When it comes to building muscle, it takes two to tango. “First we need the stress of exercise to stimulate the need to build muscles, and then we need the extra protein to actually build the new muscle,” says Donald K. Layman, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus in the Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois.
So making sure your diet doesn’t skimp on this macronutrient is vital if you want to get the most out of your workouts. Plus, research suggests protein dulls your hunger, which is good news for your waistline. “When a higher proportion of calories come from protein, it minimizes the loss of muscle mass during weight loss, and helps drive the weight loss towards body fat,” explains Laymen.
But what if you prefer beans over beef? Can you still get all the protein your body needs to look and perform its best on a vegetarian diet? Worry not, tofu lovers. A recent Arizona State University study found no difference in measures of strength or endurance — or levels of lean body mass — in vegetarian athletes compared to meat eaters.
With some strategic planning, it’s entirely possible to power your muscles on plant protein. But first, you need to know how much protein is necessary to show your muscles some love. Read on to find out how you can gain without eating meat.
How Much Protein Do You Need to Gain Muscle?
If you’re hitting the weight room regularly, Laymen suggests shooting for about 1.5 grams of protein for every kilogram you weigh (that’s 116 grams for a 170-pound guy) to ensure the breakdown of your muscles doesn’t outstrip muscle protein synthesis, the driving force behind your gains. Endurance athletes should aim for 1.2 – 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight.
Now, the amount of protein you consume throughout the day makes a difference, too. Research suggests you should spread your intake throughout the day (roughly 20 to 35 grams per meal) if you’re looking to gain, says Laymen.
You’ll also want to be sure you’re getting a steady supply of the essential amino acid leucine, since it acts as the primary trigger to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. The more leucine a food contains, the better job it will do at stimulating muscle growth.
“I recommend that guys eat at least two meals each day containing 2.5 to 3.0 grams of leucine and about 8 to 10 grams total for the day,” says Laymen.
As a rule of thumb, animal-based proteins like chicken, beef, and yogurt have a higher protein quality score than their plant-based counterparts, including legumes and grains, because they are denser in leucine and other essential amino acids. “So while you can get enough protein from plants, you need to eat more total protein to compensate for their lower digestibility,” Laymen explains, meaning you absorb less protein per ounce when you stick to plant-based foods.
How to Get Enough Protein On a Vegetarian Diet
Vegetarians may have to work harder in the kitchen to get enough protein, but it’s not impossible to see the same results as meat-lovers. “It just means you have to eat a variety of protein sources, in high enough quantities, and spread them out throughout the day,” says Matthew Ruscigno, M.P.H., R.D., a vegan endurance athlete and chief nutrition officer at Nutrinic. Do so, and you should get a full roster of essential amino acids, he says.
A day of vegetarian eating means avoiding meat, but allows for eggs and dairy, so it’s a bit easier to get adequate amounts of high-quality protein than going fully vegan. A new wave of better designed plant-based protein powders contain isolated proteins — such as soy, rice, or pea — which Laymen says significantly increases their digestibility, making them a good addition to post-workout shakes or even stirred into oatmeal.
Legume-based pasta such as Cybele’s Free to Eat and no-meat products like Beyond Meat burgers that are tasty (we kid you not!) and no longer littered with preservatives are also helping to make it easier to get your fill of protein.
In fact, embracing Meatless Mondays may help you live longer. A large JAMA Internal Medicine study found that guys who consumed plant proteins like lentils and beans more often experienced lower rates of early death, particularly from heart disease. What’s more, a study in the Journal of Nutrition found that people who ate more plant protein consumed a wider variety of foods, which bumped their overall nutrient intake.
“Everyone can benefit from getting more fiber and antioxidants in their diet in the form of whole plant foods,” Ruscigno says.
The Best Vegetarian Protein Sources
There are plenty of good vegetarian protein options to fill your grocery cart with. These provide enough of a fit guy’s most-loved macro to meet the needs of a muscular 170-pound man.*
Almonds (2 Tbsp)
Eggs (1 whole)
Black Beans (1 cup cooked)
Cottage Cheese, 2% (1/2 cup)
Oats (1/2 cup dry)
Greek Yogurt, Low Fat (1 cup)
Green Peas (1/2 cup frozen)
Lentils (1/2 cup cooked)
Pumpkin Seeds (2 Tbsp)
Quinoa (1/3 cup dry)
Ricotta Cheese, Part-Skim (1/2 cup)
Soy Nuts (2 Tbsp)
Whey Protein Powder (1 scoop)
Leucine:2 – 2.5g
*Amounts calculated using the USDA food database
By Matthew Kadey, R.D.