How to Build Muscle on a Healthy Vegetarian Diet

This post has been updated with more accurate recommendations based on the dietary limitations of various kinds of vegetarianism.

Your Questions
Your Questions

I get plenty of questions in various comments throughout the website, but I also get comments and questions via the Project Swole Contact Form.

Generally I address those questions through e-mail, but often I do not have the time to reply to each and every question personally.

From now on I want to take a more proactive approach to answering Your Health Questions by posting them separately in the blog. This way we can be sure that everyone benefits from the Q & A.

Chris wrote:

“I’m just over 6 ft and weigh about 185lb. I am a vegetarian and workout 3/4 times per week. I want to both tone up/lose body fat and gain strength/size. The gym I go to has given me a programme of 2 strength sessions and 2 toning sessions per week, with 20 minutes cardio each session and 1 additional 45 minute cardio session.

My questions are:

  • am I on the right lines?
  • how much protein should I be eating?
  • and how on earth do you get the levels that I think you are going to recommend from a veggie diet (I do eat fish)?

Thanks in advance!”


Response:

Update: What you can’t eat if you are a vegetarian.

First of all, I have recently been enlightened regarding the foods vegetarians are not allowed to eat, and if you want to call yourself a ‘vegetarian’ you are technically not allowed to eat fish.

Secondly, if you are a lacto-vegetarian, you can drink milk and eat dairy products; lacto refers to dairy. This is true because harvesting those products does not results in harm to animals.

Thirdly, if you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian, you can consume dairy products and eggs; ovo refers to eggs.

Finally, if you are a vegan you can’t eat anything that comes from animals including eggs, milk, cheese, butter, and even honey.

Therefore, choose which kind of vegetarian you want to be before you continue this effort to gain muscle.

How to Workout

Regarding exercise, the gym you go to is full of crap. I don’t know what these ‘toning sessions’ are, but I already disagree with them.

Which do you want to do more: gain strength/size or “tone up”/lose body fat? You are going to need to choose one or the other. Figure out what your primary goal is and stick with it, because you can’t effectively do both at once.

How to Gain Strength & Size

To focus on gaining, you will need to eat more protein, more complex carbs, and more overall calories. Calories consumed should be higher than calories burned.

Try multiplying your desired bodyweight by 14 and eat that many calories each day. Adjust that number based on whether you are gaining weight too quickly or too slowly. One pound gained per week is the safest number to avoid gaining too much fat.

You will need to train heavy.

Consider following a generic full body workout routine. Lift 4 times a week and throw in 1 or 2, 30 minutes sessions of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) for cardio. The HIIT workouts can include sprints of any sort or short duration maximal intensity complexes such as 5 sets of 5 reps with a 5 movement Olympic lifting complex.

For example a deadlift, followed by a hang clean, followed by a push press, followed by a back squat, followed by a push press behind the head, then put the bar back on the floor – that’s 1 rep, do 5 without rest. Rest 60-90 seconds and do it again, repeat 5 times.

How to Lose Fat

To focus on losing fat, you will need to eat fewer carbs, moderate fat, moderate protein, and keep calories consumed less than calories burned.

Multiply your desired bodyweight by 13 and eat no more than that many calories each day. If after one week you haven’t lost 2 pounds, subtract 100 calories from that number and try again. You will still need to train heavy in order to keep your muscle mass and strength.

You should be lifting 3 times a week with an additional 2-3, 30-45 minute cardio sessions. These should not all be full blown endurance cardio sessions, as endurance cardio eats up muscle mass like no other. You can try a HIIT session, an endurance session, and maybe a circuit training session where you do 30 reps of a bunch of exercises back to back with very little rest between sets.

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How to Get Protein as a Vegetarian

To get the required nutrients you’ll need on your vegetarian diet, you are going to have to increase your intake of nuts, beans, peas, and other legumes.

Do you eat dairy products? Those are good too.

I personally don’t eat half of this stuff, and if you are a guy you shouldn’t eat anything with large amounts of soy either, but here is a list of common vegetarian foods and their protein content:

