building muscle on a vegetarian diet

Building Muscle on a Vegetarian Diet

Chicken breast and broccoli.
That’s the quickest food route to being the bro with the biggest biceps, right?
Sure – if you’re ok with eating lots of meat.


But what if you aren’t? What if it’s important to you to avoid harming animals? What if you care just as much about Bambi as you do the size of your biceps?

Can you be jacked and lean AND meat-free?

Bro science and the paleo community might answer with a resounding “No!” in between bites of steak and pot roast.

After all, most diets designed to build or maintain muscle mass include a daily protein intake somewhere around 1g/lb of body weight.

Most people assume it would be hard to get that kind of protein from a meatless diet.

This is a lie, and comes from a misunderstanding of just how much protein you can get as a vegetarian.

The truth is, yes, you can build a bounty of muscle, and eat a bounty of protein, without meat.

First, though, let’s talk about what a vegetarian is.

What is Vegetarianism?

Short answer: the practice of not eating animals.

Long answer: There are several varieties of vegetarianism. You need to figure out which variety will best work for you.

Let’s clarify what isn’t vegetarianism before looking at the different varieties of it. You know your friend, the one who tells people she’s a vegetarian when she orders salads for lunch but then has chicken breast for dinner on the weekends?

Not a vegetarian.

Or your coworker who eats meat-free all day and then has fish for dinner?

Not a vegetarian.

Vegetarians eat no animal flesh – no meat, no poultry, no seafood.

building muscle on a vegetarian diet

Vegetarians eat no animal flesh – no meat, no poultry, no seafood. Image courtesy of The Art of Unity.

Beyond that common feature, however, there are 3 distinct types of vegetarians:

LACTO-OVO VEGETARIANS eat milk and egg products, but no meat, no poultry, and no seafood.

LACTO-VEGETARIANS eat milk products, but no eggs, no meat, no poultry, and no seafood.

VEGANS eat only hemp.

Just kidding.

Vegans eat no animal products at all – no milk products, no eggs, no meat, no poultry, no seafood. They don’t eat animal-derived products either, including honey and gelatin.

Vegans have a lot of protein options, like whole grains, beans, soy, and hemp, but not all of those protein sources contain all 9 essential amino acids.

These are the ones your body cannot make and must therefore get from foods. Vegans can get around this, however, by eating foods with complementary proteins, like rice and beans, which provide all the essential amino acids when combined.

Veganism is the most restrictive form of vegetarianism, but you can still get a lot of protein on a vegan diet.  If you only object to eating meat but not milk or dairy, then lacto-ovo vegetarianism is probably the best choice for transitioning to a meatless diet.

Great, so you can just eat cottage cheese and eggs all day, right?

Maybe. But that sounds awfully boring.

And relying on traditional vegan protein sources, like rice and beans, could prevent you from getting lean by providing more carbs than you need.

building muscle on a vegetarian diet

Relying on traditional vegan protein sources, like rice and beans, could prevent you from getting lean by providing more carbs than you need. Image courtesy of Chapman Crew.

To get just 20 grams of protein in at one meal of brown rice and black beans, for example, you would have to eat 1 cup of black beans and 1 cup of cooked brown rice, which have 77 grams of total carbohydrates.

77 grams of carbs might not be a lot in one meal for a really big guy who’s already eating 250 or more grams of carbs in one day, but what if you’re not that big? What if you’re a smaller guy? Or a woman?

And what if you need more than 20g of protein in a meal?

There are three factors to consider when choosing good proteins sources as vegetarian:

  1. Getting a variety of protein sources to avoid boredom
  2. Getting all 9 essential amino acids
  3. Getting protein sources that are lower in carbs

Here are the best vegetarian protein sources that fit that bill.


The best protein sources for carb-conscious vegetarians in the dairy aisle are low-fat cottage cheese and nonfat plain greek yogurt.

These two dairy foods have similar nutritional stats:

  • 1 cup of low-fat cottage cheese contains anywhere from 22 to 32 grams of protein and 8 to 12 grams of carbs, depending on the brand.
  • 1 cup of plain nonfat greek yogurt contains 20 to 25 grams of protein and 6 to 12 grams of carbs, depending on brand.

