So you’re looking to build some serious muscle, but you also happen to be a vegetarian. No problem, you’ve come to the right place. Despite what some may think, you don’t need to pound chicken breasts and guzzle protein shakes to gain muscle. There are plenty of plant-based foods that can help you bulk up and make impressive gains. The key is focusing on foods high in protein, healthy fats, and nutrients like iron, zinc and creatine. In this article, you’ll discover 10 of the best vegetarian muscle building foods so you can get the gains you want, ethically and sustainably. Whether you’re a longtime vegetarian lifter or just getting started, these foods will fuel your workouts and have you building muscle in no time. Let’s dive in and start crafting a muscle building meal plan that aligns with your values and fitness goals. The path to gains begins now!
Why Vegetarian Muscle Building Is Totally Doable
You can totally build muscle on a vegetarian diet. In fact, some of the world’s strongest animals like gorillas, rhinos, and elephants are herbivores. As a vegetarian, you just need to be a bit strategic with your nutrition to gain serious muscle.
Load up on plant-based proteins like:
- Tofu – Contains about 10g of protein per half cup. Tofu can be grilled, baked or stir-fried and used in place of meat in many recipes.
- Lentils – A single cup of cooked lentils packs 18g of protein. Lentil soup, curry over rice, or veggie burgers are all good options.
- Nut butters – Just 2 tablespoons of peanut butter has 8g of protein. Spread it on bread, bananas or add to smoothies. Other nut butters like almond and cashew work great too.
- Seitan – Made from wheat gluten, seitan contains about 20-30g of protein per 3 ounce serving. Use it in place of meat in dishes like stir fries, fajitas or kebabs.
Round Out Your Nutrition
Of course, protein isn’t the only thing you need. Be sure to also eat plenty of complex carbs like whole grains, starchy veggies and legumes. Healthy fats from foods such as nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil provide energy. And don’t forget calcium, iron, zinc and vitamin B12, which can be found in plant milks, nutritional yeast, leafy greens and beans.
If you eat a balanced vegetarian diet with enough calories and a good mix of protein, carbs and fats at each meal, your muscles will have everything they need to thrive. You can gain serious muscle as a vegetarian – you’ve just got to do it right!
The Best Plant-Based Protein Sources
Plant-based protein is essential for building muscle on a vegetarian diet. Some of the best sources include:
Foods like beans, lentils, and peas pack a protein punch. A single cup of cooked black beans has 15 grams of protein. Lentils and chickpeas also have around 18 grams per cup. Include legumes in meals like veggie burgers, stews, soups and salads.
Nuts and Seeds
Almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds and chia seeds are protein powerhouses. Just an ounce of almonds has 6 grams of protein. Nut butters, like peanut butter and almond butter, are also great for spreading on whole grain bread or fruit.
Tofu and Tempeh
These meat alternatives, made from soy, contain 10 grams of protein or more per half cup. Tofu can be grilled, baked or stir-fried and used in place of meat in many recipes. Tempeh has a nuttier, mushroomy flavor and can be marinated and cooked in similar ways.
Plant-Based Protein Powders
For a quick protein boost, try a powder made from pea protein, rice protein or hemp protein. Just one scoop can have 20 grams of protein or more. Blend into a smoothie or shake for an easy muscle-building snack.
Following a balanced vegetarian diet with lots of whole plant foods, lean proteins and strength training will help you gain muscle without meat. The options for plant-based protein are numerous, so you’ll have no problem getting your fill.
10 Best Vegetarian Muscle Building Foods
1. Lentils for Protein and Fiber
Lentils are a muscle-building powerhouse for vegetarians. These little legumes are packed with 18 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber per cooked cup, keeping you feeling full and satisfied.
A Complete Plant-Based Protein
Lentils contain all nine essential amino acids our bodies need, especially the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine and valine, important for muscle protein synthesis. Studies show eating leucine-rich foods after resistance exercise helps maximize muscle gain.
Whether you choose brown, red or green lentils, they make a perfect meat substitute in dishes like Bolognese sauce, chili, curry and veggie burgers. Lentil flour can even be used as a binder in burgers and meatballs.
For extra protein, add lentils to soups, stews and salads or make lentil sloppy joes, “meat”loaf or tacos. Lentil pasta has an whopping 26 grams of protein per cup, more than most semolina pasta.
