If you want to gain muscle and lose fat, you’ve likely heard that protein is king. And indeed, protein is important as it helps decrease appetite, increase fat burning, and provides the building blocks for muscle growth. Yet many of us are also decreasing meat consumption for a number of great reasons, including improved sustainability, ethical reasons, and decreasing inflammation and health risks. How can a vegetarian lose weight and gain muscle? And what is the best diet plan for muscle gain and fat loss for vegetarians?
Fortunately, muscle gain and fat loss are both not only doable on a plant-based diet, it may actually make it easier to reach your goals. That is, as long as you know how to get the protein your body needs.
Here’s a high-protein meal plan to help you gain muscle and lose fat, even if you are vegetarian.
How Can a Vegetarian Lose Weight and Gain Muscle?
Let’s face it, it can be more difficult for vegetarians to consume a high-protein diet. Once meat, poultry, and perhaps fish is off the menu, you do have to dig a bit deeper to fulfill your protein needs.
So first, how do you decide how much protein you need? The number can depend on whether you’re male or female, your starting weight, your goal weight, and your activity levels.
Let’s say, for example, you are a 45-year-old woman who currently weighs 170 pounds at 5’4”. Your goal, give or take, is to get down to 130 pounds while losing fat and gaining muscle. You have started a weight training workout plan three times a week and also walk daily (that is, you’re moderately active).
You would start by finding your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Sure, you could find a formula and do the math, but it’s much easier to simply put your data into an online BMR calculator. In this case, you are burning 2,172 calories on a typical day (according to the calculator for BMR + activity level).
To reach your goals, you’ll want to drop your calories enough to lose weight but not so much that you slow your metabolism. So, a good goal to shoot for is to decrease calories by ~500 per day to lose between 1 and 2 pounds per week.
That leaves you with around 1,600 calories per day. To lose weight while gaining muscle, protein recommendations are typically between .5 grams and 1 gram of protein per pound of your goal body weight. Start with around 65 to 80 grams of protein per day and go up from there, depending on your results and how you feel. (As we’re all different, there’s no exact amount of protein that’s right for everyone.) To build muscle and feel satiated, you may slowly increase your protein to between 75 and 150 grams per day.
Men, however, may want to increase protein even more. Let’s say you’re an average 198-pound man who’s 5’9” and 52 years old. Again, your goal is to lose fat while gaining muscle, and your ideal weight is around 160 pounds.
You have begun to exercise intensely six days a week, so again, using an online BMR calculator, you would discover your BMR + activity level leaves your calorie needs around 2,999 per day. So, to lose weight, you’ll want to drop your calories down to ~2,500 calories per day. In addition, you’ll want to eat a bit more protein—shooting for around .75 grams to 1.25 grams of protein per pound of your goal body weight. Start with around 120 grams of protein per day and then see how you feel and if you are getting the results you’d like. Again, this amount may go up to as high as 200 grams of protein per day.
That said, people don’t eat calories or even macros (protein, carbohydrates, fats)—they eat food. So how does this plan translate to meals?
Best Vegetarian Diet Plan for Muscle Gain and Fat Loss
To begin, you’ll want to ensure you are consuming protein with every meal—around 20 to 30 grams per meal and a bit less for snacks. Breakfast, for example, could be:
- Banana and egg pancakes
- Oatmeal and egg pancakes
- High-protein smoothie made with a high-quality protein powder
- Overnight oats made with chia seeds
- Breakfast burrito on a sprouted whole-grain tortilla
For lunch, beans provide protein and fiber, so they fill you up to power through a busy afternoon. Tasty options include:
- Chickpea and spinach salad
- Spicy black bean soup with sliced avocado
- Chilled white bean salad with onion, tomatoes, pepper, and spices
- Lentil and arugula salad
Dinner can consist of the same meals you prepare for lunch. Or, you can mix it up and make:
- Veggie and tofu tray bake
- Chickpea curry with brown rice
- Asian peanut butter stir fry over noodles
- Eggs and potatoes
- Teriyaki tempeh and broccoli over quinoa
- Lentil loaf with mixed vegetables
- Vegan tacos
Snacks might consist of:
- Greek yogurt mixed with fresh berries
- Hardboiled eggs
- Cottage cheese mixed with dill (or other herbs and spices) and served with fresh veggies
- Fresh veggies with hummus
- Hemp seeds
- Cinnamon roasted almonds
- Nut butter with sliced fruit
- Chia seed pudding
Other great high-protein food options include:
- Dairy products like Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and cheese
- Protein powders
- Textured vegetable protein
- Bean pastas
- Fava beans
- Whole gains like amaranth, brown rice, and farro
- Nuts and seeds, such as hemp, flax, sunflower, and chia seeds (be careful with serving sizes, though, as these can be higher in calories)
- Leafy greens (broccoli and spinach are surprisingly high in protein)
- Sprouts and sprouted grains
- To increase flavor and protein, you can also use nutritional yeast and PB2 powder in recipes
It’s also important to ensure your diet is made up of mostly whole, natural foods rather than packaged, ultra-processed foods. This includes mock meats and cheeses as these are often just processed foods loaded with additives. A good rule of thumb is to “eat better, not less.” As by eating minimally-processed, whole foods, you’ll likely feel full for longer and provide your body with the quality nutrition it needs.
