Not Eating Enough Protein Means Your Gym Efforts Will Be Wasted
Dr. Philips references a study from 2013 where they compared people who lifted weights over a 9 month period (96 workouts). The only thing that was different between the groups was whether they were using whey protein, soy protein, or a carb supplement (study).
At the end of that 9-month period, the people taking whey protein had 83% better gains than those taking the soy protein. The people who were taking the carb supplement did even worse since they weren’t getting any additional protein.
That’s why protein quality matters.
If I put in 9 months of hard work in the gym, I would find it incredibly frustrating to only get half the results of someone else just because I hadn’t known that I needed to factor in the protein quality of my protein supplement when deciding how much to take.
After all, I could have gotten equally good results if I’d only known to take slightly more protein powder.
So what can we do to make sure that those eating a plant-based diet can still build muscle at full speed?
Leucine And Muscle Protein Synthesis
Research has consistently demonstrated that one amino acid, leucine, is what “turns on” muscle protein synthesis (MPS). This makes leucine the crucial amino acid driving muscle growth in people who are still thin.
People who are already quite muscular are limited by how many nuclei they have in their muscle fibres, but those of us who are still thin don’t have this problem—we grow simply by stimulating muscle protein synthesis.
This makes protein especially important for us, but explains why people who are already muscular don’t pay as much attention to the quality of their protein.
How do we stimulate muscle growth? Researchers believe there’s a threshold for how much leucine we need in a meal to ensure that we build as much muscle as possible as we digest that meal over the course of the next few hours.
Dr. Layne Norton has written that each meal needs about 3.2g to maximally spike MPS. That’s the amount of leucine contained in a 27g scoop of whey protein isolate.
The good news is that you can get that perfect muscle-building response with lots of different plant-based protein sources—even pea protein. You just need to make sure that your servings are the right size (reference here). In Dr. Philips review, he wrote that a 48g serving of pea protein would have 3.8g of leucine—more than enough on paper to clear the leucine threshold.
But the question of the bioavailability/digestibility of the pea protein is still there. If pea protein is 33% more difficult to digest than whey protein, and you would need 3.2g of leucine, would that mean you’d actually need 4.2g of leucine from pea protein?
The research is still clearing through these dense forests when it comes to muscle protein synthesis, protein quality, leucine and it’s effects, etc. However, based on current research it may be a good idea to increase your plant-based protein servings a little higher to make absolutely sure that you’re giving your body enough protein to work with.
There might be other solutions coming as well. One study has already shown that those eating a vegan diet will soon be able to take a digestive enzyme to help break down plant-based proteins more easily to improve it’s quality score.
The Best Vegetarian And Vegan Protein Sources
There are no specific foods that will be the sole reason for your downfall or success, but there are ideal diets. When it comes to plant-based protein sources, this is especially true. One protein source might be deficient in Lysine, another deficient in Valine. But so long as you aren’t relying on just one or the other, everything should be okay.
Through a comprehensive and varied vegan diet, you should be able to reach all your essential amino acids for health. It’s important to take this seriously, though, as being deficient in any of the “essential” amino acids listed below will prevent your body from building muscle properly, not to mention being very bad for your health.
The 9 essential amino acids
So the ideal vegan diet would include a variety of protein sources where one food would make up for another food’s deficiencies and vice versa. This is why it’s better to choose protein powder blends, like pea and pumpkin seed protein powder, rather than just plain pea protein.
Eating Enough Protein To Grow
Eating enough protein to be healthy is one thing, but in order to grow you need to go above and beyond what’s needed to be healthy. These protein sources also need to have a strategic blend of amino acids, and they need enough leucine to fully stimulate muscle growth.
Vegetarian foods that have a lot of protein per calorie:
- Greek Yogurt
- Whey Protein
- Egg Whites
- Cottage Cheese
Vegan foods that have a lot of protein per calorie:
- Spinach, cooked
- Textured Vegetable Protein / Veggie Burgers
If you’re still having trouble hitting your daily protein goals, remember that there are lots of great plant-based protein powder blends that can make this a lot easier.
Bonus: Non-Protein Supplements
All vegans should be supplementing with vitamin b12, which is only found in high enough quantities in animal sources like seafood, dairy and meat. (Fortified cereals can have b12 supplements built into them.)
In the July 2015 issue of Alan Aragon’s Research review, Aman Duggal wrote that those eating a vegan diet should also highly consider supplementing with taurineand carnitine given research that many eating a vegan diet are deficient in these.
Others, like Russell Taylor, recommend taking algae that contains EPA/DHA, iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium, and creatine.
Because women also have higher needs for iron, women eating a vegan diet may want to especially consider getting their iron levels checked to see if they should be supplementing with iron.
Bonus: How to Eat Enough to Gain Weight
If you’re looking to build muscle and gain weight, you’ll need to eat more calories than your body needs. Eating enough to gain weight is difficult for almost everyone who is naturally skinny. We often have higher metabolisms paired with smaller stomachs, to name just a couple challenges.
Getting over these kinds of issues is what our women’s weight-gain program specializes in, but we can go over a couple quick tips here.
Research shows that foods that are high in protein, fibre or water are the most filling. It’s virtually impossible to eat enough to gain weight if you focus on foods like broccoli, fruits, and legumes. They’re too rich in fibre and water. Even a hearty lentil stew will often be fairly low in calories for how filling it is.
One quick tip would be to introduce liquid calories. Drinking calories doesn’t affect our appetites in the same was as eating them does, and our stomachs can often process them quite quickly. A good way to do this is to make smoothies with protein powder blended in.
Another tip would be to eat foods with less water content like dried fruit such as prunes or dried mango’s to help get those calories in.
You can also mix healthy fats into your foods. Nut butters, chocolate and coconut oil are good for this. Adding some almond butter to a smoothie, some dark chocolate to your cereal, or adding some coconut oil to a lentil stew are good ways to boost their calorie content.
Baking can also help. There are lots of good recipes for cookies made out of oats, lentils, chocolate and sweeteners—all great sources of calories when trying to build muscle. Imagine finishing dinner and realizing you’re still 500 calories short. Despair at the thought might quickly turn to joy as you remember the banana bread cooling on the countertop.
- Those eating vegetarian and vegan diets can still build muscle perfectly well, you just need to be more thoughtful.
- The more variety, the better. When eating a plant-based diet, eat a large variety of foods to prevent amino acid deficiencies. (Note: vegetarian protein sources, like dairy and eggs, are complete proteins. They remove the need for eating a wide variety of protein sources.)
- Err on the side of eating more protein than you think you need. Going 30% over your daily goals might allow you to build muscle even more quickly.
- Use protein powders. Supplementing with protein powders can make hitting your protein goals a lot easier, and choosing protein powder blends, like pea/pumpkin seed, is best.
- Try to eat some protein with every meal. If you can get around 3g of leucine in a meal, you’ll stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth during the next few hours. If you’re doing that 4–5 times each day, you can build muscle veryquickly.
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