Slow-Digesting, Energy-Boosting Carbs
Lentils have a low glycemic index, meaning they release energy slowly and steadily, keeping you full for hours. Unlike simple carbs that spike and crash blood sugar, lentils provide time-released energy and help maintain stable blood sugar levels.
The fiber in lentils also helps digestion by feeding the good bacteria in your gut, which improves nutrient absorption and gut health. A healthy gut means a healthy body and mind.
Whether for muscle gain, weight loss or overall health, lentils deserve a place in any vegetarian diet. Versatile, affordable and packed with nutrition, lentils are little protein powerhouses that yield big benefits. Adding just one cup a few times a week can make a difference. Your muscles and body will thank you.
Soybeans are a nutritional powerhouse for vegetarian bodybuilders. They contain all nine essential amino acids our bodies need to build muscle. Just one cup of cooked soybeans provides a whopping 29 grams of protein, as well as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, and manganese.
Tofu, made from condensed soy milk, is a staple for many vegetarian athletes. It’s high in protein and contains isoflavones, compounds that may help reduce inflammation in the body. Tofu can be grilled, baked, stir-fried, or blended into sauces and smoothies. Opt for extra-firm tofu which has the highest protein content. Silken tofu can also be used as a protein-rich ingredient in desserts like cheesecake or pudding.
Soy milk and edamame, immature soybeans usually steamed or boiled, also provide a good amount of protein and nutrients. Soy protein powder is popular as a supplement, with some options delivering up to 50 grams of protein per scoop. However, there is some debate over whether too much soy may have hormonal effects, so you may want to choose non-GMO and organic options and vary your protein sources.
In the end, soybeans and soy products can absolutely have a place in a balanced muscle-building diet for vegetarian athletes when consumed in moderation. Focus on whole foods like tofu, edamame, and soy milk, choose high-quality organic options when possible, and aim for 2-3 servings per day. Combine soy with other plant-based proteins such as beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds for maximum benefit.
3. Pump Up Protein With Peas and Beans
Protein is essential for building muscle, and as a vegetarian, beans and legumes are some of your best sources. Peas and beans provide all the amino acids your body needs to repair muscle and boost growth. Aim for 1 to 2 cups of beans or peas 3-4 times a week.
•Black beans: With 15 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber per cup, black beans are nutritional powerhouses. Throw them in burritos, salads, or veggie burgers. Their meaty texture makes them ideal for replacing ground beef.
•Chickpeas: Also known as garbanzo beans, 1 cup of chickpeas has 15 grams of protein and 13 grams of fiber. Chickpeas are versatile – toss them in salads, blend them into hummus, or roast them as a crunchy snack.
•Lentils: Lentils come in a variety of colors and sizes. A cup of cooked lentils contains 18 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber. Lentil soup, curry over rice, or veggie lentil loafs are all muscle-building options. Lentils have an earthy, hearty flavor and soft texture when cooked.
•Peanuts: Technically legumes, peanuts are packed with protein and healthy fats. Just 1/2 cup of peanuts has 17 grams of protein and 14 grams of fat. Peanut butter, trail mixes, and Thai curries are all ways to add peanuts to your diet. Peanuts have a robust, nutty flavor and crunchy texture.
•Edamame: Edamame are immature soybeans, harvested when the beans are still green and sweet. One cup of edamame has 17 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber. Buy them frozen to add to salads, noodle dishes, or snack on them steamed with salt. Edamame have an fresh, grassy flavor and firm, chewy texture.
Eating a variety of these vegetarian protein sources will provide all the building blocks you need to pack on muscle as a plant-based athlete. Mix and match them in meals and snacks throughout the day to hit your protein needs and keep your muscles fueled.
4. Spinach and Kale
Spinach and kale are two of the most nutritious leafy green vegetables for vegetarian muscle building.
Popeye was onto something with his spinach obsession. This leafy green is loaded with nutrients like:
- Folate: Helps your body produce new cells and support muscle growth.
- Magnesium: Important for muscle and nerve function.
- Vitamin K: Essential for blood clotting and bone health.
- Vitamin C: Acts as an antioxidant and helps absorb iron.
Add a few cups of fresh or frozen spinach to your morning smoothie, scramble your eggs with spinach, or make a spinach salad. You really can’t go wrong.
Kale has become popular for good reason. Some of the major benefits of kale include:
- Vitamin K: One cup of chopped kale has over 1000% of your daily needs.
