This will be a 2 part series on protein and the truth and myths surrounding it as it pertains to muscle building in the vegetarian and vegan community. There’s a lot of confusing information out there about vegetarian and vegan diets. It becomes especially confusing if you’re not just looking to be healthy, but also to build muscle.
The moral arguments for eating a vegan diet often bias the health arguments. By the time you get to the muscle-building arguments, the information is usually flat out wrong.
This creates a big issue for those who are struggling to build muscle while eating a plant-based diet for moral reasons. You can build muscle with a vegetarian or a vegan diet, but your protein sources really do matter big time.
In this article, we’ll first cover what protein is and why protein quality matters. This is important because it will explain why this article will be radically different than every trending article on your Facebook feed.
Then, we’ll cover the best vegetarian and vegan protein sources and go over some strategies that make it easier to get the protein your body needs to grow.
If you’re getting your protein from plants, grains, legumes, seeds and nuts, you will need to be more deliberate with your protein to ensure that you feel your best and to help with building muscle. This can be confusing, because isn’t plant-based protein “better”—like all those blogs write?
We have to be careful to not let moral arguments bias how we perceive reality. This way we can understand any possible setbacks with plant-based proteins, and then come up with gameplan to overcome it. When it comes to building muscle, plant-based proteins have a number of disadvantages, but nothing that can’t be solved!If you eat a pescatarian or vegetarian diet, not as much thought needs to be given to your protein sources because fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt provide all 9 essential amino acids. They’re “complete proteins.” Since any mix of any of those protein sources will give you all the specific amino acids you need, you can just worry about how much protein you eat overall, not what types of protein you eat. These protein sources are also digested fairly efficiently, and have a higher protein content per calorie.
But with a purely plant-based diet, it gets more complex. As an example, many plant-based websites list almonds as a food with a good source of protein. While there is protein in almonds, it’s only 15% of the total energy (calories) in the almond. Almonds are, in fact, 77% fat. If you’re trying to get, for example, 30% of your calories from protein, this takes you further away from your goal. Almonds are not a good enough source of protein per calorie, and are also deficient in 3 amino acids. This doesn’t mean that almonds aren’t healthy—they’re very healthy—but it does mean that they aren’t the best source of protein, and may not contribute that much to your muscle-building goals.
A lot of the conventional vegan diet wisdom is not designed with naturally thin people in mind. Still, if you plan your vegan diet properly, eating only plant-based protein sources can be more than good enough to help you healthfully build all the muscle you want while staying true to your values.
How much protein should we eat?
For general health, having a modest protein intake can be ok, especially if you aren’t very active. But muscle is constructed out of protein, so as soon as you want to build muscle, it takes quite a lot more.
0.8 grams of protein per pound bodyweight is technically the minimum amount of protein you can eat per day to build a maximal amount of muscle, but we normally round this up to 1 g per pound. That takes into account that there might be some guesstimating when calculating your daily protein intake or serving sizes, and it accounts for your protein quality not being totally perfect.
On that note, as someone who will be eating plant-based protein sources, protein quality can be something valuable to learn about.
What is protein quality and why does it even matter?
If the protein is hard to digest, it will be harder for our body to break that protein down into the amino acids that it needs. If it doesn’t digest well, your body can’t use it.
On top of that, some plant-based protein sources don’t even have all the essential amino acids we need in the first place. So “protein quality” is how easily a protein can be digested into the amino acids that we need. For an example, check out these protein quality scores of common protein powders and foods (study, study) from Dr. Stuart Philips’ meta-analysis of all the available research:
This means that to get the same score as you would from whey isolate, you’d need to eat 33% more pea protein. If you prefer rice protein powder, you’d have to eat 294% more! This might be a problem depending on how expensive rice protein is, how much you can eat, how well you feel while eating a lot of it, etc.
So when it comes to problem solving, perhaps it’s worth going for soy protein isolate instead given it’s much higher protein quality score? The problem is that most plant-based resources don’t discuss topics like this, so many eating a vegan diet are accidentally getting much less protein than they think they are.
That brings us to the next question—so what? What’s the problem with not eating as much protein as you think? Well that’s also a great question to address in our next blog, so stay tuned for our follow up where we will dive a little deeper and get some additional clarity.
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