For a long time, it was thought that you couldn’t recover properly from workouts and build muscle without meat in your diet. But new science shows otherwise. Here, sports dietitians spill the beans on what you need to know.

It's no secret that interest in plant-based diets is booming. In fact, more than half of Americans are looking to curb their meat and dairy consumption and eat more produce, according to a recent survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Yet many active people are concerned that going meatless (or almost meatless) won't give them enough of the quality protein they need to build muscle and recover from their workouts, says Natalie Rizzo, M.S., RD, a New York-based dietitian who specializes in vegan and vegetarian diets for athletes.

The good news: research suggests that plant-forward diets can be as effective—if not more so—at building strength and helping you get the best results from your efforts. Follow these tips to ensure you fuel your body right.

Mix up your protein sources

Our bodies need protein to help repair and build muscle. And it's true that animal proteins are the most efficient sources—they have more protein per gram and contain all nine essential amino acids in adequate amounts. But you can still meet your needs with plant-based proteins. The key: variety, says sports dietitian Angie Asche, M.S., RD, CSSD, owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition in Lincoln, Nebraska. Because plant proteins vary in their amino acid content, Asche recommends including lots of different nutritious sources—such as nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains—in your day for the best recovery.

This doesn't mean that you need more protein than meat-eaters, though, notes Rizzo. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that active people aim for at least half a gram of protein per pound of body weight a day, but sets the top of the range at 0.8 gram per pound. That's 75 to 120 grams for a 150-pound person, which adds up quickly considering that 1⁄2 cup chickpeas and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter each contain about 7 grams of protein.

a cutout of a woman filled with vegetables
Credit: Getty Images / Martin Barraud / PeopleImages

Balance your recovery with carbs

After a tough workout, your body goes into recuperation mode for around 24 hours— replenishing stored carbohydrates and rebuilding muscles so you're ready for your next session. "Since your body can only use so much carbohydrate and protein at a time, the goal is to eat modest amounts of both at each meal and snack to aid in recovery," says Rizzo. That could mean a post-run nibble of a piece of fruit with some nut butter or a grain bowl filled with protein-rich bulgur wheat and veggies for lunch. Rizzo adds that including healthy sources of fats like oils, nuts and seeds can also ward off post-exercise inflammation—and the stiffness and soreness it can cause.

Make sure you get what you need

As you swap animal food sources for plants, there are a few important nutrients to be aware of. Regular workouts can deplete your stores of iron and lead to fatigue. Many plants contain non-heme iron, but it's not absorbed as well as the heme variety found in animals, explains Rizzo. Adding vitamin-C-rich foods like bell peppers and broccoli to meals can improve iron uptake. Other nutrients you may fall short on include vitamin B12—it's only in animal foods, so you may consider taking a supplement— and calcium, which is in plants like soy, fortified cereals and green vegetables (think: kale, bok choy, spinach). Your muscles— heck, your whole body—will thank you.

EatingWell, May 2021