- Vitamin A: Important for immune function and healthy skin.
- Vitamin C: A potent antioxidant that helps your body absorb plant-based iron.
- Calcium: Kale has 90 mg of calcium per cup, which is good for bone health.
Massage chopped kale with lemon juice or vinegar to break down its tough leaves, then add to salads, soups, or stir fries. You can also make kale chips by tossing with oil and salt, then baking until crispy.
Loading up on spinach, kale and other leafy greens provides the foundation for a healthy vegetarian diet. Combine them with other muscle-building foods like legumes, nuts and seeds to get all the nutrients you need for muscle gain. Your body will surely thank you.
5. Nuts Pack a Protein Punch
Nuts are nutritional powerhouses that should be a staple in any vegetarian muscle-building diet. They contain healthy fats, protein, and other nutrients to fuel your workouts and muscle recovery.
Almonds are one of the most protein-rich nuts, with 6 grams of protein per ounce. They also contain good amounts of vitamin E, magnesium and riboflavin. Almonds make a great portable snack, or you can add them to yogurt, oatmeal or salads.
Peanuts, which are technically legumes, contain 8 grams of protein per ounce. They are also high in folate, niacin and plant sterols. Peanut butter is a delicious way to enjoy peanuts, just look for all-natural versions with no added sugar. Peanuts also contain resveratrol, a plant compound that may improve blood flow to your muscles during exercise.
Pistachios are one of the only nuts that contain plant-based omega-3 fats. They have 6 grams of protein per ounce and also contain vitamin B6, phosphorus, and plant sterols. Pistachios make for a satisfying snack by themselves, or you can add them to homemade granola, salads, and yogurt.
Cashews contain 5 grams of protein per ounce and are high in iron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. Their creamy texture is perfect for making dairy-free cheeses, creams and butters. Cashews can also be enjoyed as a snack, or added to stir fries, curries and sweet dishes.
Walnutshave 4 grams of protein per ounce and contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 fat. They are also high in antioxidants and certain B vitamins. Walnuts have a bitter skin, so they are best enjoyed shelled. Add them to oatmeal, salads or yogurt, or simply snack on them by the handful.
Peanuts are a nutritional powerhouse for vegetarian muscle building. Packed with protein and healthy fats, peanuts should be a staple in your diet.
One cup of peanuts contains over 30 grams of protein, which is more than half of the daily requirement for most sedentary people of mature age. Peanut protein contains all the amino acids your body needs to build and repair muscle.
Peanuts also have 7 grams of muscle-building branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) per cup. BCAAs, especially leucine, help stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
The high protein content of peanuts makes them ideal for muscle building. Have a handful for a snack, add to salads for extra protein, or make homemade peanut butter to spread on whole grain bread or fruit.
Don’t shy away from the fat in peanuts. The majority come from heart-healthy unsaturated fats, especially monounsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats may help reduce inflammation in the body and lower heart disease risk.
Peanuts also contain some omega-6 fatty acids, which in moderation, are important for health. The fat in peanuts will help you feel more satisfied and full, which can aid weight management and muscle gain.
Peanuts contain several other nutrients important for muscle including:
•Magnesium – Helps with protein synthesis and muscle contractions.
•Zinc – Essential for muscle growth and repair.
•Iron – Carries oxygen in the blood to working muscles.
•Niacin – Helps cells convert nutrients to energy.
Peanuts deserve a spot on any vegetarian muscle building diet. Keep a jar on hand and enjoy them as a snack, in salads, or blended into nut butters. The nutritional benefits can help boost your performance, gain strength, and build muscle.
7. Cereals/ Grains
Cereals and grains should be a staple in any vegetarian muscle building diet. They are packed with complex carbohydrates, fiber, B vitamins and minerals.
Oats are one of the best options for vegetarian bodybuilders. A single cup of oats contains 6 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber. Oats are also high in B vitamins, iron, zinc and magnesium. Add oats to yogurt, smoothies or enjoy a bowl of oatmeal. For extra protein, mix in nuts, seeds, nut butter or Greek yogurt.
Quinoa is a complete protein containing 8 grams per cup. It’s also gluten-free and high in iron and magnesium. Quinoa can be used as a side dish, added to salads or used as a porridge.
