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It’s the question that’s haunted us for years: what protein does it take to build muscle on a plant-based diet? Is there a secret Holy Grail source or will any old stuff do?
As is often the case with these things, there’s a bunch of “experts” who offer conflicting advice. If you go trawling the world wide web looking for answers, you’ll probably come away more confused and uncertain than when you started, to be honest.
If advice centers around the notion that:
'Vegan person X eats Y amount of protein so that's what everyone should do.'
'Just eat enough carbohydrate that will ensure you get adequate protein to build muscle and lose fat.’
You should probably turn off the device and go get some fresh air. So, if you're also tired of baseless claims and recommendations based purely on anecdotes and stupidity, and if you want the straight facts based on what scientific literature suggests to be an optimal amount, then read on to learn exactly how much plant based protein you need to maximize muscle growth, both during bulking and cutting.
101 on Protein
Sorry if you’re familiar with this stuff already, but I’m gonna quickly run through the basics of it just in case:
Protein is one of the three main macronutrients (along with carbohydrate and fat) that make up our diet.
When you consume enough amounts, the digestive system breaks it down into what is called amino acids. You see, its molecules are actually made up out of hundreds and hundreds of these amino acids that are attached to each other in long strings.
These are the fundamental 'building blocks' for proteins, and it is the length and sequence of these building blocks that determine the characteristics of the molecule.
So when you ingest it, it's broken down by the gut in the constituent amino acids, which then enter the bloodstream to be used by the body in a wide variety of ways (and I do mean wide variety as there are virtually endless combinations of them):
Basically, you'd be having a hard time with this whole living thing without the required amount to carry out thousands of vital tasks every day. The group known as 'amino acids' can be divided into two broad groups:
Essential Amino Acids & Non-Essential Amino Acids
There are a total of 21 different types that the body uses to build various tissue including muscle fibers. In studies, this is typically referred to as muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the process where cells take amino acids and put them together into a new strain.
9 of these cannot be synthesized in the body. As a result, they're called essential amino acids (EAA):
*Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)
So while the body can make all the nonessential ones it needs from scratch,we have to rely on food to obtain these 9 essential types.
And here's where the concept of quality' comes into play:
Different foods have different amino acid profiles, which essentially are lists saying how much of each is present in different foods.
For instance, here's the said acid profile of 100 g of cooked lentils:
Here is one of the aspects where animal and plant proteins start diverging from one another:
Animal products, such as meat, dairy, and eggs, contain that is considered to be 'optimal' or 'complete.'
That is to say, animal products have an amino acid profile with ideal proportions of all the nine EAAs for the human body to use. I hope that sentence made sense.
Plant ones, on the other hand, do not tend to provide an ideal proportion of the 9 EAAs. This is why they've been dubbed as 'incomplete' or 'non-optimal.'
“When we eat foods for protein, we also eat everything that comes alongside it: the different fats, fiber, sodium, and more. It’s this protein “package” that’s likely to make a difference for health.”
The Myth of "Incomplete Protein"
Because plant proteins typically have a shortage of one or two of the EAAs, protein combining used to be a popular practice back in the day. It was based on the notion that you had to combine different plant foods in meals, to make up for the shortcomings of plant sources and provide your body with all of them in optimal amounts.
Luckily we now know better. This is probably one of the oldest myths related to the plant-based diet - let's debunk it once and for all (fingers crossed).
Below is a picture comparing the essential amino acid profile of rice and lentil nutrients.
Do you see any 'incomplete structure? Because I don't!
As you can plainly see, neither of these are incomplete, as all of the nine EAAs are indeed present. Further examining the amino acid profile of each, you'll notice that they're quite similar, with the exception for two: lysine and methionine + cysteine. Rice lacks in lysine but has more of methionine + cysteine, and vice versa for the lentil option.
I deliberately chose these two, as they illustrate the basis of the outdated rule of choosing complementary proteins:
So the hypothesis behind this nutrient combining was that you needed to combine foods from these two categories, otherwise it would be rendered useless (or something like that). Seeing as this is an idea that first emerged in the ‘70s, this has been proven to be absolute theoretical nonsense (1).
There is just no need to micromanage your diet in this meticulous manner.
Here's the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada on the matter of combining:
"Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults, thus complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal."
If your diet includes a variety of plant foods, your body will have access to all the EAAS it requires for synthesizing new muscle tissue. Granted you actually eat enough vegan sources throughout the day, that is (we'll get into that topic soon I promise).
