How To Build Muscle On A Plant-based Diet: Staples, Meal Plans

How To Build Muscle On A Plant-based Diet: Staples, Meal Plans. Let’s face it, building muscle is hard, no matter what “diet” you follow. And supporting your athletic endeavors with a plant-based diet can also be challenging, especially if you’ve recently gone vegan.

I’ve been there, desperately hoping to gain muscle and weight by eating only plants. After decades of learning from personal successes and failures, I have officially cracked the code on how to build and maintain muscle for real. Today I share those keys to success with you so that you too can achieve your bodybuilding and fitness goals.

When I started my plant-based muscle-building journey many years ago, there wasn’t much publicly available on the subject. So little, in fact, that I had to rely almost entirely on trial and error. Fortunately, over time I started to realize it and went from weighing 120 pounds in 1995 when I went vegan, to a 210-pound champion bodybuilder in my prime, built entirely on plants (and I work hard in the gym).

Even if you’ve had trouble building muscle in the past (plant-based or not), I’m sure you can bulk up when you apply the strategies, habits, foods, and exercises necessary to achieve your goals.

And it all starts with nutrition.

Understanding your calorie needs

Your quest to build muscle on a plant-based diet is based on understanding your true calorie and macronutrient needs. Not guessing, estimating or assuming characteristics about your current habits, but real, raw data based on who you are and what you do.

Believe it or not, it is much easier to understand than you might think.

Start by finding your basal metabolic rate (BMR) using the Harris-Benedict equation. BMR is the amount of calories you spend simply by existing, based on your gender, age, height, and weight.

Combine that number with your actual activity level: any additional movements beyond the simple existing, such as walking the dog, running errands, going to the gym, or going up a flight of stairs. This gives you the approximate amount of total calories you expend daily… your caloric needs.

If you expend 2,500 calories per day, you need to consume 2,500 calories per day just to maintain weight.

To gain muscle, you would need to consume more than 2,500 calories, ideally from mostly real plant foods. Combine that with resistance weight training and you’re on your way to muscle city.

Not long ago I shared this technique, along with a breakdown of my own calorie needs, in an interview for the No Meat Athlete Academy. Check out this clip:

As simple as it sounds, implementing this approach in daily life is the real struggle. But it doesn’t have to be …

You just need to eat the healthy foods you enjoy the most, with sufficient amounts of calories, and you’re done.

To determine which foods will help the most, it is important to consider not only calories but also nutrient density.

Calories versus nutrient density

The nutrient density of a food is the number of nutrients you can get from it, given the number of calories it contains. Nutrients nourish your body, enabling growth, muscle recovery, energy, and quite frankly, life maintenance – think vitamins, minerals, amino acids, antioxidants, fiber, water, nitric oxide, and other phytonutrients. If you’re looking for the biggest bang for your buck in nutrients, the best place to look is whole foods.

Simply speaking, there’s nothing in fresh whole foods that don’t belong there (and yes, whole plant foods do contain a lot of protein  ). There is a big difference between eating 2,500 calories from whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds, and eating 2,500 calories from processed food-like substances like French fries, French fries, pizza, candy, and ice cream.

You may be eating 2,500 calories either way, but the nutritional outcome is wildly different.

Therefore, foods that are low in calories and rich in nutrients provide a greater return on investment than foods that are high in calories but low in nutritional content. Eating a high-calorie, the nutrient-poor diet will make any fitness goal a struggle, whether it’s burning fat and losing weight, building muscle, or improving endurance.

Here’s a look at the approximate calorie count vs. nutrient score for some common types of foods:

Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s ANDI scoring method is an easy way to measure nutrient density. ANDI stands for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, and it basically reports “nutrients divided by calories,” Fuhrman’s formula for healthy eating. The higher the ANDI score, the higher the nutrient density.

While calorie density is very important with regard to weight gain and loss, nutrient density speaks to our health and the overall nutrition we are getting.

Whole plant foods provide the perfect combination of relatively low-calorie density with lots of nutrients, and some foods, like the staples I list a bit below, are the kings and queens of the plant-based jungle.

As we know, eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mean limiting yourself to fewer food options than eating an omnivorous diet. There are many options! While this is good news, it can also be overwhelming. But, like many things, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated at all.

Five staples for bulking

This is the section where calorie needs and nutrient density come together in a beautiful union.

