How To Make Gains With A Plant-Based Diet

“I wanna be vegan but I wanna be jacked too”

Believe it or not, it is possible, but it’s not as easy as many believe.

Fortunately for you plant eating folks, this article will outline the vital strategies you need to employ in order to maximise muscle gain and ensure you can construct a plant-based diet that combats the anabolic downsides of a diet free from animal-based proteins.

The Game Changers rustled a lot of jimmies. Then the evidence-based community assembled together and rustled back with a number of critique articles to help settle some of the concerns and worries circulating among us meat-based viewers.

With the words “gladiators were all plant-based” still lingering on our lips, a new paper has been published with immaculate timing to not only reinforce our defence against The Game Changers production (which came and fell as quickly as What The Health I might add), but also to answer some outstanding questions which might still remain on the minds of those wondering if they really should order the Vegan Burger Pattie from Grill’d. 

One of those questions is, are plant-based sources of protein just as anabolic as meat-based sources? 

Now before we crack in, no one is trying to dismiss the claims that plant-based sources of protein have environmental, ethical and (some) health merits. However, in short, the answer to the above question is a resounding NO.

Plant-based proteins have less of an anabolic potential due to their poorer digestibility, lower amino acid content (especially leucine), and deficiency in other essential amino acids for skeletal muscle accumulation (e.g. lysine). This means plant amino acids are directed towards oxidation rather than being used for muscle protein synthesis.

But for the vegan readers, not all hope is lost, as I will discuss some of the strategies that we have at our disposal for improving the anabolic properties of plant proteins.

1. Increase total protein intake

It seems smart to consume larger quantities of plant-based proteins per meal as a means to potentially overcome their lower anabolic potential compared to animal proteins. In a previous study that showed wheat-protein per gram was inferior to whey protein for stimulating muscle protein synthesis, when the dosage of wheat-protein was increased three-fold it matched the anabolic response to the whey protein. In another study, 60g of wheat protein with a comparable leucine content to 35g of whey protein increased muscle protein synthesis similarly. However, as a side note, for individuals who have weak appetites, consuming the high quantities of plant proteins necessary to reach the same anabolic potential as a lower volume animal source may be difficult, and may compromise muscle gain efforts.

2. Supplementing with amino acids

We know that plant proteins are low in leucine content, and we know leucine is necessary for stimulating muscle protein synthesis maximally. Therefore, a leucine supplement seems like a viable option for vegans. In one study when a wheat protein was supplemented with leucine to match the dosage present in a protein-equated whey source, muscle protein synthesis was similar. In another study, fortifying a soy protein supplement with BCAA’s increased whole-body protein synthesis in the peripheral body compartments i.e. skeletal muscle.

Vegan diets are also notoriously low in lysine. In one study, when cereals were fortified with lysine, children participants (consuming a plant-based diet) showed significantly greater gains in height and weight. 

3. Protein blending with different plant-based sources

Cereal proteins which are deficient in lysine, and legumes which are deficient in sulphur amino acids actually have complementary amino acid profiles. So, theoretically mixing the two could “cover the bases” so to speak by compensating for the lower anabolic potential of these protein sources in isolation. While fortifying the EAA intake of the diet by combining multiple plant protein sources seems plausible in theory, the practicality of this strategy might be challenging. In particular, this strategy would require not only tracking of calories and total protein intake necessary for muscle gain, but also knowledge of the different EAA compositions of individual plant proteins, tracking of individual EAA intake daily, and identification when specific isolated EAA’s are deficient in one’s daily intake…and then selecting an appropriate complementary plant protein to remedy the deficiency. This strategy seems to be asking a bit much…considering most people have difficulties with accurately tracking protein and calories alone.

Chinese takeaways

For the TLDR’ers here’s what you need to know

  • Increasing protein intake leads to a positive acute muscle protein synthesis response and long-term improvements in muscle mass 
  • Increasing the quality of protein intake by improving amino acid composition could also compensate for the lower anabolic potential of plant-based proteins
  • There are some nutritional strategies for overcoming the anabolic challenges of a plant-based diet:
    • Increase total intake of plant proteins beyond typical research recommendations for muscle gain per meal
    • Fortify plant-based proteins with specific essential amino acids
    • Combine several plant protein sources together each day

And some other notes worth remembering

  • Evidence is lacking to support claims that a vegan diet is healthier than an omnivorous one
  • Not being vegan doesn’t mean low consumption of fruits and vegetables
  • No evidence that a vegan diet is better for physical performance than an omnivorous diet
  • Vegan diet requires more management and considerations to match the performance capabilities of an omnivorous diet
  • Vegan diets often lacking several micronutrients. Vitamin and mineral supplements may be required

Jackson Peos 

PhD (c)

Sports Nutritionist 




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