Pack On the Lean Muscle with Plant-Based Nutrition: by Guest Author Brendan Brazier

Thursday Mar 22 | BY |
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Brendan tells you how to build muscles like his—all on a plant-based diet.

Having been a competitive endurance athlete since the age of 15, I found that once I overcame the initial pitfalls, a plant-based, whole food diet offered several advantages: I didn’t get sick as often, I was able to train harder, and I stayed light, yet became stronger.

As endurance athletes, we don’t aspire to build muscular size (bulk), but rather to develop what muscle we do have to be strong, and thereby function efficiently. Building strength while not packing on bulk will raise strength-to-weight ratio. As a direct result, endurance will take a leap forward.

But what about strength athletes such as bodybuilders, and even those who simply aspire to build and maintain healthy muscles mass? Can they benefit from a similar plant-based diet? They can. While endurance athletes aim to develop efficient muscles without increasing their size, bodybuilders are quite the opposite. Bulk, symmetry, and definition are the three visual points a judge uses to assess a bodybuilder. Either way, what builds efficient muscles in endurance athletes is the same thing that builds visually impressive muscles in bodybuilders: hard work.

Does More Protein Mean More Muscle?
Immediately following an intense workout, those serious about packing on lean muscles will down a high-protein shake. They know that to repair muscle tissue after breaking it down requires the rebuilding properties of protein. But what most ignore is the protein source. In the minds of many, quantity is the priority—the more protein, the better. But does more really equate to better results?

The way to add extra protein to the diet while holding fat or carbohydrate content steady is to mechanically or chemically remove the fat and carbohydrate component. What remains is called “protein isolate.” The protein has been isolated from the other macronutrients of the food and as such, its ratio has increased.

Some manufactured isolates register protein content in excess of 90 percent. But once isolated, it is no longer a whole food and therefore harder for the body to digest, assimilate, and utilize. Plus, protein isolates are inherently acid-forming. And with the onset of an acidic body, functionality declines.

When a traditional acid-forming post-workout smoothie containing protein isolate is swapped out for a plant-based whole food option, the loss of muscular size is likely. Understandably, this will lead to concern for those athletes whose goal it is to pack on muscle mass. But what’s actually transpiring is a good thing. What they are losing in size is simply inflammation.

Eat Plants, Work Hard, Build Muscle
Immediately following a weight training workout, the muscles are broken down and thus inflamed. As we know, acid-forming food creates inflammation. Therefore, the consumption of a traditional post-workout smoothie that contains protein isolates will exacerbate the level and rate of inflammation. With inflammation comes size. But with inflammation also come a reduction in functionality.

As the muscles become less functional, their ability to lift weight declines. That’s a problem. Lifting heavy weight is what builds muscles strong, and big. Of course, if the body delves into a less functional state, it simply won’t have the ability to work as intensely. And without the capacity to train hard, muscles cannot continue to grow. In addition, more time is required between training sessions to allow inflammation to dissipate. Since intensity and frequency are the two prime components to a successful muscle-building program, inflammation can well become the greatest single inhibitor of progress.

Post Workout Plant-Based Nutrition: Helping You Help Yourself
In place of isolates and acid-forming animal foods, there are host of plant-based options that will ensure inflammation is kept to a minimum. Post workout, excellent plant-based protein sources include hemp, pea, and rice protein. And while protein is a crucial component for muscle repair and building, so too are essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6), vitamins, minerals, enzymes, probiotics, antioxidants and a host of other nutritional components that can be found in a variety of plant-based whole foods.

This being the case, the post workout smoothies will deliver greater results if it contains these components, not merely protein. Additionally, chlorella—a form of freshwater algae—is an excellent addition to the post-workout smoothie. Due to its exceptionally high chlorophyll content, it’s among the most alkaline-forming foods available. Plus, its protein percentage is almost 70 percent, naturally.

So while plant-based nutrition won’t necessarily make you a better athlete, it will allow you to train harder, thereby making yourself a better athlete. As all great athletes know, success hinges on the ability to pursue it. With improved functionality and less rest required between workouts, success will be yours for the taking.

Kev’s Comments:

I think the lessons of this article are that (1) you can be athletic eating the majority of your protein from plant based sources and (2) there are options out there to vary your amino acid intake.