FOOD AMOUNT PROTEIN (gm) PROTEIN
(gm/100 cal)
Tempeh 1 cup 41 9.3
Seitan 3 ounces 31 22.1
Soybeans, cooked 1 cup 29 9.6
Lentils, cooked 1 cup 18 7.8
Black beans, cooked 1 cup 15 6.7
Kidney beans, cooked 1 cup 13 6.4
Veggie burger 1 patty 13 13.0
Chickpeas, cooked 1 cup 12 4.2
Veggie baked beans 1 cup 12 5.0
Pinto beans, cooked 1 cup 12 5.7
Black-eyed peas, cooked 1 cup 11 6.2
Tofu, firm 4 ounces 11 11.7
Lima beans, cooked 1 cup 10 5.7
Quinoa, cooked 1 cup 9 3.5
Tofu, regular 4 ounces 9 10.6
Bagel 1 medium 9 3.9
Peas, cooked 1 cup 9 6.4
Peanut butter 2 Tbsp 8 4.3
Veggie dog 1 link 8 13.3
Spaghetti, cooked 1 cup 8 3.7
Almonds 1/4 cup 8 3.7
Soy milk, plain 1 cup 7 7.0
Soy yogurt, plain 6 ounces 6 4.0
Bulgur, cooked 1 cup 6 3.7
Sunflower seeds 1/4 cup 6 3.3
Oatmeal, cooked 1 cup 6 4
Whole wheat bread 2 slices 5 3.9
Cashews 1/4 cup 5 2.7
Almond butter 2 Tbsp 5 2.4
Brown rice, cooked 1 cup 5 2.1
Spinach, cooked 1 cup 5 13.0
Broccoli, cooked 1 cup 4 6.8
Potato 1 medium 4 2.7
Optimum Nutrition Protein Powder
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Five to six moderately sized meals containing some of this stuff, plus a protein shake, will give you 130 or more grams of protein each day.

I highly recommend you get yourself some Optimum Nutrition protein powder to supplement with daily. I suppose if you don’t eat dairy, you might not want this stuff since it’s whey protein, but seriously just get the protein powder so you can build some muscles, eh?

As a vegetarian you can definitely build muscle, but you will have to eat lots of beans, nuts, and some of those crazy foods listed above to do it.

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11 Responses to “How to Build Muscle on a Healthy Vegetarian Diet”

  1. Thank you for this. I am a Long time vegetarian & under weight. At 6′ I weigh 130lb. Granted I am female & like having a light and tight body, friends & family have stressed that i should gain weight. That brought me to find your Question & Answer. I have the body of Kate Moss but want to look like Geisel Bunchen. Any extra advice?
    Cheers

    • Zya:
      I don’t see how you have any options but to eat moderate quantities of healthy food and do some weight training. How much do you want to gain? 10 lbs? 20lbs? At 6′ you could probably weight 150 lean and tight with some decent muscle mass and look phenomenal. Maybe 140 is more realistic. Once you start weight training and adding muscle to both your upper and lower body, I’m sure you will fill out quite nicely.

  2. The Vegetarian Society, the oldest vegetarian organisation in the world, states, “A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacea, or slaughter by-products.”

    The Vegetarian Society Seeding Symbol, the only legally registered trademark for vegetarian accreditation, has NEVER approved ANY product with fish in it.

    So Steve, if someone eats fish they are not vegetarian no matter what they claim. Sorry.

    It’s worrying that a sport nutritionist would give advice to vegetarians which is so misleading.

    • Gregg:
      OK, you guys have made your point. I have been told by people claiming to be vegetarian, “I am a vegetarian, but sometimes I eat fish.” I was going on the assumption that vegetarians who don’t eat fish, wouldn’t take offense to this. Clearly I was wrong. Since technically you can’t call yourself a vegetarian if you eat fish, I will go back and revise this article to remove the offensive references to fish. Thanks to everyone who made a ruckus about this article.

  3. Thanks Steve for your response. Now getting back to the original point of your article. If your main goal is to lose fat whilst minimising muscle loss, do you recommend doing the cardio sessions on the same day as the lifting sessions? I’ve seen very conflicting advice on this.

    • In that case Gregg, I recommend doing High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) on days when you are not lifting. Or if you lift at night, you could do your HIIT in the morning.

  4. For goodness sake! Being a vegetarian doesn’t have rules! It is a term used for convenience sake. Its not a relegion. If you eat fish, good on you, you’ll be stuck on protein elsewhere. Anyone who declares superiority over none vegetarians should be ashamed. As valiant a step as it is, there are bigger issues in life.

    From a vegetarian who eats fish.

  5. “vegetarians who eat fish” is not “offensive,” just incorrect

    it’s like saying “reptiles with hair” — it just doesn’t exist!

    if you eat fish, no matter what you call yourself — you are NOT a vegetarian.

    i do applaud your sensitivity to the issue though, steve. thank you for the corrections.

    freddy — get over it, you are not a vegetarian. why would you want to call yourself a vegetarian if you haven’t paid your dues? it’s like saying you’re a marine when you’re just a mall rent-a-cop who never went to boot camp.

  6. Thank you, very useful. I wasnt actually a big fan of Spinach for many years ( lie, I hated the stuff), but after shacking up with a vegetarian I kind of had to put up with it, and have gradually come to totally love the stuff. Spinach curry is undoubtedly my absolute favourite! I even found an entire spinach recipes website which is my new favourite site now, you should have a look!

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