Vegan bodybuilding almost sounds like an oxymoron but more and more top athletes from a whole host of sports are starting to believe that a plant-based diet is best for their body. That includes bodybuilders and, in this article, we look at everything to do with vegan bodybuilding.
Whether you are looking for a vegan bodybuilding diet, questioning if the two things can possibly be compatible or just want to know who the best vegan bodybuilders are, we’ve got the lowdown.
Please also note that we are in no way offering medical or dietary advice in this article. Always consult your medical professional.
2 weeks out. Vegan bodybuilding for 18 weeks and by far my best condition and weight going into a show ever! pic.twitter.com/zKxaPn90bs
— Karl bruder (@karlbruder82) July 11, 2016
First of all, for all those haters and doubters who say it can’t be done, we thought we’d get straight into some hard proof by looking at some of the world’s best and most well-known vegan bodybuilders. These men and women prove that people who think you need to kill animals and eat pounds of chicken breasts and fish fillets in order to pile on the muscle are just plain wrong.
At present, there is no official vegan bodybuilding governing body or world championships. This is probably partly due to the difficulty in ensuring that all participants adhere to a vegan diet. However, equally, it is also down to the fact that vegans don’t need a championship of their own and can challenge and even win in competitions that are open to all.
On a related note, of course, we cannot be sure that the people on the following list are 100% vegan, let alone that their motives for being so are ethical. However, to the best of our knowledge (based on information available at the time of writing) here are some of the greatest vegan bodybuilders on the planet.
Karl Bruder switched to veganism in 2016 and has won various events around the world. Originally from Johannesburg, he finished sixth in WABBA Mr Universe and has been extolling the virtues of a vegan diet since seeing great personal results.
He was a speaker at Vegfest, a large vegan trade and media show and early on in his vegan journey said:
Now six months vegan and learning more than ever. As I gain more and more knowledge I am motivated to show the world that it is the best lifestyle to live with my physique as living proof that you can do it and do it better.
San Diego-born Derek Tresize has been vegan for more than 10 years and has competed in numerous bodybuilding events around the world. He was fifth in the 2017 WNBF Pro Universe (Pro Men’s Physique category) and won the 2017 NCP Jay Cutler Classic: Classic Physique Novice.
He has appeared in various TV programmes and magazines, such as Men’s Fitness, and is a real expert in vegan nutrition, boasting a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from Cornell University.
Jehina Malik made history in 2014 when she was awarded a Pro Card by the International Federation of BodyBuilding and Fitness (IFBB), becoming the first person who had been vegan from birth to achieve that accolade. Born into a vegan family she commented:
I never was curious or wanted to change my lifestyle as animals in my opinion were not meant to be eaten, animals have never been a food choice to me. What motivates me to continue being vegan is proving to the world that you can be strong and healthy without eating animals. I’m living proof!
SuzAnne Llano turned vegan in 2015 and has also earned the accolade of a Pro Card, in her case from the NGA, ANBF and NFF (various bodybuilding federations). She’s keen to stress that all of those were achieved as a vegan bodybuilder, having turned to veganism in part due to her partner’s strong ethical beliefs around animal cruelty and suffering.
There are so many other great vegan bodybuilders out there and, as with most things vegan, we only expect the numbers to grow and grow. These people prove it is possible; and now we’ll explain exactly how it is possible by looking in more detail at what these people and other vegan bodybuilders eat in order to facilitate their amazing physiques.
Can a Vegan Bodybuilder Get Enough Protein?
In our feature on vegan protein sources we list a whole host of great ways for vegans to get more than enough protein. If you know even the basics of vegan nutrition you’ll know that lentils, beans and legumes are all great options, whilst more obvious “meat substitutes” like tofu, seitan, vegan quorn and tempeh also offer loads of protein. Nuts and seeds are also fine sources, whilst bread, and grains, such as quinoa, spelt and teff (also known as Williams’ lovegrass), can also provide solid hits of vegan protein.
Seitan contains a whopping 25g of protein per 100g, which isn’t all that far behind a chicken breast (31g per 100g) and is actually a little more protein than you’ll find in a ribeye steak! As we say in our vegan protein article, an “average” vegan will certainly have no problems whatsoever getting their recommended levels of protein.