But, ultimately, the solution is based on your blood tests. Can you function on a pure, vegetarian diet? Do you need some animal food? This is determined by your genetic expression and how your blood tests read.

I think the take away is to experiment. Try plant based proteins only, try other options and continue to monitor your progress — and never stop being inquisitive and willing to try new things.

Your Question of the Day: Where do you get your protein?

Brendan Brazier

Brendan Brazier

Brendan Brazier is a former professional Ironman triathlete, a two-time Canadian 50km Ultra Marathon Champion, the creator of an award-winning line of whole food nutritional products called VEGA, and the bestselling author of Thrive. He is also the developer of the acclaimed ZoN Thrive Fitness program and the formulator of the new (September, 2011) award-winning, 7-product natural VEGA Sport system. His latest book (September, 2011) is called Thrive Foods: 200 Plant-Based Recipes for Peak Health. Read more about Brendan at his website.


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  1. It is certainly possible to be an excellent athlete on a well planned vegetarian diet. But at the same time, we do tend to consider strength from a survival standpoint. When it comes down to it, I wonder what the best diet is for say… boxing, M.M.A., combat of any kind, and sports in general that require both strength and endurance like football, rugby, and the likes of.

  2. Marina says:

    thank you for this great information. I feel amazing/ stronger/ leaner/ happier on a Vegan/ Plant Based Endurance Runner Athlete. Thank you.. Peace Out !!!

  3. Yannick says:

    the protein is not really an issue, it s important to get enough calories from healthy and variety of different foo.
    ever since i started swimming with a competition team and doing their hard workouts in the gym , eating enough calories, sleeping a lot , i ve been packing on about 7 kg muscle over the past year 🙂 ( i never never pay any attention to protein and i m doing great:)

  4. Mike Maybury says:

    Don’t expect me to be able to provide exact dates, names etc. of great athletes and bodybuilders who have followed vegan and vegetarian diets. However, at age 77, and having been a vegetarian for 60 years, I remember from time to time hearing of vegetarian and vegan athletes etc.
    One name I remember is Murray Rose, Australian swimmer who won about 5 gold medals aroiund 1960, I think. Since then, from time to time names have come to my attention, but not always rememberes.
    I know that the 100 m. sprint title was held by a vegan.
    No doubt, either vegetarian or vegan societies or the Internation Vegetarian Union will have all sorts of details.
    I don’t fill my mind with information that is unnecessary for me to remember. In my whole life this is the first opportunity that has presented itself, and I might have taken the capacity of many neurones and synapses to store this information.
    I’m certain that the internet can provide.
    As a kid I was a sprinter and hurdler at school, where I did quite well, but I wasn’t vegetarian then. Due to the overwork required as an architectural student, I had to work at week-ends, so could not train or take part in athletics any more.
    However, the wholefood vegetarian diet, almost vegan for 30 years, that I have consumed since age 17, has kept me going with all the energy I need to dance 20 hours weekly, and walk 2-6 hours daily in suitable weather at age 77. No marathon running for me, but it would certainly be possible.
    I’m certain that it is p[ossible to undertake most, if not all sports, even extreme ones, on a vegetarian diet, but I leave the research and figures to others.
    My own interest is much more to influence ordinary folk, many of whom neglect their health entirely, indulging in smoking and drinking and drugs, to change, or, better still, never to start their bad habits.
    Congratulations, Keven, for all you do in this direction to many thousands of willling listeners.
    Best wishes,

  5. Mike Warkentin says:

    Norman Walker noted something anyone who grew up on the farm noticed: horses build lots of muscle (try pulling even 1/4th of a loaded wagon all day) without eating meat. Many of the weight-lifting protocols get you off track – finally they get so much acid build-up they can no longer build muscle. I am age 54 and have the most muscle of my life – probably 60 pounds more than when 36 – still figuring it out.

  6. Suzy says:

    What about soya protien?

  7. Bryan says:

    Thanks for sharing the blogosphere with Brendan. I have been a vegetarian for the last 22 years, and have been very healthy though got a bit over weight a couple of years ago taking on a high stress sedentary job which led me to realize I was using food for comfort (and it was not green smoothies) LOL Last blood test is getting on 18 months now, so I am due to check in.

