I had exactly the same question almost six months ago, and despite seeing evidence to the contrary online, I remained very skeptical that it was possible to see the same gains on a vegan diet as when eating meat and dairy.
However, I took up the challenge and over the past five months on a vegan diet I have gained 8.4kg (18.5lbs) of muscle whilst losing 2kg (4.4lbs) of fat, taking my bodyweight from 78.5kg (172.7lbs) to 84.9kg (186.8lbs) at 6’0″ tall, and body fat percentage from as high as 27.6% to 18%.
Here are my own experiences of how I built muscle on a vegan diet:
Following Tim Ferriss’ advice from The Four Hour Body I ensured I tracked EVERYTHING so that I could not only measure progress but make necessary adjustments as I went along.
– I took photos every month (not sure if I have the courage to share these online just yet!), and booked myself in for a bod pod at the start of every month to measure my muscle and fat percentages plus total bodyweight etc.
– Against Tim Ferriss’ advice I also put together an exact diet plan, with macronutrient breakdowns. I prepare my meals every morning, and yes, I weigh my food. Doesn’t work for some people, but for me it’s just always been the easiest way so I know what I’m putting in my body.
– Over the first month, courtesy of the 4HB, I followed Occam’s Protocol in the gym, essentially two workouts, with two exercises, lifting at a 5/5 cadence and going all out with maximum intensity.
I ate as much as I possibly could. Generally, people who aren’t gaining muscle from lifting aren’t eating enough. I did everything I could to ensure I wouldn’t be one of those people, and probably took it too far. My first month’s diet equated to 4,500 calories a day. As a vegan getting this from natural, unprocessed source, this is A LOT of food. Below is a photo of a day’s food during the first month. This is also missing one extra shake!
– My meal plan then looked like this:
5am: Shake with banana, mixed berries, hemp protein, linseed, hemp oil.
8am: Leek & Potato soup
11am: Quinoa, lentils and kidney beans mix with onions & peppers
1pm: Potato & kidney bean mash
3pm: Lettuce, kale and seeds/nuts salad
5pm: Quinoa, lentils and kidney beams
7pm: Shake pretty much same as above
Before bed: Peanut butter & almond milk
It was a crazy amount of food. I felt bloated constantly and wanted to be sick anytime I moved!
I ballooned in the first 30 days. It’s amazing how much you can change your body in a month. I gained 3.4kg of muscle, having not been in the gym more than 3 hours total over the course of the month. However, I also gained 7.3kg of fat! My bodyfat percentage went from 22.0% when I started to 27.6% a month later. I didn’t mind too much – figured I could lean out anytime, as long as I was gaining muscle.
– I used that priceless feedback to tweak my diet. Realising I was clearly eating way more than I needed i dropped the calories to around 3,700 (pretty much same food as above, just smaller portions). I also wanted to lift more in the gym – psychologically I wanted to feel as if I was working for it and transforming my body. I went to more of a bodybuilding split with a lot higher volume. That programme can be found here.
In the second month I gained another 3.3kg of muscle, but this time lost 2.1kg of fat. Result!
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? I stayed with the programme and same diet plan for the third month. I gained another 1.1kg of muscle, and lost 1.7kg of fat. Though I still saw gains, they weren’t as monumental as the first two months.
– I then began the phase I am currently in – trying to lean up quicker (I want to get to around 12% body fat) but continuing to gain muscle. I switched up the programme, doing Joe Defranco’s Westside for Skinny Bastards, Part III. This incorporated sprints for the first time, and I also dropped my calories to 3000.
– In that month I lost 2.4kg of fat…but also lost 0.2kg of muscle! Argh. First time I had a negative muscle month! But thanks to doing the bod pod, I had the data and knew I needed to make changes. So I did.
– I re-upped my calories to 3,500, but continued with the sprints twice a week, plus stair running twice a week. It seemed to work – this past month I gained 0.8kg of muscle and lost 3.1kg of fat!
My 3,500 calorie diet looks like this:
5am: Scoop of peanut butter
7am: Shake – banana, berries, pea protein, upgraded MCT oil, chia seed
12pm: Sweet potato and kidney bean mash
3pm: Salad – lettuce, kale, nuts, seeds, olive oil dressing
6pm: Another shake same as above
Before bed: Peanut butter & almond milk.
So that is where i currently am today. When we reach May it will officially be six months in and I’m pretty pleased with my transformation so far.
I guess the biggest things for me are the photos and bod pod measurements. They have been invaluable in letting me know what is working and not working so I can adapt accordingly. Of course, it hasn’t been cheap either. A bod pod costs me £40 a visit, plus the food bills during the first month were nuts (not so bad now).
It’s all about what you choose to spend your money on I guess. For me, the biggest investment I can make is in my own health and wellbeing.
I think the best thing you can do is experiment and see what works for you – just take your initial photos/measurements, and begin. Track everything and make changes accordingly.