How to embrace a plant based diet without sacrificing your strength and physique goals 

No longer on the fringe, or foraging out in the fields, vegan and plant based athletes are taking the world by storm. Moving away from the domain of endurance sports these plant based pioneers are breaking new ground in every sport and at every level – and the world of physique is no different.  

For years we’ve heard it all; “You can’t get enough protein on a vegan diet” or “Sure you can run a marathon but you can’t maintain your muscle mass eating like that” or “it’s impossible to get lean on a plan based diet.” Some of these ideas still permeate the fitness world despite the fact that they’re being proven wrong by more and more athletes every day and as that happens more and more people are being drawn to a plant based lifestyle.  

If you just happen to be one of these people, even if you’re just veggie-curious, we have some good news. We tracked down two of the leading experts on plant based physique development, Jehina Malik – the first ever life time vegan IFBB Pro and Jon Venus – plant based physique phenom and youtube star. Between these two experts we’ve distilled the most important lessons and principles you need to know about plant based muscle building and physique development so grab a green smoothie and let’s get started! 

The first thing that both our experts stressed was doing your research before jumping into a plant based program. It can be easy to get swept up in the excitement of a new idea, which is great, but both cautioned against diving in too early without making sure you understand how and where you’re getting all the nutrients you need. Of course protein is a big one, and we’ll get to that – don’t worry, but even more than that eating plant based isn’t as simple as just dropping meat and being done with it. As you transition your diet, which Jon highly recommends doing one step at a time, you want to allow both your body to adjust to new foods – or at least new amounts of some of the foods you’ll be shifting towards the core of your diet – as well as adjust mentally to looking at your plate and what you put on it in a different light.  

Now, speaking of protein, that’s always the big one on everyones’ mind when a plant based diet comes up. Interestingly this was a much smaller issue to our experts than you might guess. When you picture a muscular vegan it’s easy to assume they’re choking down veggie based protein shakes all day long but for both experts there might be a protein shake in their daily diet but they don’t rely on supplements any more than any meat eating athlete we’ve interviewed previously. So where is the protein coming from? Much like successful athletes in any domain they focus on the basics, lots of whole foods with a healthy percentage of their protein coming from legumes (beans, peas and lentils) as well as meat substitutes like tempeh and tofu and the occasional vegan protein shake provide them with more than enough protein – as their physiques clearly prove!  

And what about training? We can all imagine the skinny vegan spending hours on the treadmill or out running marathons – but what about a bodybuilding vegan? For both of our athletes the training routines they use really aren’t any different than the training you’d see any of their meat eating peers doing in the gym. Obviously they stressed that you have to make sure you’re training appropriately for the macros you’re eating and the goal you’re working towards – like any lifter – but when it comes to vegan lifting there was really no difference, except for one… 

From one of the world’s most famous vegan athletes, endurance star Rich Roll, to our vegan physique experts there is one significant difference that plant based athletes always note: faster recovery. That’s right, faster recovery. 

Where this comes from exactly is up for debate, it could be the lighter digestive burden of their diets, it could be the nutrient density, it could be the combinations of foods that they’re commonly eating – it could be a mix of these or something different entirely! Whatever it is plant based athletes, and those who switch to plant based programs, always notice that they’re bouncing back quicker from their training sessions. This is especially interesting due to the industry wide focus on protein, protein, protein after every workout and how little we associate that with a plant based diet but when it comes to vegan athletes like Jehina and Jon the evidence is impossible to ignore and if you’re tempted to experiment with the lifestyle this enhanced recovery ability might just be the push you need to give it a shot! 

But what about the disadvantages of a vegan diet? The biggest thing we’ve learned talking to these two was that you get out what you put in when it comes to doing your homework before starting a plan like this. Rushing into a plant based diet without doing the research? The results can range from major digestive distress, to food intolerance, to (maybe worst of all) losing some of the muscle you’ve worked so hard for! 

Clearly you understand the importance of doing your research and finding what works for you but, just for curiosity sake, what could a vegan day in the life look like? Luckily Jehina was open to sharing an average day in her diet life. As with all competitors she was quick to mention that based on where she is in relation to upcoming contests or where she’s at in her off-season things can change quite a bit but this is a fairly normal day of eating for her: 

Meal 1: Rolled oats with cinnamon, agave, peanut butter and some almond milk 

Meal 2: A large lentil or chickpea soup with a large side of veggies, of course 

Snack: A large apple with peanut butter 

Meal 3: Two slices of spelt bread with avocado, tomato and daiya cheese 

Post Workout: A pea protein shake, vega sport or a green protein bar 

Meal 4: A giant green salad with cucumber, kale, spinach, pepper, onions with vegan “chicken” slices and nutritional yeast. 

What about a vegan muscle building diet?  

Meal 1: 1/2 cup steel cut oats with pea protein powder topped with 1 TBSP ground flax seed or nut butter and two pieces of fruit.  

Snack: 1 cup low-sugar cereal, 1 piece of fruit, small handful of nuts, 1 cup high protein nut-milk.  

Meal 2: 1 portion of a plant based meat substitute, 2 cups of steamed veggies, green peas, 1 cup of any grains and half of a sweet potato.  

Meal 3: 1 portion of a plant based meat substitute, a large green salad, 1 cup of any grains and the second half of the meal 2 sweet potato.  

Night time snack: 1 scoop pea protein, 1 cup any berries. 

Are you thinking what we’re thinking? What about the beans?! Curiously neither of our physique titans put the emphasis on beans that you would stereo-typically expect with a vegan diet and we didn’t stress them in our example plans for a single reason: they’re definitely not for everyone. Beans are a phenomenal source of protein and nutrition but not everyone can handle the digestion that comes along with beans the same. Clearly, looking at Jon and Jehina, you can see that beans don’t need to be the core of your diet to have a great vegan physique but if you’re comfortable eating them then definitely don’t shy away especially because something as simple as a bean and rice mix provide a complete protein. 

Last but not least, if this has sparked an interest for you, where do you go from here? Both of our vegan physique titans stressed the same advice here as well. Take things slow, do your research, experiment and see what works for you and find a mentor. This could be someone you work with personally like Jehina’s coach Paul McClarin or it could be finding someone you admire Like Jon on social media or youtube. Regardless it’s important to embrace this as a process, it’s not simply a diet it’s a way of life – and one you can clearly live while being strong, muscular and lean!