Powered By Plants: Making The Change To A Plant-Based Diet – Can Vegans Build Muscle Mass?

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Welcome to our new monthly column Powered By Plants, where vegan-powered fitness guru & BOOST Health podcast host Paul Sandburg will take on everything from intermittent fasting to successful morning routines to HRV tracking. In his inaugural piece, he talks about how and why he made to the permanent switch to a plant-based diet.

In the summer of 2013 I was in pain. After meals, my stomach always felt bloated and uncomfortable. This was exacerbated when I exercised. At the time, I was doing my usual strength workouts as well as training for triathlon and duathlon races. I had hit a wall from a performance standpoint in all disciplines. I was trying out various strategies to push past this, such as eating different foods, eating at different times pre and post workout, and changing my workout sequencing. Nothing was working. I was desperate to feel better.

One day, I was working out with my friend Tanner and he suggested I try a plant-based diet to see if that would help. He had made the switch about six months earlier and was loving how good he felt. I wasn’t so sure about this for me though. My primary concern, and one that everyone worries about unnecessarily I now know, was: how was I going to get enough protein? Strength training and building muscle had always been a huge part of my life. What if I lost some of that hard-earned muscle? What if a plant-based diet made me skinny and weak? 

A couple of days later Tanner sent me a link to listen to an episode of the Rich Roll Podcast featuring the musician and Ironman enthusiast John Joseph as his guest. Rich and John had a very explicit and gritty conversation about how powerful switching to a plant-based diet was. For some reason their message resonated with me. Maybe it was because they were athletic, and tough- and let’s face it John is pretty cool, punk rock legend that he is! Maybe it was because I really wanted something to help me feel better. Maybe I was just curious. Maybe it was a mix of all these things. Whatever it was, the next day, September 12 2013, I switched to a plant-based diet and I have never looked back.

My stomach pain completely went away and I started to feel amazing during my training sessions. About one month after the switch, I had lost five pounds and 3% body fat, but even more surprising: I had gained 1.5% of muscle mass! My fear that I would lose strength or muscle quickly faded away. My body composition progress actually continued over the months and years. It’s been five years since I started my plant-based journey and here are the stats as of today: body fat down 9%, muscle mass up 5%, weigh down by 9 pounds. The numbers speak for themselves.

But here’s the kicker: my performance improved along with these composition changes. A year into my new lifestyle, I shaved a whopping 26 minutes off my total triathlon time as compared to the previous year. I was also stronger in the gym, which was a huge driver for me. I’ll be honest: if I had started to lose strength or muscle mass, I would definitely not have stuck with a vegan diet.

Moral of the story? Plants are powerful! You don’t need to worry about protein, lost performance, diminished strength, or macros and micros when switching to a plant-based diet. With proper planning, you can actually thrive, and even maximize your potential!

Want more? LISTEN to BOOST Health’s Podacst Episode with Green Queen founder Sonalie Figueiras.

Lead photo courtesy of Kirk Kenny / Studio Zag.


  • Paul Sandburg

    Paul Sandburg is the Founder and Director of BOOST Health. He is a long-time student of health, wellness & fitness and has been working in the industry for nearly 20 years. Paul has a bachelor’s degree in Human Biology, a master’s degree in Business Administration, and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). A firm believer in the importance of being open-minded and curious, he founded BOOST HEALTH with a mission to inspire people to live a healthier and more balanced life.

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