By comparing the calories in food to its nutrient density profile, you will set yourself up for muscle-building success. Of course, you want to get as many nutrients as possible, but hitting your calorie goals with kale alone won’t be enough.

So where do you start? Here are five staples to include in your bulking program, based on their nutrient-to-calorie ratios and caloric density:

  1. Oats
  2. Potatoes
  3. Beans and lentils
  4. Integral rice
  5. Bananas and other fruits

With variations of just these five staples, you can create plenty of variety and general nutrition to aid in your bulking efforts.

Now, let’s put it into action …

Create muscle-building meal plans

In my new book, Plant-Based Muscle, my co-author Vanessa Espinoza and I provide a great collection of eating plans. I’d like to share two with you now to show the variety of foods that can help you reach your calorie goals.

Sample meal plan 1 with 2500 calories



  • 1 cup of cooked spelled
  • 2 tablespoons of sunflower butter
  • 1 tablespoon raisins
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 banana sliced
  • Mix in a bowl

634 calories, 95 g carbohydrates, 17.6 g protein, 20.4 g fat, 14 g fiber



  • 1 cup

189 calories, 15 g carbs, 17 g protein, 8 g fat, 8 g fiber



  • 2 cups blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries, or any combination of the three

92 calories, 20 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 0 g fat, 3 g fiber


Spinach and kale salad

  • 1 cup of raw spinach
  • 1 cup raw kale
  • ½ cup cooked lentils
  • Any type of vegetables you like
  • 1 tablespoon of sunflower seeds
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • ½ cooked sweet potato
  • 2 Tbsp Follow Your Heart Vegan Honey Mustard Dressing

495 calories, 71 g carbohydrates, 16 g protein, 16.3 g fat, 12.3 g fiber


Nuts and seeds

  • A handful of raw nuts and seeds (without oil or salt): peanuts, walnuts, walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

441 calories, 14 g carbohydrates, 15.2 g protein, 36 g fat, 9 g fiber


Bowl of rice and beans

  • ½ cup of cooked black rice
  • ½ cup chickpeas
  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts
  • 1 tablespoon of hemp seeds
  • 1 cup cooked broccoli or asparagus
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • Mix on a plate

343 calories, 64 g carbohydrates, 15 g protein, 3 g fat, 10 g fiber


2 banana protein muffins

  • 4 bananas
  • 1 cup dry oatmeal
  • 2 scoops of protein powder
  • ½ cup coconut flakes
  • ½ cup walnuts
  • ¼ cup vegan chocolate chips
  • Preheat the envelope to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In a large bowl, mash the bananas. Mix the remaining ingredients until well combined. Shape into 12 balls and place on cookie sheet or muffin pan. Bake for 20 minutes.

For 2 banana muffins: 259 calories, 34.8 g carbohydrates, 10 g protein, 14.8 g fat, 5.6 g fiber


2,453 calories, 313.8 g carbohydrates, 93.8 g protein, 98.5 g fat, 61.9 g fiber

Meal plan example 2 with 2900 calories


Quinoa breakfast bowl

  • 1 cup of cooked quinoa
  • 1 tablespoon peanut or almond butter
  • 2 tablespoons chia
  • 1 banana
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon of hemp seeds

699 calories, 96 g carbohydrates, 23.8 g protein, 24.4 g fat, 20 g fiber


Fruit and nut butter

  • Apple and 1 tablespoon of peanut butter

275 calories, 31 g carbohydrates, 7.5 g protein, 15.3 g fat, 6.4 g fiber

Or protein shake

  • Vegan protein shake with 1 cup unsweetened almond milk, water and ice

211 calories, 13 g carbohydrates, 24 g protein, 7 g fat, 5 g fiber


Sweet potato dish

  • 6 ounces baked tofu with different types of seasonings
  • ½ cup sweet potato
  • 2 cups of vegetables roasted or steamed

698 calories, 62 g carbohydrates, 45 g protein, 30 g fat, 5 g fiber


Vegetables and hummus

  • Raw vegetables of any kind (I like to have chopped celery, carrots, cucumbers, and radishes in the fridge)
  • 2 tablespoons hummus

78 calories, 9 g carbohydrates, 2 g protein, 3.8 g fat, 2 g fiber


Nuts and seeds

  • A handful of raw nuts and seeds (without oil or salt): peanuts, walnuts, walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