Reference Nutrient Intake
The Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) as listed by the NHS for protein in the UK is 50g per day based on an adult consuming a 2000 calorie diet. Speaking more specifically, it is suggested that adults should consume 0.75g of protein per kilogram they weigh. That means that an 11 stone (70kg) adult should consume around 52.5g of protein per day.
UK Protein Consumption
The British Nutrition Foundation put UK protein consumption at around 88g per day for men and 64g per day for women. Using different statistics, the Food Standards Agency’s Manual of Nutrition suggests protein consumption in the UK is around 17% of overall calorific intake.
Protein contains four calories per gram so based on the 50g per 2000 calorie diet recommendation, a figure closer to 10% would be better, although it is thought that consuming 17% of our calories as protein is unlikely to lead to any nutritional or health problems.
Do Bodybuilders Need More Protein?
When it comes to athletes and especially bodybuilders, weightlifters or those looking to increase their muscle mass, many advocate a far higher level of protein consumption. If you Google “How much protein to build muscle?” you will get more than 70 million results.
It would be exaggerating to say you’ll get 70m different answers, but you’ll certainly see a wide range of protein intakes advocated. Some argue that as much as 3g per kg of bodyweight is good and not at all harmful, others say that consuming over 2.2g won’t yield any better results and yet others advocate between 1.2g and 1.7g.
Limited Research Provides No Scientific Data
On the whole, the scientific research into this issue is relatively limited and is certainly far from conclusive. Even at the lower end of the scale, this sort of protein intake is still well above what the NHS are suggesting, with 1.2g 63% above the RNI of 0.75g. UK medical advice is not to consume more than twice the RNI as it is believed to be damaging to kidney function. However, it should be noted that the RNI refers to the level that should provide optimum health to 97.5% of the population.
It does not relate to what is appropriate for someone with specific needs (increasing their muscle) and following a very particular training programme. Protein is used by the body to grow and repair muscles and resistance (weight) training certainly puts extra demands on it.
There is no major reason for science to invest large sums of money to find the perfect level of protein for bodybuilders and weightlifters. As such, it is no real surprise that higher levels of protein consumption are not supported by a great depth of scientific research. However, anecdotally, just about any serious bodybuilder or weightlifter will tell you that high levels of protein are needed to put on the required muscle mass.
What Vegan Bodybuilders Say
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These are often people who spend much of their waking life thinking about how they can pack on more muscle. People who have experimented with different diets and training regimes in order to achieve their goals and people who share this information with one another.
Vegan bodybuilder, Jon Venus, recommends consuming 20% of overall calories as protein but this is very much at the lower end of the spectrum. Indeed, in the article linked to above, Men’s Health magazine say they “typically recommend … 30% from protein” and even the briefest investigation will uncover incredibly well-muscled individuals who advocate up to 50% of calories coming from protein.
Protein Amount Depends on Your Lifestyle & Goals
As already said, how much protein you consume will depend on your lifestyle and goals. The highest protein levels are usually recommended for those looking to lose fat, with 20% to 30% of calories being protein seeming to be a more typical range for most bodybuilders, most of the time.
Given mainstream medical advice in the UK is to avoid exceeding double the RNI, we would not advise consuming more than 20% of your calories from protein. Vegan bodybuilder Jon Venus has achieved great things on 20% and so it is certainly possible. That said, serious bodybuilders looking to compete at a high level should, in our opinion, do two things.
Always Consult a Professional
Always consult medical and nutritional professionals to discuss your goals. Excessive protein intake can definitely damage kidney function and cause other problems, so making sure you stay healthy for the long term has to be the biggest consideration. There are ways to reduce the potential risk of a very high protein diet and drinking lots of water is certainly one. Maintaining such a diet for short periods of time may also be wise, including some lower protein days is also a strategy advocated by some.
Secondly, much as it is crucial to be aware of what science can tell us, in areas where research is limited, a huge weight of anecdotal evidence cannot be ignored. As such, whilst many medical professionals claim that protein consumed beyond the RNI is simply excreted out in urine, the scores of well-muscled bodybuilders who eat high protein (vegan and non-vegan) diets suggests otherwise.
One final note on this which we would have hoped is obvious is that protein alone can’t create muscle. If you eat three plates of lentils and a large bag of almonds but don’t actually put the hours in lifting weights, you won’t magically develop the sort of bodies the vegan bodybuilders above have cultivated.
