Earlier this month, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study concerning plant and animal protein—and the benefits of each. The pressing question researchers were looking for an answer to: does plant protein build muscles as well as meat protein?
The short answer is yes. Here’s why:
Researchers looked at the health records of nearly 3,000 men and women ages 19 to 72, as well as food questionnaires that the participants filled out. The researchers estimated the participants’ total protein intake as well as their dietary percentages of protein from specific sources, such as fast food, full-fat or low-fat dairy, red meat, fish, chicken, and legumes. They also looked at participants’ lean muscle mass, bone mineral density, and quadriceps strength—all measures that are important for fitness, health, and better functioning, especially as we get older.
When the researchers compared this data,
they found that people who consumed the least amount of protein overall also had the lowest measures of muscle mass and strength. But the type of protein people ate didn’t seem to matter: After the researchers adjusted for other factors, they found the differences in protein sources had no impacts on musculoskeletal health, for men or for women.
According to the study authors,
These results suggest that eating more protein is related to better muscle health.
This becomes especially important in middle-age and later in life, they add, since people tend to lose muscle as they get older. (Protein intake did not have a significant effect on bone-mineral density in this study, although it has in previous research.)
Lead author Kelsey Mangano, PhD, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, says: “As long as a person is exceeding the recommended daily allowance for protein, no matter the source in their diet, they can improve their muscle health,” she says.
In other words, people who want to go meatless can still build muscle with the help of quinoa, peas, nuts, beans, and soy.
It’s also important to remember that the study only looked at bone and muscle health—just two components of good health overall. “When we think about our health as a whole it is important to decrease intakes of saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars,” says Mangano, who is also a registered dietitian.
When it comes to other benefits—like, say, living longer or losing weight—many studies have suggested that plant-based protein has an edge.