Moreover, there's constantly a buffer of them floating around in our bloodstream which are available to be used. This amino acid pool, which is the size of about 120-130 grams in an adult male, consists of dietary and degraded nutrient from body tissue (2).
As a result, any minor shortage of a specific type in a snack or dinner can be completed from your previous meal found in this pool of circulating amino acids.
Our body is pretty smart; it takes care of this stuff for us.
Just don't be silly and eat a mono-oatmeal diet (I just googled it, and it's a thing apparently.)
“Eating more protein than the RDA recommendation (1.4 g/kg) is associated with greater bone mineral density at most bone sites, and in particular a stronger lumbar spine, compared with merely hitting the RDA (0.8 g/kg)”
Plant vs Animal Sourcing
We've established that vegan options aren't 'incomplete' and that obsessing over combining different ones is almost certainly not needed. Having said that: does a vegan source have the same anabolic, i.e., muscle building capacity as animal protein do?
You can try to answer this question by looking up figures such as DIAAS and PDCAAS - scores constructed to determine the overall quality. This is not a bad idea to get an overview of different proteins. However, the problem with these numbers is that they view and rate the sources as isolated nutrients.
For example, cooked kidney beans have a DIAAS score of 0.59 -- which makes it sound like the kidney beans are really, really crappy (3).
I wouldn't want to base my favored source around something with a score of only 0.59. But now here's the kicker:
Due to the way the formula is designed, it caps the score at any rate-limiting amino acid, which in the case of legumes such as kidney beans is methionine + cysteine.
As we have discussed already this does not matter if you eat a variety throughout the day. So to answer this question, we'll have to take a different, completely unbiased look at the subject:
BCAAs in Plant vs Animal Products
One gram of beef protein provides the same amount as one gram of rice protein. Well, okay, when it’s written out like that, it sounds rather obvious.
What does differ though, is how many essential relative to nonessential amino acids are present in each gram. And the one with the largest proportion of essential amino acids will be your best bet if you want as much muscle growth as possible.
There are two reasons for this:
Firstly, a shortage of any essential amino acid will quickly become rate limiting for muscle synthesis. That means the more EAAs you have running through your bloodstream, the better - so that there are always available building blocks for new muscle tissue to be made.
Secondly, a sub-group of the EAAs called BCAAs, are especially important for triggering muscle growth. These include leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
What's so special about them, you ask? Well, they account for 35% of the EAA content in muscle protein, increase muscle protein synthesis, and reduce degradation by activating key enzymes in muscle synthesis (4) (5).
Recently it's been theorized that the key player here is leucine (6):
Leucine content of a nutrient directly impacts synthesis and muscle hypertrophy, and it's been found that 3-4 grams of leucine per serving is necessary to maximally stimulate synthesis (9).
Okay. With that information in mind, let's directly compare a plant to an animal source.
I made another chart to shed some light on the matter (who doesn't love charts?) comparing the EAAs found in 28.6 g of this nutrient from cooked soybeans versus 28.6 grams of whole eggs.
(Why 28.6 g? I don't know, stop asking questions)
As you can plainly see, the egg source does have the edge over the soybean one. More precisely, the eggs contain 14.532 mg of EAA compared to the soybeans at 12.909 mg.
= 12.6% more EAAs.
Additionally, the egg also wins in the BCAA department with more leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Alright, here's the key takeaway: When you take any vegan source and compare it to an animal one, the animal one will boast a higher EAA content in 99.9% of cases.
An exact number for how much more is hard to determine as we would have to compare all plant with all animal proteins (I don't have time for that, but maybe you do).
A ballpark estimate would perhaps be around 10-15%, which may theoretically translate into 10-15% less muscle building potential.
Digestability of Plant vs Animal Protein
A protein's efficacy in promoting muscle hypertrophy also depends on how well your body digests and utilizes it.
For example, eating 100 grams of protein X and absorbing 84 grams yields a digestibility of 84/100=84%.
Now, there are different ways of determining digestibility:
You can either measure digestibility of individual chains or as whole proteins, fecal or ileal digestibility (in the poop or in the final part of the small intestine) and you can use different animals such as rats, pigs, or humans: all of which will yield slightly different results.