Vegan Bodybuilding Diet
If we work at somewhere around the mid-figures looked at above we can try to construct a vegan diet that should deliver the sort of protein levels needed for a vegan bodybuilder. Let’s stick with our 11 stone (70kg) man and use as broadly accepted (though quite non-specific) muscle mass calorie requirement of 35 calories per kilo.
Example of a 70kg Man
That gives a goal of 2450 calories per day. If we say that we are looking for around 20% of those to come from protein (four calories per gram) that means our golden number for protein is 123g. That equates to around 1.75g per kg of bodyweight. Now, that is slightly higher than the 1.5g that represents twice the RNI, so please do not take this as a recommendation from us. It is simply a reflection of much information from within bodybuilding circles and may help you increase your body mass alongside a structured exercise regime.
Okay, disclaimers disclaimed, the key question for us is how can we get this sort of protein in a vegan diet without resorting to eating seitan all day? Well, it’s actually relatively easy provided you stick to nutrient-dense foods that have few “wasted” calories and pack in lots of micronutrients alongside the protein.
Protein Plan: A Rough Guide
Let us consider a diet that consists of two snacks of around 10g of protein each, plus three meals a day. If we aim for a breakfast of 30g of protein, lunch of 30g and evening meal of 40g, alongside our two snacks we can consume our target of around 120g of vegan protein per day.
Please note that the following is suggested as a guide only with nutritional information drawn from a range of sources and based on a generic standard serving size (unless stated). This is only intended to show how you can obtain the stated amount of vegan protein and is not designed to meet other nutritional needs.
Breakfast – Approximately 30g of Protein
- Three slices of wholemeal toast with peanut butter and a berry and seed smoothie with almond milk or
- Three slices of wholemeal toast with two thirds of a can of baked beans or
- Tofu scramble with chickpeas, onions and broccoli
Lunch – Approximately 30g of Protein
- Two wholemeal pita breads with 150g houmous and a quinoa and nut salad or
- Large quinoa salad with edamame, corn, peas and walnuts or
- Falafel, hummus and toasted pita croutons salad with roast broccoli and kale
Evening Meal – Approximately 40g of Protein
- Mixed bean chili including 320g of beans with quinoa or
- Seitan burger with sweet potato wedges and seeded kale coleslaw or
- 3 vegan Quorn fillets with spicy tomato sauce, brown rice and edamame and sweetcorn salad
Snacks – Approximately 10g of Protein
- 40g of almonds and 40g of dried apricots or
- 90g of edamame dressed with lemon juice and chili flakes or
- 28g of vegan jerky
Vegan Protein Supplements
We have a full and detailed discussion of vegan protein powders, bars and other supplements and it is hard to argue that they aren’t a valuable tool for vegan bodybuilders. Whilst those not undertaking an extensive exercise regime can almost certainly get more than enough protein from natural and readily available foods, for bodybuilders, weightlifters and some other power-seeking athletes, these protein supplements can certainly prove a really useful option.
Much of the time, as shown above, even bodybuilders following a plant-based diet should be able to hit their protein goals. However, sometimes, a protein shake or bar can come in really handy, with the convenience and ease of consumption being two of their major advantages.
Plenty of nutritionists and sports science experts believe that consuming protein soon after your exercise is best for your body and muscle growth. If you go to the gym before work, on your lunch break or in the evening, consuming a large plate of beans and rice immediately afterwards just may not be possible. This is where some form of vegan protein supplement can come in really handy.
A vegan protein shake or bar is also a good option when you aren’t fully in control of your diet too, for example if you are on holiday or eating out or at a friend’s place. Asking a friend or relative to make something vegan is often challenging enough for many but asking them to make sure you hit your macros as well might just be a stretch too far!
Of course, there might be times when it’s a stretch too even when you’re preparing your own meals. If you’re pushed for time, don’t have much food in the house or simply fancy a change from a bulky, protein-packed plate of food, a quick vegan-friendly protein shake is an easy way to ensure you still hit your daily protein target. In addition, although vegan protein is almost always much cheaper than non-vegan, a protein shake is also a relatively cost effective way to up your overall intake, especially if you buy in bulk.
As we say in many of the nutrition-focussed areas of our site, for example, when we’re looking at vegan multivitamins, in an ideal world we would all get all of our micro and macronutrients from the food we consume. That should be possible for most people, most of the time. However, if you feel your diet would benefit, adding in the occasional supplement is certainly an option worth having.