Plant Protein Can Be Just As Effective As Animal Protein for Muscle Gains

As long as you’re getting the amount of protein you need for those gains, the source isn’t as important.

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  • A high-protein, exclusively plant-based diet supports muscle strength and mass gains in response to resistance training just as well as a high-protein diet that includes animal foods, according to a study published in Sports Medicine.
  • Previous resistance training studies have shown that animal protein is superior for acute protein turnover (the replacement of protein that stimulates muscle growth), but this is the first study to look at the chronic muscle-adaptations from resistance training in vegans compared to omnivores.

You need two things to build muscle: resistance training and protein. Experts agree on the former, but there’s been great debate about the latter.

Specifically, many have contended that animal protein is superior for making strength and muscle-mass gains, because it has a greater amino acid content (especially leucine) and higher digestibility. But a new study shows that when it comes to making muscle, a steady high-protein, plant-based diet appears to work just as well.

In the study, researchers had 38 men, with an average age of 26, start a 12-week leg-focused resistance training program. They performed incline leg press and leg extension exercises at the same time of day, twice a week. Half of the men in the group were longtime vegans and half were longtime omnivores.

The participants followed their usual diet, while adding a supplement (soy for the vegans and whey for the omnivores) to ensure they were all getting 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight—the amount recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine to support athletic activity.

At the end of three months, both groups showed significant increases in leg lean mass and hypertrophy. And both improved the amount of weight they could push on the leg press. There were no significant differences between the groups for strength or muscle gains.

The authors concluded that as long as you’re getting the amount of protein you need, the source isn’t as important. The key factor there is making sure you’re hitting those high-protein marks—and purely plant-based athletes may find that they need more supplementation in order to get the amount they need. The researchers noted that the vegan lifters needed about 58 grams a day of supplemental soy protein to get 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram. By comparison, the lifters in the omnivore group needed to supplement 41 grams per day to get that amount.

Finally, this study was done on relatively young men; further research needs to be done on other populations, such as older adults and women who may have more trouble making and maintaining muscle and may benefit from specific protein sources.

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Though this study was done on weight lifters, research shows that endurance athletes like runners also need higher amounts of protein than the general population and can benefit from getting the upper end of the daily recommended intake for athletes in general (1.2 – 2 grams of protein per kilogram) to maintain their muscle and recover from daily training.

Looking for good plant-based sources of protein? Try the following:

  • Seitan — 21 grams per 3 ounces
  • Lentils — 18 grams per cup
  • Edamame — 17 grams per cup
  • Beans — 15 grams per cup
  • Chick peas — 5 grams per cup
  • Veggie burger — 15 grams per patty
  • Tofu — 12 grams per 4 ounces
  • Spelt — 11 grams per cooked cup
  • Peas —9 grams per cup
  • Hemp seeds — 9 grams per 3 Tbsp
  • Quinoa — 8 grams per cup
  • Nut butter — 8 grams per 2 Tbsp
  • Soy milk — 7 gram per cup
  • Seeds and nuts — 6 to 8 grams per ¼ cup

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