    I mix it up in a typical base of 1/2c Coconut Milk or water and a scoop or two of Vitamineral Greens. After that I keep on hand: hulled hemp seeds, chlorella pwd, spirulina pwd, a fermented rice based protein pwd, and a pea based protein pwd mix. I let my hand assist in intuitively grabbing the containers and a number comes into my mind for the scoops to use. After that it is some greens. Rarely do fruit unless some has to be eaten or go bad. Add filtered water for consistency.

  8. Michelle says:

    I weigh 120lbs and have 23% body fat. I want to get under 18%. I currently eat around 77grams of protein a day.I see recommend everywhere that I should eat 1 gram per lean muscle mass to see fat loss results. I’ve seen slower results than I did before I stop eating meat 2 years ago. This is becoming frustrating and could use some advice. I currently use SunWarrior for my post workout, I lift and do interval training 3x’s a week. I’m thinking about including some meat back to see if that will enhance my results especially around the belly area from having my son 1 year ago. I’ve gotten back into all my clothes by just eating 77grams of protein but I feel like my results have stopped. Any thoughts?

  9. Faye says:

    I am not a vegan, but seldom eat meat like beef, pork, chicken or fish. I use Dr Mercola’s protein powder and eggs, along with the vegetables I eat every day. I found I wasn’t getting enough protein or my body wasn’t obsorbing the protein on a vegan or vegetarian type diet, and now I am no longer losing and my hair!
    I also eat chia, chlorella, quinoa and nuts and seeds to increase my protein intake.

  10. Derek says:

    My staple for protein has always been whey concentrate, but I like to include plant based proteins like hemp and spirulina for their overall health benefits.

    Recently after workouts I’ve been making sure to get plenty of greens in both powder and food form. I’ve come to realize over the years the importance in giving the body everything it needs to function optimally and not just isolated components.

  11. Tara Burner says:

    great post! and totally can be plant based/vegan and compete with the ‘others’.
    I know many athletes, marathon runners, and triathletes who do awesome!!!

  12. R - recovering from ED says:

    Thank you SOOO much for this timely and supportive article — I really hope you Kev or Brendan get to answer some of these queries in a follow-up article…

    Have been vegetarian for over 20 years (occasionally eat select fish, purely for nutritional reasons).

    Over the past year I have been in therapy for an eating disorder, and so I’ve increased my caloric intake, to a mix of both my horror and my relief. Increasing calories has increased my overall bodyweight (I guess about 7-10lbs), but I have really been depressed by the obvious diminishing of muscle definition and strength.
    Post workout, typically I eat about 3oz of puree’d silken tofu over mixed berries, topped with my-made dried whole-grains granola. Brendan above says “”In place of isolates and acid-forming animal foods, there are host of plant-based options that will ensure inflammation is kept to a minimum. Post workout, excellent plant-based protein sources include hemp, pea, and rice protein.””
    I’m confused: aren’t all isolates inflammatory? if so, why would plant-based isolates (including soy protein isolates) be less inflammatory (or is that what B is claiming…?)

    I dislike the flavour of hemp, and have never heard of pea protein, and steer away from rice bcz of the high glycemic index/load — clearly not so much an issue if it’s the rice protein — but again these are isolates. Can you offer brand names with these isolates to try…?

    Bottom line : How is a shake/smoothie containing any isolated proteins better than a real, whole food?

    My other sources of protein: any soy product or tofu; eggs and greek yoghurt (either/ or, max 1-2x / week); nuts/seeds.

    Thank you in advance for any clarifications and responses you or Brendan have time to offer. R

  13. Karen says:

    Kevin, can you do us an after workout smoothie recipe sometime – like one you would use?

  14. Kate says:

    I get my protein from beans, nuts, seeds, and dark green veggies. And I feel fantastic when I stick to that. If meat or dairy sneak in, it’s not so bad (if it’s in VERY small amounts)…but too large and I start to feel (and look) like crap.

    I am SOOOOOOOO stoked that you posted this! I had no idea Mr. Brazier had another book out. I loved ‘Thrive’!!! Can’t wait to read this new one!! WHOOHOO!!!

