a million people?

A lot of people (inlcuding myself) argue that it would not make much difference to the world if they became vegan, as the majority of the world’s population are not vegan. It may feel like your efforts would be just a drop in the ocean. However, Nimai brought up a really good illustration which may make you re-think this:

Let’s say that a bodybuilder called Bob needs to eat 180g of protein each day to build muscle. He consumes 40g plant- and 140g animal protein each day. He prefers lean chicken breast as his main source of animal protein. Basically, he needs to eat one chicken each day to meet his protein requirements. This means that in a year, he would end up eating 365 chickens! Now, that’s a helluva lot of chicken that is slaughtered just to feed one person, if you ask me! Not to mention the costs and environmental implications of raising and feeding those chickens. So I can’t help but agree with Nimai that even just one vegan can make a big difference to the planet, the environment and the animals. After all, the question that I started to ask myself after listening to Nimai’s talk is

Why would so many animals need to die and the planet suffer just for my convenience and my fitness goals?

So what does a vegan body builder eat?!

Needless to say, at the end of his talk, the first question that Nimai got asked by the audience was how much protein he consumes to build and maintain his remarkable physique. (I have to admit, that was the first question that came to my mind, too.) To my surprise, Nimai said that he followed a moderate protein diet, whether he was cutting, maintaining or bulking – he consumes between 15-25% protein, 30% fat and up to 50% carbs in a day. I was quite shocked to hear this, but at the same time, this makes me ponder that after all, we may not need as much protein as we think.

Next, the audience was keen to hear more about Nimai’s body building diet which he was happy to share – it turns out there is no magic involved. His Instagram page Vegan Body Building Food is dedicated to high protein vegan meal ideas, including all the macro break-down. There are some really cool recipes there such protein packed and nutritious salads, tofu scrambles, Buddha bowls and post-workout shakes. Thanks, Nimai!

Nourishing Buddha Bowls are a great way to get your daily protein in

Nimai also takes a number of supplements, including vegan protein powders with BCAAs to aid his recovery, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, iron, zinc, magnesium and he drinks black coffee.  Caffeine is the #1 legal performance enhancing supplement – athletes like it for its stimulating effects on the brain, for its weight loss benefits and most importantly for its mobilisation of fat stores to be used as fuel for working muscles.

What have I learnt from Nimai?

Nimai finished off his workshop with some top tips for aspiring athletes which really resonated with me:-

  • Know who you are and what you stand for – and always stay true to yourself.
  • Find what makes you unique and be proud of being different!
  • Know what you want to do and do what makes you happy. (Nimai has recently quit his corporate engineering job to pursue his dream of becoming a full time professional body builder).
  • Believe in yourself and your goals, even when others don’t.
  • Always have a plan – the saying is true: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail!
  • Hard work, sacrifice, and consistency pays off.
  • Go vegan – but make sure you do your own research so you can thrive on a vegan diet.

Well, this definitely proves that it is entirely possible to build muscle, get shredded and even compete at top level with some of the best in the world without eating meat, dairy and eggs!

Follow your dreams!

Top tips for building muscle on a vegan diet

Now that we have established that it is possible to build muscle on a vegan diet, the real question is how to go about it. Here are 3 top tips from one of my favourite fitness experts, Michael Matthews of Muscle for Life, about how to build a chiselled physique on a plant based diet. These nuggets of knowledge come from his article “This is the definitive guide to vegan bodybuilding every plant eater needs”:-

1. Prioritise your protein intake: numerous studies have proven that a high-protein diet is superior for building muscle and losing fat than a low-protein one. Research shows that optimal protein intake for bodybuilding is between 0.8 grams and 1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day.

2. Acknowledge that getting enough protein on a vegan diet takes a bit more thought and planning than an omnivorous one:  Even though you can get enough protein from plant based sources, they are naturally lower in protein than animal foods like meat, eggs, and dairy, so factor that in when you are looking at hitting your macronutrient targets.

3. Ensure you are getting enough high quality protein that is both absorbed well and rich in essential amino acids: Not all proteins are made equal, and especially not for building muscle! When it comes to evaluating a source of protein, you need to consider two things: a) how well the protein is absorbed by the body and b) its amino acid profile. For example, hemp protein is absorbed rather poorly by the body whereas rice and pea protein are absorbed quite well. This is important because eating 100 grams of hemp protein isn’t the same as eating 100 grams of rice and/or pea protein. The former has less muscle-building potential than the latter.

The truth is that the average Western omnivore’s common sources of protein (such as meat, eggs, and dairy) happen to be very well absorbed by the body and are very rich in essential amino acids (and leucine in particular), so this in itself makes the omnivorous diet very conducive to muscle growth. As we can see in Nimai’s example, it is entirely possible to build muscle on a vegan diet, BUT it does require a fair amount of careful planning, a really good understanding of the nutritional basics and getting most of your protein from high quality and diverse sources.

So, after all, there is only one question left…

What are the best plant based sources of protein?

Try to include these in your plant based diet plan:

  • Grains like wheat, brown rice, and oats;
  • Vegetables and legumes like peas, lentils, chickpeas, all kinds of beans (especially edamame and soy);
  • Nuts (and nut butters) like almonds, peanuts and walnuts;
  • Seeds like chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds, quinoa and buckwheat;
  • Soy based products like soy milk, tofu and tempeh;
  • Wheat gluten: seitan (often used to make ‘mock meats’);
  • Nutritional yeast (a deactivated type of yeast which is often used as a crumbly topping due to its cheesy-flavour);
  • Ezekiel bread and other breads made from sprouted grains;
  • Pasta and noodles made out of beans or chickpeas;
  • High quality protein powders (I swear by VivoLife which is specifically formulated to power sports performance and has no nasties in it).

Would you consider trying the vegan diet? If you are a vegan, what are your experiences with building muscle on a plant based diet?







Photo credits: Nimai Delgado’s Instagram page

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