441 calories, 14 g carbohydrates, 15.2 g protein, 36 g fat, 9 g fiber


Bowl of black beans

  • 1 cup of black beans
  • 1 cup cooked brown or black basmati rice, farro, or quinoa
  • ½ avocado, diced
  • ½ cup sauce of your choice
  • Sprinkle nutritional yeast
  • Mix in a bowl

658 calories, 96.6 g carbohydrates, 27 g protein, 18.3 g fat, 26.2 g fiber



  • 1 cup of strawberries and 1 cup of blueberries

122 calories, 28 g carbs, 2 g protein, 0 g fat, 6 g fiber

Or protein shake

  • Vegan protein shake with 1 cup unsweetened almond milk, water and ice

211 calories, 13 g carbohydrates, 24 g protein, 7 g fat, 5 g fiber


2,971 calories, 336.6 g carbohydrates, 122.5 g protein, 127.8 g fat, 74.6 g fiber

With optional protein shakes:

2,996 calories, 303.6 g carbohydrates, 161 g protein, 126.5 g fat, 72.2 g fiber

Combine an effective exercise program to get the desired results

I’ve talked a lot about nutrition in this article, but before you think gaining muscle is about eating, it’s no surprise that an effective exercise program is a key component. I won’t go into too much detail here (there are a lot of lifting routines), but I do want to share the fundamental principles that everyone should follow:

  1. Although you can start with workouts at home, based on your training program should eventually consist of exercises weight without bar and dumbbells.
  2. Do exercises that you enjoy. Ultimately, if it’s not fun, you’ll find a way around it.
  3. Create an exercise program that targets all of your major muscle groups, including legs, chest, back, shoulders, arms, and abs, to ensure you stimulate muscle growth throughout your entire body, not just your chest and biceps. You can train one muscle group per day, for five or six major workouts per week, or you can combine multiple muscle groups into a single workout.
  4. Consistency is the key to success. You will need to take the time to achieve the desired results.
  5. Set achievable goals.
  6. Document your workouts as a way to hold yourself accountable.

The key is to train hard with consistency and at an intensity level geared toward igniting and bringing about change and progress.

Set goals and objectives and track your progress

A great exercise and nutrition plan creates an excellent foundation for your bodybuilding goals. The next step is to create achievable goals with achievable goals.

Here is an example of what it looks like:

Set goals and objectives and track your progress

Goal:  add 10 pounds of total mass over the next 6 months. (Pro Tip: Share your goal with a few friends and on social media, and hold yourself accountable by providing regular updates, good or bad.)

Timeline:  Add 2 pounds of mass per month (muscle, fat, and water weight) and assess progress monthly.

Action Plan:  5 days a week of resistance weight training and develop a nutrition plan that supports your goal by meeting your caloric and nutritional needs.

It is also important to keep track of your progress daily. Not just your earnings, but also tracking the food you eat.

This may seem tedious at first, but I have found that over time it becomes second nature, and with little effort, you can create a nutrition program that will set you up for success.

Keeping track of your meals can be the secret sauce to your muscle-building plan. But of course, sometimes life gets in the way.

Recently, I spent many months editing, revising, and rewriting a book that I spent almost two years of writing. I was working 12 and 15 hour days prior to the day I submitted the manuscript for printing. Afterward, I took a few days off from the gym and my nutrition plan was affected as well, and things like frozen vegan burritos made their way into my diet …

I’m not afraid to admit it. I wasn’t tracking or focused on my goals, and inevitably, things went wrong.

But, after submitting my manuscript, I re-documented the meals plans and workouts, and in just one month, the results were obvious:

If I had tried harder to track what I ate during those busy weeks and months, I wouldn’t have slipped as much as I did.

Tracking holds you accountable and gives you a clear picture of what you are eating, what you are not eating, and where you are falling short.

I use Cronometer, MyFitnessPal, or  Shred It! 13-week training diary to document my daily meals plans and workouts for an accurate account of my efforts. This way I can look back on my progress to see where I have reached my goals or where I need to make some adjustments.

You have the tools, now make it happen

My experience building muscle on a plant-based diet took decades of trial and error, but your experience can be so much better! The systems and approaches I outlined above have proven effective time and time again, not just for me but also for the thousands of plant-based athletes who have followed these principles.

Your exact approach will be full of variations and interpretations, but the core concepts remain true and lead to success: set meaningful goals, eat healthy with whole plant foods, do exercises you really enjoy, and be consistent.

Now make it happen. I believe in you.

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