  15. Dana Naylor says:

    I’m a big fan of Brenden’s, have read his books and follow a lot of his protocol for training and recovery, specifically focusing on high alkaline foods. For those of you not familiar with him, he has his own line of products called “Vega” including plant based protein powder, here is the link to his site

    Thanks for the post and discussion

  16. LynnCS says:

    To Yannick, #3. Thank you for your post saying you don’t pay attention to your protein levels. I hear this from many vegan/vegetarian teachers. It’s just a hard concept to change. I’m getting better at accepting that I get enough with a well rounded low fat fruit and vegetable diet with some nuts and seeds. I do enjoy some quinoa and/or brown rice from time to time. Have to remember that it’s the workout that counts, and having a great meal after the workout with good variety. Thanks, Kevin for bringing us this article.

  17. Galatea says:

    Hi Kevin,

    You wrote: “But, ultimately, the solution is based on your blood tests. Can you function on a pure, vegetarian diet? Do you need some animal food? This is determined by your genetic expression and how your blood tests read.”

    Which tests are you referring to? And, what does “genetic expression” signify in this context?

    Thank you,


  18. Steph/Cliff says:

    Thank you Kevin & Maria for all your helpful advice you have so kindly given over the years.
    I am 63. I have been working hard on my internal Flora to help me digest my foods – which is working well.
    Now starting to build up a little shape and muscles to make me feel and look better. But my body is missing something more in diet, as I can’t put on more muscle and weight. 7stone 4lb.
    I have been using Sun Warrier and lots of fresh geen foods, I look after my vitamin and mineral intake. I have always looked after my food intake. (no processed)
    I would like to know what you, Maria or Brendan have as a good protein – workout drink.
    All these well known people produce these different protein powders, but they each produce many different ones, should I use one, more than one type, which type for my age, body, weight etc.,
    There is lots of help for people to loose weight, but very little help for those who want to gain some weight and muscle.

  19. Harlow says:

    To Michelle: 120pounds and 23% body fat is ideal, isn’t under 20% body fat way too thin? That’s what I’ve been told and read also.

    I eat fish, eggs, goats or sheep fetta for my protein. Plant based I use chia, green leafy salads, small amount of nuts and seeds. I tried going vegan and my body needs animal protein, so I stick to small fish like sardines and mackerel.

  20. Harlow says:

    To Michelle: 120pounds and 23% body fat is ideal, isn’t under 20% body fat way too thin? That’s what I’ve been told and read also.

    I eat fish, eggs, goats or sheep fetta for my protein. Plant based I use chia, green leafy salads, small amount of nuts and seeds, chlorella and spirulina powders. I tried going vegan but my body needs animal protein, so I stick to small fish like sardines and mackerel.

  21. Joyce says:

    Hi Yes that would be lovely to have a post work out recipe based on what Brendan wrote and ought it to be eaten right after or half an hour after the workout ? xxxJ

