If You Eat a Vegan Diet, Here’s What You Need to Know about Protein

If You Eat a Vegan Diet, Here’s What You Need to Know about Protein

(Last Updated On: March 31, 2019)

vegan diet

The interest in vegan diets is growing. Do a search on Google trends and you’ll see the number of searches has risen over time and the growth is steady, unlike other more faddish diets that climb in interest like a trendy, overhyped stock and falls just as quickly. In contrast, the Paleo diet trend has leveled off somewhat in search numbers, despite its continuing popularity.

Why are people more interested in plant-based and vegan diets these days? Usually, people choose a vegan or plant-based diet for ethical reasons or are motivated by health concerns. Ethical reasons include concerns about how animals are treated by the food industry and questions about how meat production impacts the environment.

What about those who adopt a vegan diet for health? Eating more plant-based foods is linked with a lower risk of some health problems, including cardiovascular disease, but it’s not clear whether a vegan diet offers benefits over a more diverse diet that includes lots of plants like the Mediterranean diet. Mediterranean eating focuses on plant-based foods and de-emphasizes red meat, but includes some animal-based foods, particularly fish and modest amounts of poultry.

If you eat a vegan diet, you might also be concerned about getting enough protein, especially if you’re physically active and trying to build muscle. Is this concern well-founded?  It depends. If you flip through the magazine Vegan Health and Fitness, you’ll see many muscle-bound people who follow a vegan diet, and dietitians often point out that it’s still possible to build muscle on a vegan diet. However, you will have to make a conscious effort to get enough protein from plant-based sources.

Most Plant-Based Foods Lack One or More Essential Amino Acids

Some amino acids, the building blocks of protein, your body can make. In fact, your body can make 11 of the amino acids humans need for health. There are 9 that it can’t make. These are called essential amino acids, meaning your body must get them from dietary sources. A deficiency in one or more essential amino acids makes it hard to build muscle or preserve the muscle you have. So, getting enough of the essential amino acids is vital for health.

Many plant-based foods lack one or more essential amino acids. An exception is soy. Soy-based foods, including tempeh, tofu, and miso, are one of the few plant-based protein sources that contain all the essential amino acids that your body needs from outside sources. Maybe that’s why soy burgers are so popular with vegans! Certain seeds, like chia, hemp, and quinoa, are also a complete source of essential amino acids, although they’re typically low in one or more essential amino acids.

If you eat a plant-based diet, you can make up for this shortfall by consuming a variety of plant-based foods. For example, whole grains contain the amino acids that legumes, like beans and lentils lack, and vice versa. By eating different plant-based protein sources, you get all the essential amino acids you need without eating meat or dairy. You don’t have to get all the essential amino acids at one meal. For example, you can eat whole grains at one meal and beans later in the day and still get all the necessary amino acids in a manner your body can use.

If you eat a vegan diet, you’ll need slightly more protein in your diet, as plant-based protein isn’t digested and absorbed as efficiently as protein from animal sources. On the other hand, you’ll also naturally consume more fiber, a dietary component most of us don’t get enough of. Plus, a combination of protein and fiber is satiating.

Does a Vegan Diet Limit Muscle Hypertrophy?

You can get enough protein from a vegan diet, but are you at a muscle-building disadvantage if you don’t consume meat or dairy?  A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at the impact plant versus animal protein has on body composition. Researchers charted the dietary habits of 3,000 adult men and women of all ages. They were particularly interested in the quantity and type of protein the participants consumed. The researchers also measured parameters such as quadriceps strength, lean body mass, and bone mineral density.

What did they find? According to this study, it doesn’t matter what type of protein you eat as long as you consume enough of it. Participants who ate less protein had lower quantities of muscle and were weaker. But among participants who ate sufficient quantities of protein, the type of protein they ate didn’t matter. They had similar degrees of strength and lean body mass. This study is observational and doesn’t show causation, yet it suggests that as long as you consume enough plant-based protein and get it from a variety of sources, you can maintain similar muscle mass to people who eat an omnivorous diet. One drawback is this study didn’t look at the impact of various forms of protein on hypertrophy gains in response to weight training.

Plant Foods Lack Creatine

Studies show creatine improves performance for strength and power exercise, but creatine is only found in meat and dairy. Although your liver can make creatine, it doesn’t necessarily make enough to optimize exercise performance. Research shows vegetarians and vegans have lower amounts of creatine in their muscle. It’s possible that vegetarians and vegans may benefit from supplementing with creatine. Having more creatine available may enhance strength-training performance in people who eat plant-based foods and have less muscle creatinine. Vegetarians and vegans also have lower levels of carnosine in their muscles. Studies show carnosine may boost muscle fatigue and improve muscle endurance. That can work in your favor if you’re trying to build muscle. You can increase carnosine by supplementing with beta-alanine, a supplement popular among bodybuilders.

 

References:

·        The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 145, Issue 9, 1 September 2015, Pages 1981–1991.

·        Health.com. “Does Plant Protein Build Muscle as Well as Meat?”

·        J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jul;25(7):1804-15. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e741cf.

·        J Sports Sci Med. 2003 Dec 1;2(4):123-32. eCollection 2003 Dec

·        J Appl Physiol (1985). 2007 Nov;103(5):1736-43. Epub 2007 Aug 9.

 

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