All dairy contains all 9 essential amino acids. As long as you avoid sugary dairy products, like fruited cottage cheeses and dessert-flavored yogurts, you can avoid cutting carbs from other places in your diet to account for these protein sources.

Tip: If you can’t tolerate the texture of cottage cheese, try a whipped variety, which tends to have a smaller curd size, or whip your own by blending cottage cheese until smooth.


Whole eggs and egg whites are both complete proteins, containing all 9 essential amino acids.

And both egg whites and whole eggs are ultra-low in carbs:

  • Whole large eggs contain about 6g of protein and 4 to 4.5g of fat each with virtually no carbs.
  • Egg whites, the kind you get by separating the white from the yolk yourself, contain no fat and 3+ grams of protein per white.
  • Liquid egg whites, the kind you buy already separated in a carton, contain 5g of protein per 3 tablespoon serving with minimal carbs and no fat.

Don’t automatically throw away your egg yolks to avoid the fat. There are valuable nutrients in the egg yolk that vegetarians cannot get from other vegetarian protein sources – like choline and vitamin B12.

building muscle on a vegetarian diet

There are valuable nutrients in the egg yolk that vegetarians cannot get from other vegetarian protein sources. Image courtesy of Huffington Post.

Rather, find a way to accommodate a few egg yolks in your diet to keep your mineral and vitamin intake aligned with healthy standards.

Tip: If eating too many eggs causes you any – ahem, “stinky” – gastrointestinal distress, try a different cooking method. Boiling and frying are both known to retain or increase the natural sulfur content of eggs, while scrambling may help minimize it.


Soy is one of the few plant proteins to contain all 9 essential amino acids. Before we look at tofu as a soy product, let’s get a few things out of the way about soy in general:

Soy will not give you man boobs.

The phytoestrogens in soy are weaker than human estrogens. Taken in the context of soy as a whole food containing many isoflavones, the phytoestrogens are not significant enough to cause a change in breast density (Kurzer).

Evidence also suggests soy in general might be slightly protective against recurrent breast cancer (Nechuta et al.). The hormonal effects of soy on both men and women are small but generally advantageous (Kurzer).

So if you have man boobs, it’s likely from simple overeating, not soy.

Tofu is a curd – like a cheese – made from mashed soybeans, hence why it is sometimes called “bean curd.” It comes in several varieties of firmness, but the most protein-dense form is plain extra firm tofu, the kind that comes packed in blocks submerged in water.

building muscle on a vegetarian diet

Tofu takes well to several cooking options, as well, such as grilling, baking, and stir-frying. Image courtesy of Food Network.

Extra firm tofu has a solid protein content:

  • One half of a typical 14-oz block of extra firm tofu contains 20 grams of protein, 8 grams of fat, and 4 grams of carbs.
  • Most readily available tofu is made using a coagulant that contains calcium, and some tofus can contain up to 43% of your RDA of calcium.
  • Some tofu is made via fermentation, and while not readily available in many stores, fermented tofu can provide additional health benefits from the bacteria used in the fermentation process.

Tofu is mostly flavorless unless you purchase it pre-marinated, which you can easily find in most stores. It takes well to several cooking options, as well, such as grilling, baking, and stir-frying.

Tip: To make tofu’s texture meatier, drain it well. Remove it from the water in which it is packed, slice it into 4 chunks, wrap it in several paper towels, and place it under something heavy, like a full tea kettle, for 1-2 hours. This will drain the moisture from it, resulting in tofu that holds its shape and has a firmer texture. For an even denser texture, freeze your tofu, then defrost and drain as suggested above.


Tempeh is traditionally soy-based, but you can also buy tempeh made from whole grains and a blend of soy and grains.

Tempeh is a pressed cake made from cultured soybeans. It is firmer than tofu, has a nuttier flavor, and is quite high in protein:

  • One 3 ounce serving of soybean-only tempeh has 17g of protein, 7g of fat, and 9g of carbs.
  • While higher in carbs than tofu, tempeh still packs a greater protein punch for fewer carbs than the traditional vegan rice and beans option.

