There is a common misconception that vegetarians cannot build muscle and strength like meat-eaters can or that it is a lot more difficult to gain mass when you are a vegetarian. However, building muscle as a vegetarian is not as difficult as some make it out to be. Diet and exercise are the key components when building muscle, but vegetarians will need to pay closer attention to a few important aspects of their diet. Here are a few simple things you can do to help build muscle on a vegetarian diet.

Why is muscle important?

Ever wondered why building muscle is so important – apart from physical aesthetics? Increasing one’s muscle mass is a worthwhile goal for various reasons. One being muscle burns more calories than fat, so an increase in lean body mass can speed up your metabolism. More muscle mass also means that you will have a lower overall body fat percentage.

How to build muscle

Protein is crucial when trying to gain muscle, as a vegetarian, the sources of protein in your diet will differ from the average meat-eater. Plant based protein includes foods such as; beans, lentils, whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, etc.), nuts, seeds, soy products as well as dairy.

Tips for building muscle on a vegetarian diet

While the protein sources for meat-eaters and vegetarians will differ, most other recommendations for building lean muscle mass are similar for both groups.

  1. Eat protein throughout the day

For optimal muscle growth, one needs to be eating between 20 and 30 grams of protein with each main meal (i.e. breakfast, lunch and dinner) – or between 1.8 – 2.0g protein per kilogram of bodyweight. Vegetarian-friendly foods that pack a protein punch include:

Beans and Lentils: not only are the versatile and nutritious but, can provide up to 15 grams of protein per cup (when cooked).

Dairy products: a cup of milk adds up to about 8 grams of protein. A ½ cup of Greek Yoghurt or cottage cheese is between 12-15 grams of protein.

Soy products: Soy milk contains just as much protein as dairy milk and other soy foods such as tofu has between 10-12 grams of protein per cup.

Whole grains: whole grains add a surprising source of protein to the diet. Grains with the highest protein content include quinoa and whole grain wheat pasta (8 grams per cup), steel cut oats (5 grams per ½ cup), and whole wheat bread (5 grams per slice).

Nuts and Seeds: these make a great addition to salads, smoothies and yoghurt. Nuts and seeds also contain a good amount of protein.

  1. Variety is key

Consuming protein from a variety of sources helps you to get a wider range of nutrients in your diet.

  1. Weight training

Protein and weight training go hand-in-hand when trying to gain lean muscles mass. Regardless of how much protein you consume, if you don’t partake in weight/strength training, you will struggle to build muscle.

  1. Eat complementary proteins


Amino acids are considered the building blocks of protein. The body can produce some amino acids on its own, but it does rely on the foods you eat to supply essential amino acids. There are two types of protein – “complete protein”, which contains the 9 essential amino acids and “incomplete protein” which does not have all 9 amino acids. Most plant-based proteins are incomplete (except for quinoa, soy, hemp and chia). In comparison, all animal proteins are complete proteins. Seeing as most vegetarian proteins (beans, lentils, brown rice, etc.) are incomplete, it is important to pair them with other foods to make a complete protein. Pairing two or more incomplete vegetarian protein sources to make up a complete protein and provide the necessary amino acids is referred to as “complementary proteins”. Some pairings that make complementary plant-based proteins are as follows:


  • Beans and rice
  • But butter and whole grain bread
  • Lentil and barley
  • Hummus and pita
  • Oats and almonds