Amaranth is another ancient grain high in protein, fiber, iron, magnesium and manganese. It has 9 grams of protein per cup and 5 grams of fiber. Use amaranth as a porridge, add it to granola or use it as a substitute for rice.
Buckwheat has 6 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber per cup. It’s high in B vitamins, copper, manganese, magnesium and phosphorus. Buckwheat can be enjoyed as porridge, in granola, salads or by using buckwheat flour in pancakes and crepes.
Brown rice, wild rice and barley also provide ample amounts of protein, fiber and various minerals. Aim for 2 to 3 cups of whole grains per day as part of a balanced vegetarian diet to gain muscle. Mix and match different grains to provide variety and nutritional benefits.
Eating a variety of whole grains, in combination with beans, legumes, nuts and seeds will help you meet your protein needs and gain muscle as a vegetarian. Choose less processed options whenever possible for the most nutrition. Whole grains should make up a substantial part of any vegetarian muscle building diet.
8. Roasted Gram/ Chana
Roast chickpeas or “chana” are a protein-packed snack perfect for vegetarian muscle building.
To make roasted chickpeas, you only need two simple ingredients:
- 1 (15 ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 400°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Pat the chickpeas dry with a towel to remove excess moisture. This will help them get nicely crispy.
- Toss the chickpeas with the olive oil, salt, and any spices you like (suggestions: chili powder, cumin, paprika, garlic powder). Spread in an even layer on the prepared pan.
- Roast for 30-40 minutes, stirring once halfway through, until the chickpeas are golden brown and crunchy.
- Allow to cool slightly, then enjoy your roasted chickpeas as a snack or topping for salads. Store any leftovers in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
These savory roasted morsels contain 8 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber per half cup serving. The combination of protein and fiber will keep you feeling full and energized for hours. Chickpeas are also high in iron, magnesium and B vitamins which are important for muscle and energy metabolism.
Adding roasted chickpeas to your daily diet is an easy way for vegetarians to boost their protein intake and support muscle building goals. Their satisfying crunch and nutty, toasted flavor might just make them your new favorite snack.
9. Vegetarian protein powder
Protein powder is a vegetarian muscle builder’s best friend. Look for a powder that contains a blend of plant-based proteins like pea protein, rice protein, hemp protein, and sacha inchi protein. These provide a complete amino acid profile to maximize muscle protein synthesis.
Pea protein is a great meat substitute and highly bioavailable, meaning your body can easily absorb and utilize the protein. Rice protein is hypoallergenic and contains antioxidants. Hemp protein contains omega-3 fatty acids which reduce inflammation in the body and support muscle recovery. Sacha inchi protein comes from an Amazonian nut and is a good source of protein as well as healthy fats.
A powder with a blend of these proteins will provide around 20 to 30 grams of protein per scoop, which you can easily add to smoothies, oatmeal, yogurt or juice. For the most effective muscle building, aim for 1 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day from a variety of plant and powder sources.
Other nutrients to look for in a powder include:
•BCAAs: Branched-chain amino acids like leucine, isoleucine and valine stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
•Glutamine: An amino acid that helps maintain muscle mass.
•Creatine: Can increase strength and power during high-intensity exercise. Look for creatine monohydrate.
•Digestive enzymes: Help improve the absorption and digestion of the powder.
•Vitamins and minerals: Such as vitamin B12, iron, calcium and zinc which are important for energy, red blood cell production and bone health.
Using a high-quality vegetarian protein powder, in combination with resistance training, will provide your muscles with the fuel they need to get stronger and more defined. Mix up your routine, lift heavy and lift often—your vegetarian gains will be noticeable in no time.
Seitan is made from wheat gluten, the main protein found in flour. When wheat flour is mixed with water, the gluten forms elastic strands. Seitan is made by kneading flour dough to develop these gluten strands, then rinsing out the starch. What’s left is a chewy, meaty protein source called seitan.
Seitan contains about 20 grams of protein per 3 ounce serving, making it an excellent plant-based protein for muscle building. It’s also a good source of iron and magnesium. Since seitan is made from wheat, it does contain gluten, so it’s not suitable for those with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease.
- Add seitan to stir fries, curries and noodle dishes. Its texture holds up well to bold, spicy flavors.
- Make seitan kebabs or veggie burgers. Seitan works great as a meat substitute for grilling.
- Add to sandwiches, burritos and lettuce wraps. Slice or shred seitan and season it to make a hearty sandwich filling.
