Let’s cut to the chase. The short answer is yes, you can most certainly lose weight and build muscle on a plant based diet. The reality however is a little more complex. Losing fat and building muscle at the same time is a difficult process to go through and achieve results with, regardless of your nutritional preferences and whether you’re vegan or non-vegan. It’s not uncommon to hear talk of vegans struggling to build muscle due to their meat and dairy free diet. This is all based on the assumption and stereotype that most vegans don’t consume enough protein to build new lean muscle tissue.
Why is it so difficult to build muscle and lose fat?
Firstly, let’s break down why losing fat and building muscle at the same time is difficult. Reducing body fat, as a rule of thumb for most generally healthy individuals, comes down to creating a calorie deficit across an extended period of time.
Basically put, we’re talking about your body using more calories than you are getting from your daily nutrition. This process prevents the body from holding on to calories to store as fat and also forces the body to look for stored means of energy to use up. This results in fat burning.
You can also burn fat through steady state exercise or lifting weights in which you are working your body but not hard enough to pass into an aerobic zone, which is primarily using oxygen instead of potentially fat stores for fuel.
Both of the above can be tough. Monitoring your calorie intake and keeping yourself below your required threshold to burn fat requires willpower, discipline and constant, on-going assessment. To make things a little more challenging, if you are looking to build muscle at the same time, you’re putting yourself in a tough spot by being in a calorie deficit. The human body can and does use calories as part of the process of building muscle. So, if you’re in a deficit, you are making it harder for your body to build muscle fast.
Consuming protein as a vegan
For most individuals looking to steadily lose fat and build muscle, it’s a case of consistently hitting the happy middle ground - reaching your daily calorie requirements but with a protein rich diet that also has a balanced intake of essential fats and modest carbohydrates. Your calorie intake should also account for the gruelling training sessions you’ll be putting yourself through in order to facilitate the process.
It is an assumption and a stereotype that ‘vegans do not get enough protein to build muscular physiques’. This assumption is based on the foundation that the essential protein and BCAAs (branched chain amino acids), required as a major cornerstone of a lean muscle building diet, are not commonly present in a vegan diet. However, if you're keeping your calories low and not consuming 10 kilos of Broccoli per day, this is typically true.
Animal products (meat and dairy) are not only naturally high in protein but also BCAAs and as such, they naturally help facilitate the muscle building process. Meat also fills you up and requires more calories just to break down.
The reason protein is so vital for this process is not simply that it is needed for the production of new muscle tissue, but the presence of sufficient protein and amino acids can also prevent the body from breaking down muscle for use as energy. This increases the likelihood of burning fat - when combined with the right type of exercise.
Don’t ever let yourself be told that a plant-based diet full of vegan protein sources doesn't compare to the typical whey proteins out there. If you buy high quality vegan supplements, per serving you’re able to consume easily the same as most other whey proteins on the market and from protein sources including rice, hemp and pea which combined provide adequate bioavailable protein for the body.
Taking all this into consideration, yes of course you can lose fat and increase muscle mass as a vegan. The additional challenge for a vegan athlete to lose fat and see muscle growth is to bridge this gap in protein and amino acid consumption that a meat and dairy consuming athlete would more naturally have. This is where the vegan supplement market shines and ultimately makes it much more achievable for vegan athletes to achieve their body composition goals, through well-thought-out nutrition combined with strength training, consistency and ensuring they are getting enough daily grams of protein for their specific needs.
Conveniently consuming protein from the most bioavailable vegan protein sources throughout the day, in addition to a balanced vegan diet, can bridge the nutritional gap some vegans face. What’s more, they tend to taste a great deal better than a broccoli and kale shake. Don’t forget though, this is the process required but it also requires a serious amount of work and dedication to your training, even after you have nailed your supplements and nutrition!
Calculating your calorie intake needs
Losing fat requires a calorie deficit, however, will inevitably result in some muscle loss. The key to success is to continue building muscle while losing fat at the same time and being consistent with your nutrition. The calculator below will provide you with a guide to the amount of calories you need to consume in order to maintain, gain or lose weight.
It's about more than just protein
Building muscle or achieving body recomposition goals is about more than just increasing your protein intake and hitting the gym regularly. Nutrition is absolutely critical to your success and this means ensuring your body is getting just the right amount of protein to build muscle, maintaining a small calorie deficit over a sustained period of time and getting a good mix of healthy fats, carbs and fibre.
If you're serious about your goals we would strongly recommend consulting a qualified nutritionist.
Personal Trainer Tips
Personal Trainer, Symone English from RunMoveTone offers some key tips for anyone looking to start the process of trying to lose weight and build muscle while on a vegan diet:
- Plan ahead - always have your nutrition front of mind. A convenient protein shake is a great way to be prepared, but also have a small bag of nuts and seeds available for when you get peckish.
- A great way of increasing muscle while losing weight, aside from having a calorie deficit, is regular bodyweight exercises throughout the day. Try to grab 5 minutes every hour to do some bodyweight exercises, be that squats or lunges while waiting for the kettle to boil or press-ups every time an advert comes on.
- If you're unsure what exercises you should do and the frequency consult a personal training to build a training programme for you. Plenty of PTs now offer online training programmes as well as face-to-face, so find one that works for you.
- Use a calorie tracker app such as MyFitnessPal. This is essential if you want to make a difference - what gets measured gets changed.
- Most of all, have fun!