When buying tempeh, look for one made from soybeans and no added grains to keep carb totals lower.

Tip: Tempeh can be eaten without any cooking after, but it also takes well to steaming, baking, and stir frying.


TVP stands for textured vegetable protein, and it is a somewhat controversial food amongst “clean” eaters.

Looking at TVP’s ingredient list, it’s hard to understand why this food might cause controversy. Its only ingredient is defatted soy flour.

The process of making TVP, however, is where some people take issue with it as a health food. TVP is made via thermoplastic extrusion, a highly industrial process, and many TVP products are defatted using hexane. It is unclear how much hexane might remain in foods processed in this way, because the FDA does not monitor hexane levels.

However, soy producers say that hexane is only used in the initial processing and very little of it remains in the finished product.

building muscle on a vegetarian diet

TVP comes packaged as a dry granule, almost looks like a small grain, and needs to be reconstituted with liquid before eating. Image courtesy of Iowa State University.

TVP comes packaged as a dry granule, almost looks like a small grain, and needs to be reconstituted with liquid before eating. Its nutritional value is good for vegetarians seeking a meat-like protein source:

  • ½ cup dry TVP contains 24g of protein, no fat, and 14 carbs, of which 8g are fiber.
  • Reconstituted TVP resembles ground beef or ground turkey.

TVP is a good option for recipes requiring a loose ground meat, like chilis and soups.

Tip: Want to avoid the hexane processing? Buy a TVP that is certified organic. Hexane is not allowed in organic food manufacturing.


Seitan is made from vital wheat gluten, so if you can’t eat gluten, you can’t eat seitan.

Other than being made from wheat gluten, seitan bears no resemblance to traditional wheat foods like bread and pasta:

  • A serving of seitan, just under 3 ounces, has just as much protein as an equivalent serving of chicken breast at 21 grams.
  • One serving of seitan also has 2g of fat and 4g of carbs.

The only problem with seitan, other than its gluten content for those who cannot eat it, is that it is an incomplete protein. It is the only protein on this list to not have all 9 essential amino acids.

building muscle on a vegetarian diet

Soy sauce is an easy flavoring agent for seitan. Image courtesy of Tofu for Two.

This is easy to fix, though, without adding extra carbs. Soy sauce is an easy flavoring agent for seitan, and the soy sauce provides the missing amino acid needed to make seitan a complete protein.

Tip: Look for a seitan product that already has soy sauce in it, as many of them do. That way, you won’t have to worry about whether your seitan is a complete protein source.


Whey isn’t the only game in town, though whey proteins are vegetarian.

Vegetarians can also look to other protein powders such as:

  • Brown rice protein powder
  • Pea protein powder
  • Casein protein powder
  • Egg white protein powder

Like any other food, you still need to watch out for a carb to protein ratio that fits your needs.

In general, though, you can find most of the above protein powders with nutrition stats that boast:

  • Protein totals between 12 and 25g per serving
  • Carb totals <5 g per serving
  • Fat totals <2 g per serving

While non-whey protein powders will have a different taste and texture than you might be used to, many of them mix well in plain water and bake even better than whey does.

Just like whey proteins, read the label. Make sure you know what you’re buying by checking the ingredient list.

Tip: Try a protein powder blend rather than something made purely from one of the above protein sources. If pea protein is too gritty for you, or if egg white protein tastes too eggy, a blend might fix those issues.


Fake meats are highly processed, and many of them contain TVP, even if the label calls it something else. If the way TVP is made bothers you, fake meats are even worse.

If you have no problem with the processing, though, fake meats should be selected on a product-by-product basis. Read the label to ensure you can meet your protein needs without overdoing it on carbs or fats. Many fake meats – especially veggie burgers – are made with lots of grains, such as brown rice or oats. This means that protein levels and carb contents vary widely by product.

building muscle on a vegetarian diet

Fake meats should be selected on a product-by-product basis. Image courtesy of Grub Street.

Nuts and seeds do have protein, and some of them, like hemp seeds, are a complete protein source.