You will also want to enjoy a variety of plant-based protein as many sources don’t provide all of the essential amino acids needed for muscle growth and recovery as well as other bodily function. The easiest way to ensure you get the variety you need is to pair plant-based proteins to form complete proteins. For example, serve beans or lentils with brown rice, over toast, or with couscous to get all of the essential amino acids. Or serve nut butter on whole grain bread, lentils with barley, and oats with almonds.
Other Tips to Gain Muscle and Lose Fat on a Vegetarian Diet
Ensuring you maintain a calorie deficit is vital if your goal is to lose weight and fat. And one of the biggest benefits of eating a higher protein diet is that you’ll feel more satiated, even when decreasing the calories you eat. Plus, holding onto and even gaining more muscle also helps support a strong, healthy metabolism. And the more muscle mass you have, the lower the overall body fat percentage. Protein is also an essential macronutrient for keeping the bones, skin, cartilage, and blood strong and healthy.
Eating more protein, however, likely also means you’ll need to cut back on other foods—especially refined carbohydrates like white breads, pasta, pastries, rice, cereals, and sweet desserts. You’ll also want to avoid fried foods, watch for hidden calories in dressings and sauces, and avoid refined vegetable oils.
While you may be tempted to drop calories even lower, this can be a big (though common) mistake. For one, you won’t be able to gain lean muscle. In addition, you’re likely to slow your metabolism. Of course, it will also be harder to stick to your diet. Plus, if you don’t provide your body with the fuel it needs, your energy levels will crash, and you won’t have the energy or motivation to keep active and exercise.
Remember, too, that calorie deficits (i.e., consuming less calories than you burn) can also be achieved by moving more. So, do more throughout the day to burn calories. For example:
- Stand, instead of sit, as you work.
- Take the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator.
- Park at the opposite end of the parking lot when running errands.
- Shoot to hit at least 8,500 to 10,000 steps per day.
- Spend your leisure time digging in the garden, playing with kids or pets, or doing chores around the house rather than just relaxing.
- When you are sitting, feel free to fidget. Bounce your knee, tap your fingers or toes, and find little ways to move.
- Don’t forget to exercise regularly and consistently. Shoot for at least 150 minutes per week, and incorporate both cardio and strength training exercises into your routine. No matter how much protein you consume, if you aren’t using strength training exercises and continuously stressing your muscles with progressively increasing weight, you won’t gain much strength or muscle mass.
Finally, you’ll also want to experiment with new recipes and ideas to find foods you really love. After all, you’re making a lifestyle change, so once you lose the weight, you want to keep it off and continue refining your body to become stronger and healthier. The only way you can do that long term is by eating foods you genuinely enjoy.
Once you have reached your goal weight, you can now enjoy following your nutrition plan 80% of the time and allowing more fun foods about 20% of the time to maintain. This allows you greater flexibility and freedom, which makes it easier to stay on track for the long haul.
Mike Dorfman is BS in Biochemistry from the University of Colorado. Mike’s has worked as a personal trainer for Gold’s Gym and helped many clients achieve their weight-loss and fitness goals.
To health first, weight-loss second. Mike and Tetrogen are here to help you make the transition to the healthier, happier, and thinner you!