Don’t believe the common misconception that you have to eat meat to get big. Here’s how you can build muscle on a vegan diet.

Thirty years ago, Matthew Kenney was an aspiring teenage bodybuilder. Now, he’s one of the most accomplished raw food chefs in America, having opened Matthew Kenney OKC in 2009, a raw vegan restaurant in Oklahoma City that Forbes magazine called one of “America’s Best Restaurants” the following year.

Matthew-Kenney's-Raw-Food-Diet-Pear-Smoothie

You would think, then, that Kenney, himself a vegan, abandoned his bodybuilding roots around the same time he stopped eating meat. You’d be wrong. Kenney hits the weights just as hard now at age 48 as he did 10 years ago, before he started eating raw, and he has several bodybuilder friends who also eat raw exclusively.

“The raw food diet as we speak about it refers to a plant-based diet of raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sprouted greens that are not heated above 105–110°,” says Kenney, author of the cookbooks Everyday Raw and Raw Food Real World.

“The enzymes and nutrients are still alive, so the foods are very healing because they’re more digestible.” Among the tangible benefits of eating raw, according to Kenney are that it can reverse such ailments as diabetes, arthritis, and joint pain as well as provide ample energy throughout the day. Kenney also considers a raw diet to be extremely physique-friendly, in terms of both adding size and losing body fat.

“You can actually train more intensely on a plant-based diet than when following a standard diet because your recovery time is faster, you have fewer injuries, and you have more energy,” he says. “You may not be able to bulk up to 265 pounds, but developing lean muscle mass is fully attainable.”

Raw Fuel

Among the many raw-food proponents is Mark Martell, a New York-based pharmacist, trainer, and bodybuilder who currently weighs 212 pounds at 7%–8% body fat, down from 24% body fat three years ago. In that time, Martell’s daily protein consumption has never exceeded 125 grams—“all of which has consisted of plant-based fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and superfoods,” he says. Below is a shopping list of foods Martell recommends for any bodybuilder or athlete.

Fruits: Dates, Blueberries, Bananas, Grapes, Cantaloupe, Orange, Watermeolon, Grapefruit, Mango, Limes, Apple, Lemon

Nuts: Raw Almonds

Leafy Greens: Romaine, Kale, Spinach

Super Foods: Chia seeds, Goji Berries, Moringa Leaf, Ashwagandlha, Dulse, Flaxseeds

Vegetables: Squash, Cucumbers, Beets, Avocado

And Also: Cilantro, parsley, Himalayan salt, tomatoes, carrots, maca root powder, spirulina, chlorella, quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth.

Plant-based Bulk

Matthew Kenney’s book Everyday Raw, where he writes about the raw food diet (Gibbs Smith, 2008) features this appropriately named mass-building smoothie:

“The Muscle” Smoothie

  • 5 fresh pears (cut in quarters and cored)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp hemp protein
  • 2 tbsp mesquite pod meal
  • 2 cups almond milk
  • 2 tbsp agave
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 pinch sea salt

Blend all ingredients on high for 30–40 seconds. Enjoy!