3 Things You Should Know About Muscle Gain - Lean & Strong Series - Part 1

New year, new goals. It's time to plan and to start working on achieving your dreams. Because one of my favourite quotes is

“scientia potentia est” (knowledge is power)

I decided to give you knowledge, so that you have the power to reach your goals. (Yes, also Latin is on my “languages I studied” list)


What you should know before you start reading:

This series will give you guidance on building muscle, particularly with regard to vegan diet (because I’m vegan, the majority of my clients are vegan and I think there is not enough practical, easily understandable, science- and evidence-based info on vegan diet out there). However, as most of the recommendations I give are based on universal research findings, you can benefit from reading my posts also if you are not vegan.


Let’s start with 3 things every vegan (or not vegan) who wants to build muscle should know.


1. Protein content

Vegan protein sources have a lower content on essential amino acids than animal protein sources. Essential amino acids are the amino acids our bodies can’t produce. For this reason, people who follow vegan diet have to eat more protein than omnivores.

It seems like 1.8 g protein per kg bodyweight (0.82 g/lb) is enough protein for strength athletes who consumes animal products. Because vegan protein sources have 16% fewer essential amino acids, I usually recommend vegan lifters to consume about 2.1 g protein per kg bodyweight (0.95 g/lb).

In addition, if less refined cereal grains or legumes is your major protein source, which can be the case for people who follow a high carb vegan diet with about 70% of calories coming from carbs, you might need to add ~20% protein on top. A research study found out that under these conditions protein digestion and absorption can be about 20% lower. Possible reasons for this protein loss may be the anti-nutrients that may inhibit the digestive enzymes or the high fiber content that may interfere with digestion and absorption.

For this reason, if you eat mostly less refined gains and legumes while eating a diet with a high carbohydrate content, you may need to increase your protein intake to 2.5 g/kg (1.14 g/lb).


Side note: If your really read the research paper I link and have done all the calculations yourself, you might have found out that the theoretical protein intake should be 2.7 g/kg under these conditions. I have used 2.5 g/kg for 2 reasons; first of all, the number is easier to remember and secondly, because I really doubt that a significant number of strength athletes reaches a carbohydrate intake of 70%. Such a high carbohydrate content in the diet would displace other nutrients (protein and fat) that are more important for building muscle than carbs. If your macros profile is balanced, 2.7 g/kg protein is a bit of overshooting in my opinion.  


It is important to note that to vegans need to combine different protein sources in a smart way to get a more balanced amino acid profile. If you want to learn more about complete protein and how to combine vegan protein sources, check out this video.

Do you need help with your diet? Then you will love the ScienceStrength Transformation Bootcamp!

2. Leucine content

Leucine is one of the essential amino acids and for those who want to build muscle, it is probably one of the most important amino acids. Leucine gives the signal for muscle protein synthesis (tells your body that you need to build muscle now). To maximize your muscle gains you need to reach a certain leucine threshold. If you are young, then 1 g leucine per meal should be enough to set the signal for maximal muscle protein synthesis.


Side note: Young is relative. Elderly individuals are defined in many research papers as people who are 65 years of age and older. For elderly individuals, the required leucine amount for maximal muscle gain can go up to 3.2 g leucine per meal. However, some researchers questioned if the leucine threshold increases with age or with decreasing activity. Some research suggests that elderly individuals who are active show a similar response when it comes to muscle protein synthesis initiation as young individuals.


Vegan protein sources contain fewer leucine than animal protein sources (6-8% vs 8-11% leucine). This is another point why vegans who want to gain muscle should eat more protein. According to my calculations a meal containing 33 g protein should be enough to maximize muscle protein synthesis for a vegan (for an omnivore less than 20 g protein per meal).


Side note to calculations: 16 g plant protein contain 1 g leucine. Because of the issues with digestion and absorption, I mentioned earlier, I doubled this amount to 2 g leucine per meal, contained in 33 g protein.


3. Balanced fatty acid profile

This point is equally important for vegans and omnivores. Vegan diet is naturally low in saturated fatty acids and high in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids. In contrast, many omnivorous diets I analysed, were high in saturated fatty acids (coming from animal products) and low in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids. To optimize muscle gains, a balance between all fatty acids is important. In the ideal case, you should get 30 % saturated fatty acids, 35% monounsaturated fatty acids and 35 % polyunsaturated fatty acids (you can learn more about this topic in the science- and evidence-based Bayesian PT – best PT course ever!).

To increase my saturated fatty acid intake (as I don’t eat animal products as a vegan) I consume coconut oil daily. Olive oil, almonds and avocado are my favourite sources of monounsaturated fatty acids.

There are different types of polyunsaturated fatty acids; omega-3 and omega-6 are the most important ones. Ideally, ½ to ¼ of your polyunsaturated fatty acids should come from omega-3 fatty acids. And this is another challenge on the vegan diet (as vegans don’t eat fish). There aren’t many foods that contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. For this reason, you should pay particular attention to you omega-3 fatty acid intake. It is important, because omega-3 fatty acids have the highest association with muscle gain. In general, you should have at least 7% of your total fat intake coming from omega-3 fatty acids. My major omega-3 fatty acid sources are chia seeds, flax seeds and hemp oil (that’s why many of my recipes contain chia or flax seeds).

To make it easier for you I made a list with different fat sources.


The bottom part of the figure is particularly important: Chia and flax seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids, hemp seeds and walnuts have some omega-3 fatty acids, but also omega-6 fatty acids, peanuts, soy products, sunflower seeds and Brazil nuts have mostly omega-6 fatty acids.


Did you know that you can remember things better when you read, see and hear them compared to just reading? This is a good reason to check out my video on this topic as well ;)


If you want to learn more about meal planning and how to optimize it for your individuals goals, get your free copy of the ‘The ultimate Meal Plan Guide’


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What's next?

In the next blog post I will give you all the tools you need to fit your macros. I will show you how you get enough protein in without overshooting on carbs or fat.

If you found the article helpful, I would really appreciate it if you would share it with your friends, so that they can benefit from it as well. Thank you!