  22. Frank Berg says:

    Since the doctor told me at the age of 63,”We have nothing more for you. Come back when you are dieing and we can help you die”, I have had to do lots of study into good health and longevity. I am now 78 years old and working every day in work that takes some lifting and walking. I must have been doing some things right. I have done a lot of things and it is hard to isolate the correct ones from all the bad.
    We all bring forward with us the things we were doing that gave us bad health. As we learn and try different things we drop off some of the bad ones, but as our health improves we tend to slack off and go back to the old familiar past. This see-saw makes it take longer to reach optimum health but it is sometimes the way we learn. We take two steps forward and one step back.
    In my past poor health life I was told many times that I felt hot.I don’t mean hot in bed wink-wink (to borrow one of Kevin’s phrases) My body felt hot all the time. Though I mentioned it to my doctor any number of times, nothing ever was done about it. Now I know it was infection that caused it. Is there any wonder that I got Fibermyalgy Spelling?. My biceps muscles got as hard as a wooden board and not useful to me any more. The doctor told me to plan to be an invalid the rest of my life. I didn’t like that advice.
    I was on a high beef stake diet. If it could be barbecued It was my food. Of course this meant there was always lots of sugary sauces. This was not good for someone with Candida. Though I didn’t know I had it till I got serious about getting to better health.
    I gradually learned to stay closer to vegetables and a few not so sweet fruits like berries and green apples. I stay away from GMO cherries, grapes,(I only use the seeds-in type) peaches, watermelon (except the seeds-in variety) I take supplements to re-build my liver. To re-build my digestive trac and control candida I make my own brand of coconut kefer. I take the water from a young (White) coconut. Into the same glass jar I open a capsule of Acidophilus & Bifidus. Along with one of Multi Probiotics. I let i stand on the back of the stove for a day or two or three, until the bacteria gets a chance to grow in numbers. The mix is ready when it gets a slight wine taste. I sip on it from the fridge a few times a day. I found it also gives a fresh taste in my mouth first thing in the morning. It offers good bacteria in your mouth if sipped before bed. A by product is that it whitens your teeth and takes away the plaque.
    I can not speak to a raw food diet because with few teeth left it is hard to eat radish, carrots, celery, turnip and such like, but I like them all cooked, cut fine or mashed. I eat very little meat. I have full use of my arms and the rest of my body and without pain except sometimes from over-use. Thanks Kevin for sharing your guest with us. I learned a lot.

  23. casey says:

    i really enjoyed this article, would love to see more like it. Thanks!

  24. michael westrick says:

    Great article…….Do you really believe the blood type stuff? It has been de- bunked by so many health spicialist……..That would make a good video since some health professionals believe in it and most do not…….It seems the one who do believe in it usually sell supplements……Love you journey…….You rock

  25. Megan says:

    I buy Vega!! Its fantastic!!!! 🙂

  26. Awesome article – as always.
    I’ve been told by my doc to eat more to put on both fat and muscle, so I’ve added SunWarrior raw protein into my diet, in addition to hemp powder which I already consume.
    Already eat a lot of beans and peas and nuts and seeds and green leafy vegs and all other vegs and fruits..

    The protein debate will go on forever i reckon :]

  27. Scott says:

    For a post-exercise protein smoothie, I now use SunWarrior Protein. Based on my own personal experience, I needed to add a supplemental protein to my diet once I strated to eat mostly raw/vegan/healthy and exercise. Relying solely on whole plant foods for protein did not cut it for me. It left me with a weakened body and muscle-deprived.

    I would think that Brendan would recommend his VEGA and VEGA-SPORT line of products. I have yet to try the protein powder, but the protein bars are good. I do wish these products were certified organic.

    Thanks for the useful information.

  28. roy traies says:

    As a lean guy of 74 with good muscle tone my recommendation would be work outs need to be every other day and not daily as recovery time is so important .
    A good nerve nutritional formula twice daily breakfast and lunch will stop you burning off your condition so quickly.If you need to use a powder use a combination one with a good carbs level to protein mix
    Do keep your work outs to the power shorter ones but do not overload .
    Also keep your Calcium Magnesium levels up and the more protein you use the more minerals you require.

  29. roy traies says:

    The above reply was for Steiph

  30. Annette says:

    I would like to know more about the product Body by Vi; Visalus Sciences. I hear it’s big in the States; now it coming to Canada. Apparently people lose weight on this plan in a very short amount of time.
    Soy Protein Isolate is the first ingredient; the estrogen component is taken out. Hormone levels are leveled out by following the plan. I learned lots of information about this product recently but I am not convinced that this is the way to go.
    Kevin, could you provide some information on this product?
    It is a Nutritional meal Replacement Shake Mix.
    What I really need is a plan; something I don’t do too well with and get sidetracked and bored easily.
    Thanks for all that you teach!

  31. Jo says:

    Kevin, from what Brendan wrote, an athlete can get ALL their protein from plant-based sources. BUT, you wrote in summation that an athlete can get “a majority” of their protein from plants. It seems to me that you are diluting Brendan’s message.

  32. Tara says:

    I bought both of these books. They have great information. A question I have is if the 12 week program in Brendan’s Thrive book is geared toward just men? It doesn’t really say if this amount of food should be consumed by women also. I know the program can work for women but how much is the right amount of calories to consume when incorporating cardio and training from a womans standpoint?

    Thanks for sharing…

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