What to Eat if You’re Vegetarian/Vegan and Want to Build Muscle

When it comes to fitness, and especially weight training, there is always a big push for eating more protein. It has been preached for so long that we need extra protein to build muscle but that is only slightly true. If we eat a well-rounded diet with a focus on protein at each meal, we definitely don’t need to add more. 

But how does that work for vegans and vegetarians who so often get asked, “Where do you get your protein?” The answer is: everywhere. All plant sources of food, be it grainsor produce, provide amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. There are actually 20 amino acids used to make proteins in the body and 9 of them are essential –which means we must get them from our diet. When a food source contains at least all 9 of the essential amino acids it is considered a “complete protein”. Some examples are eggs, poultry, meat, dairy, and seafood. When you eat a complete protein it is what scientists call “bioavailable,” which means it is a food that easily allows your body to absorb and metabolize all the proteins it needs. 

A plant-based protein source, like legumes, is missing one of the essential amino acids  so it is not considered to be of high biological value because it is not a complete protein. This just means you have to eat other foods that contain that missing amino acid to get a complete protein. The best way to do this, if you are following a vegetarian or vegan diet, is to eat “combination” foods. Below are three complete protein food combinations for those on a vegan/vegetarian diet: 

  • Vegan – Grains (rice, barley, pasta, quinoa) and legumes (lentils, beans, peas): 
    • 1 cup of rice with 1 cup of lentil/veggie soup. 
    • A whole wheat pasta with veggies and a 1/3 cup of cannellini beans 
  • Vegetarian – Grains (pastas and cereals) and milk products (milk and cheese):
    • ½  cup of oats and  ½ cup of milk with a handful of fresh berries and another ½ cup of greek yogurt
    • 2 slices of cheese and a serving of whole wheat or seeded crackers. 
  • Vegan/Vegetarian – Seeds/nuts (pumpkin, sunflower, chia, almond) + legumes (peanuts, chickpeas, lentils):
    • For breakfast, you can make a fruit smoothie and add 1 scoop of peanut butter and 1 tablespoon  of chia seeds
    • Sweet hummus –  1 can of chickpeas, 1/3 cup of almond or peanut butter, 1/3 cup coconut sugar, ¼ cup of rolled oats, splash of almond milk, and a pinch of salt. Blend in a food processor until you reach a dough-like consistency and then fold in some dark chocolate chips. Pair 3 tablespoons of this on a few apple slices

Make sure that you pair at least one of these combinations at each meal OR consume at least one to two servings from each plant-based category (legumes, grains, seeds, and dairy) will provide you an adequate protein balance (depending on your dietary needs). Happy eating!

Lindsey Gass

Lindsey Gass, RD, LD/N is a registered dietitian in Miami, FL. With a bachelor’s degree from Florida International University, Lindsey has years of experience in clinical, sports, long term care, and community nutrition. Lindsey currently works in critical care at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where she provides nutrition support and participates in trauma research. Outside of her career, Lindsey is an avid runner and Nike run club pacer working towards qualifying for a Boston marathon. Follow Lindsey on Instagram at @lin.health for nutrition tips and tricks. Learn more about Youfit’s Registered Dietician