- Buy pre-made seitan or make your own. Commercial seitan can be found in the refrigerated section of most grocery stores. Homemade seitan may be more economical and allows you to control the flavors.
Seitan, along with other plant-based protein sources like tofu, lentils, beans, and nuts, provides plenty of fuel for building muscle on a vegetarian diet. Combine seitan with strength training and a balanced mix of carbs and fats for the ultimate vegetarian muscle meal.
Supplements Can Fill Any Gaps in Your Diet
Supplements can help ensure you get all the nutrients you need as a vegetarian bodybuilder. While a balanced diet should provide most of what you need, certain supplements may fill in any gaps.
•Protein powder: Whey or plant-based protein powder, like pea protein powder, can boost your daily protein intake. Aim for 1 to 2 scoops per day with a shake or smoothie.
•Creatine: Creatine monohydrate is one of the most researched sports supplements. It can help increase muscle mass and strength. Take 3 to 5 grams per day.
•Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): BCAA supplements provide the amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine, which help stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Take 3 to 5 grams before or after workouts.
•Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3s are essential fatty acids important for health and muscle gain. Look for a vegetarian-friendly supplement like flaxseed oil or algal oil. Aim for 1 to 2 grams per day.
•Zinc and Iron: Some vegetarians may need extra zinc and iron, especially athletes. Check with your doctor, and they may recommend supplementing 10 to 15 mg of zinc and 8 to 27 mg of iron per day.
•Vitamin B12: This important B vitamin can be lacking in some vegetarian diets. Look for a B12 supplement providing at least 2.4 mcg (100% DV) per day or a B-complex with B12.
•Vitamin D: Vitamin D helps support bone and muscle health. Many people are deficient, especially in winter or without much sun exposure. Aim for 600 to 800 IU of D3 per day.
Supplements, combined with a balanced vegetarian diet high in plant-based protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats, will provide the fuel you need to gain muscle as a vegetarian bodybuilder. But always talk to your doctor before taking any supplements to make sure the dosages are right for you based on your unique needs.
Vegetarian Muscle Building Meal Plan and Recipes
A good vegetarian muscle-building meal plan focuses on whole foods high in protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
Oatmeal with nut butter, seeds, and fruit:
- 1 cup oatmeal cooked in water
- 2 tablespoons almond or peanut butter
- 1/2 cup berries
- 2 tablespoons pumpkin or chia seeds
- 8 ounces extra-firm tofu, crumbled
- 1/2 cup diced bell peppers
- 1/2 cup diced onion
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- Spices: turmeric, cumin, garlic powder, salt
- Cook in a skillet with oil until veggies are tender. Serve with whole grain toast.
- 1 cup rice or quinoa
- 1 cup black or pinto beans
- 1 cup sautéed peppers and onions
- Salsa, guacamole, lettuce
- Top with pumpkin or sunflower seeds
Hummus and veggie wrap:
- 2 large whole wheat tortillas
- 1/2 cup hummus
- 1 cup mixed veggies like carrots, cucumbers and sprouts
- Wrap up the veggies in the tortillas with hummus.
Vegetable curry over rice:
- 2 cups mixed veggies (eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers)
- 1 (15 ounce) can chickpeas or lentils
- 1 cup coconut milk
- Curry paste or spices: cumin, coriander, turmeric, chili pepper
- Simmer until veggies are tender. Serve over rice.
Seitan stir fry with broccoli and brown rice:
- 1 cup sliced seitan
- 3 cups broccoli florets
- 1 diced onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce or tamari
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
- Serve over 2 cups cooked brown rice.
Following a plan like this, along with strength training, will provide the fuel you need to gain muscle as a vegetarian. Mix and match meals and snacks according to your needs and tastes. Keep portions generous and stay hydrated to maximize your gains.
So there you have it, 10 of the best vegetarian muscle building foods to add to your diet for serious gains. With the right combination of these foods, you’ll be well on your way to building lean muscle mass without relying on animal products. Eating a balanced diet with adequate protein, complex carbs, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals is key. Don’t forget that exercise and weight training also play an important role in muscle building. Stay consistent, push yourself at the gym, get enough rest and your hard work will pay off. A vegetarian diet can absolutely support muscle gain and these foods are proof that you can build an impressive physique through plants alone. Now go crush your next workout!