Practically speaking, though, if you need to eat more than 20 grams of protein in one meal, nuts and seeds aren’t going to be the lowest calorie choice.

You can, however, supplement some other vegetarian protein sources with nuts and seeds – like eating hemp seeds with your greek yogurt – and still keep to your diet.


There are a few helpful supplements a vegetarian should probably take, especially a vegetarian trying to get or stay jacked:

  • Creatine
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin B12 (only likely to be needed if you go vegan)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (can be supplemented or eaten via walnuts, flax, chia, etc.)
  • Optional: BCAAs

The average adult gets around 1 to 2 grams of creatine from food daily – but that’s from meat. While your body does make its own creatine, vegetarians get none from their dietary protein sources. Supplementing with creatine is a must for a muscle-building veggie.

It’s also hard, even for meat eaters, to get the required intake of Vitamin D each day. The foods naturally highest in Vitamin D are seafoods – cod liver oil is the highest – and most people don’t eat enough seafood on the daily to cover those needs. Even eating dairy, which is fortified with D, might not get you to your required needs.

Vitamin B12 is available to vegetarians in dairy and eggs, but if you don’t eat them regularly, you could still need to supplement this one as well.

building muscle on a vegetarian diet

Omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood and fish oil are not the same as those found in plant sources. Image courtesy of The Healthy Reporter.

Omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood and fish oil are not the same as those found in plant sources. Fish oils contain both EPA and DHA, the two most crucial fatty acids for humans, while plant sources contain ALA, a shorter chain fatty acid that the body can convert to EPA and later to DHA. Vegetarians can get ALA from flaxseeds, walnuts, linseed, chia, and several other plant sources, but the conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA in the body can be inconsistent.

Vegetarian omega-3 supplements derived from marine algae can be used to supplement.

Some vegetarians might additionally need to supplement other vitamins and minerals, but those needs are highly individualized.


Anyone who wants to be, really, with a few caveats.

You should not be vegetarian if:

  • You genuinely enjoy meat and would miss it. There’s no reason to give up meat if you like it, and it is mentally far healthier for you to eat foods you enjoy than attempting to choke down substitutes that aren’t as satisfying. Besides, you don’t want to find your face at the bottom of a bucket of chicken wings because you snapped and went on a meat-eating binge.
  • You cannot tolerate very many vegetarian protein sources. The proteins listed above are great proteins, but they are not for everyone. Many of them, like dairy, eggs, soy, and gluten, are among the most highly allergenic foods, and they are among the foods most likely to cause sensitivities as well. You need a variety of proteins in your diet to ensure overall health. If you restrict your diet to a single protein source, or if your proteins do nothing but make you feel bloated and fat, all your hard work on your physique might start to feel pointless.

You could, however, consider being vegetarian if:

  • You’ve never really enjoyed meat all that much anyway.
  • You’re already eating half or more of your proteins from vegetarian sources.
  • You have no intolerance to dairy, eggs, soy, or gluten.
  • Your concern for animal welfare genuinely outweighs any pleasure you derive from meats.

Just remember that there is no one best diet for everyone. Being a vegetarian might be right for you but not for the guy benching pressing next to you.

But just because you’re vegetarian doesn’t mean you can’t challenge that guy to a flex off – and win it.

About the Author

building muscle on a vegetarian dietKristen Perillo is a teacher, personal trainer, and nutrition coach. She works with clients both online and in-person to help them lose weight, change their relationship with food, and achieve real results without unrealistic methods. She can be found online at Following Fit.

Kurzer, Mindy S. “Hormonal Effects of Soy in Premenopausal Women and Men.” The Journal of Nutrition 132.3 (2002): 570-73. Print.
Nechuta, S. J., B. J. Caan, W. Y. Chen, W. Lu, Z. Chen, M. L. Kwan, S. W. Flatt, Y. Zheng, W. Zheng, J. P. Pierce, and X. O. Shu. “Soy Food Intake after Diagnosis of Breast Cancer and Survival: An In-depth Analysis of Combined Evidence from Cohort Studies of US and Chinese Women.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96.1 (2012): 123-32. Print.