There are many reasons to prioritize plants in your diet. To name a few: Evidence suggests that plant-based diets may promote immune health, reduce inflammation, support digestive health, and reduce your risk of diseases like diabetes. And, contrary to rumors, you can pack on muscle without devouring a juicy steak every night for dinner. Just ask famous plant-based eaters Tom Brady and Venus Williams.
Adding muscle mass and strength while eating plant-based necessitates some savvy, though. “It’s certainly possible to get stronger while eating only (or mostly) plants, but it does require you to be a little more aware of exactly how much and what you’re consuming,” explains dietitian and strength coach Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S., COO of ARENA Innovation Corp and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. Read on to learn exactly how to make your greens go the distance.
1. Calculate how many calories you need
Broadly speaking, the biggest mistake people make when trying to put on muscle mass is under-eating, Matheny says. And, because the higher fiber content of plant-based foods makes people feel full faster, research suggests that plant-based eaters may be especially prone to under-eating. While consuming fewer calories may be optimal for someone whose primary goal is weight loss, it’s certainly less than ideal for people on a muscle-mass mission.
“Calories, simply put, are energy for your body,” Matheny explains. You need to consume enough of them in order to have the energy to execute your workout routine with the intensity and chutzpah required to adequately challenge your muscle fibers, he says. It’s also a must for recovery. If you’re consistently sore from your workout protocol, chances are you’re under-eating.
Just how many calories should you eat to put on muscle? Probably more than you think. Most men need a 500-calorie surplus per day while women need an extra 300 calories to make it happen, according to the National Federation of Personal Trainers. Use the Mayo Clinic calorie counter or an app like MyFitnessPal to figure out how many calories you need to maintain your weight, then tack the surplus onto it.
2. Figure out your protein needs
All protein is made up of building blocks known as amino acids, which your body uses to build and repair muscle, as well as sustain digestion, maintain hair and nail health, and support your immune system, notes dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It. Without ample protein, your muscles are not able to repair as fully or efficiently (and research suggests you’ll also likely feel fatigued, moody, weak, and sick, to boot).
If you want to pack on muscle, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends consuming somewhere between 1.2 and 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which equates to 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For someone that weighs 160 pounds, that’s between 80 and 128 grams of protein per day.
That said, if you’re not making gains with consuming this amount of protein, you can increase your intake slightly. One 2016 study published in the journal Nutrients suggests it’s safe to consume up to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram—or one gram per pound of body weight—if you’re resistance training.
Of course, you also need to make sure you’re hitting your protein goals. Given the sheer volume of foods plant-based eaters need to consume to obtain the same amount of protein as those who eat animal foods, Taub-Dix recommends tracking your macronutrients using an app like MyFitnessPal. Indeed, while a meat-eater can get 30 grams of protein from just four ounces of chicken (about 250 calories), a plants-only eater would need to down two cups of edamame beans (about 380 calories) to get the same amount. “Tracking will give you a baseline understanding of what foods and how much of them you need to eat to meet your needs,” Bonnie explains.
3. Mix up your plant-based proteins
If you’ve ever so much as considered going plant-based, you’ve probably heard some chit-chat around complete and incomplete proteins. While complete proteins contain all nine of the essential amino acids the body needs but cannot produce (and in the right amounts), incomplete proteins do not, explains Matheny. And while animal-based proteins are complete proteins, most plant-based protein sources are incomplete. (The few exceptions to this rule include: Soy, quinoa, seitan, and buckwheat).
If you’re a plant-based eater who wants to maximize those muscle gains, you might think you need to stress about this—but, actually, you don’t! Really, you just need to consume enough of the essential amino acids throughout the course of the day, Matheny says. “While [most] plant-based sources don’t contain all of the essential amino acids, as general rule, if you eat a diverse assortment of higher-protein, plant-based foods each day, you will consume the all essential amino acids,” he explains.
For instance, an individual who consumes one serving each of whole grains, leafy green vegetables, seeds, nuts, and legumes on a given day will get all the amino acids they need, Matheny says.
4. Supplement with a plant-based protein powder
One way to get more plant-based protein into your body that doesn’t require any meal prep or planning: a protein powder. “Plant-based protein shakes are an easy way to get more protein into your diet,” says Matheny. As it goes, pea protein has the best amino acid profile of all plant-based protein powders, he adds.
Plant proteins come in all sorts of delicious flavors now, like Alani Nu’s Cinni Buns and Planta’s Banana Maple French Toast, but if you’re looking to stick to the classics, try Plnt brand’s Vanilla Pea Protein.
5. Re-define what it means to be plant-based
Plant-based is not synonymous with vegan or vegetarian. Rather, it’s an amorphous food term with a definition that varies from person to person. “Being plant-based can mean that you only eat plants, but it can also mean that the majority of your daily food intake comes from plants,” says Taub-Dix.
So, if you’re struggling to hit your overall daily calorie and protein intake goals— two common issues for people who exclusively eat plant-based eaters— she recommends taking a minute to really think about why you’re interested in being plant-based. Your incentive will help you figure out if you need to rule out animal-based proteins and products altogether, or if being a plant-forward pescetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian (a.k.a. a vegetarian who eats dairy and eggs) can help you achieve your goals with more ease.
6. Consider a B12 supplement
If you avoid all animal-based foods in your plant-forward diet, Matheny suggests getting your blood levels checked for B12, which doesn’t exist in any plant-based foods.
“Many vegans and vegetarians develop a B12 deficiency over time,” he says. Also known as cobalamin, vitamin B12 is essential for nerve function, mood stabilization, overall energy, and more. And, as far as muscle growth is concerned, “if you’re deficient in B12, you’re going to have a hard time mustering the energy to go heavy or hard during your workout,” Matheny says.
Read More: 9 Signs You’re Vitamin B12 Deficient
If you’re low and your provider gives you the green light, consider taking a B12 supplement.
7. Keep the big picture in mind
Muscle growth may seem like something only sports dietitians and fitness trainers understand. But actually, says Matheny, it can be distilled to the following: In order to put on muscle mass and strength, you need to challenge your muscles. Then, you need to help them recover through a combination of sound nutrition, sleep, and stress management so that they become even bigger and stronger, he explains.
The reason this is important to note? There’s so much more to putting on muscle mass or strength than whether you eat only (or mostly) plants—and how much you’re eating. Strength training (and doing so effectively), prioritizing sleep, and managing other lifestyle factors (hello, stress) also play huge roles. In fact, it’s plenty possible that factors outside of training and nutrition are holding back your gains, Matheny suggests. If your plant-based diet is on-point but you’re still feeling stuck, chances are you need to look into one of these other areas.