When it comes to digestibility, the gist is that vegan types tend not to digest as well as animal ones, sadly. Here are some different numbers for various foods:
Here are a couple more numbers for digestibility of foods from this study done on rats (where you also can see that there's a significant difference between using the ileal or fecal method):
The bottom line here is that we seem to be better at digesting animal protein than the vegan ones (with the exception of supplement powders that are digested just as readily). As a rule of thumb, animal protein is digested about 10% better than vegan options.
“Health experts routinely advocate the benefits of protein for many reasons: it boosts metabolism, increases satiety making one feel fuller for longer, promotes fat loss, helps build muscle during weight training and helps to preserves muscle, particularly in the elderly.”
What About Vegan BCAA Supplements?
I figured it would be a good idea to address this issue. Considering the relatively low(er) BCAA content in plant protein, it would kind of make sense to supplement them in order to maximize synthesis as a vegan.
Right? Maybe, and maybe not.
Before we jump the gun, it's nice to have some scientific data backing up the BCAA supplements, and as it turns out, there's not a whole lot of it. In the paper Nutritional interventions to augment resistance training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy, the authors state that (10)
"we find shockingly little evidence for their efficacy in promoting MPS or lean mass gains and would advise the use of intact proteins as opposed to a purified combination of BCAA that appear to antagonize each other in terms of transport both into circulation and likely into the muscle."
Another recent review on the current body of research on BCAAs and protein synthesis arrived at the same conclusion (11):
"We conclude that the claim that consumption of dietary BCAAs stimulates muscle protein synthesis or produces an anabolic response in human subjects is unwarranted."
Then why does it seem like all huge vegan bodybuilders use and promote BCAA supplements? I don't know. Money, perhaps?
BCAAs are probably not a direct danger to your physical condition, and if you've got the extra money in your bank account, then go for it, but for the vast majority of people, it's probably a waste of money. Money that you could spend on scientifically-backed supplements that actually work. Or spend it on plant foods.
There's just tons of BCAA in high protein vegan foods – below is the breakdown of a substantial vegan bodybuilding meal:
2 cups of black beans, 2 cups of brown rice and 2 cups of broccoli.
How to Calculate Your Optimal Protein Intake
You’re probably now wondering how much this nutrient per day is right for you? Calculating your optimum amount is actually not that difficult at all. Just grab a pen and paper or calculator app, as you’ll need to do some simple maths.
Don’t worry, this won’t take you back to high school math classes, it’s very simple.
First, step on a weighing scale and take note of your weight. If it only displays in pounds, then divide the measurement by 2.2 to get kilograms.
Next, you have to decide whether you’re in a muscle mass maintaining stage or if you want to bulk up some more.
For muscle maintenance, you should aim for 0.8g per kg of body mass. If you’re heading to the gym a lot to bulk up, then aim for 2.0g per kg.
For serious bodybuilding and if you head to the gym more than once a day, you will need to up that some more again. Ideally, speak to a dietician to work out your daily nutrients intake exactly.
How Much Plant Protein Do You Need to Build Muscle?
According to U.S. and Canadian dietary reference, 0.8 g protein per kg is enough to meet the nutrient requirement of nearly all (~98%) healthy individuals (12).
However, this RDA is designed for the general population, and as such, it is based on mostly sedentary individuals.
What the current body of sports nutrition research indicates is that this is not enough for athletes, who can obviously have considerably greater nutrient needs in order to maintain muscle mass.
How much greater are these protein needs, then? Last year, a couple of big names in the evidence-based, fitness and nutrition world (Phillips SM, Henselmans, Alan Aragon, Brad Schoenfeld among others) published a massive meta-analysis of all studies done on supplementation and muscle and strength gains.
Here's the key takeaway from that study:
Supplementation beyond total nutrient intake of 1.62 g/kg/day resulted in no further RET-induced gains in FFM.
Or put another way, eating ~1.6 grams of protein per kg body weight, or about 0.73 g per lbs, will maximize your muscle and strength gains. Any more than that didn't seem to have any further positive effects. Or did it?
You see, there can actually be rather large differences between individuals in how much is needed just to maintain muscle mass (13).
This review found 1.6 g per kg to be the mean optimal amount, which basically means that for most people it will work optimally.
However, there are always outliers, and some individuals may do better with more protein, and some with less. The authors bring this point up and recommend another number that would cover the needs of any outliers:
It may be prudent to recommend ~2.2 g protein/kg/d for those seeking to maximise resistance training-induced gains in FFM.
And so with taking into account this inter-individual variance in protein needs: a range of 1.6-2.2 g per kg (or around 0.7-1 g per lbs) would be appropriate to cover the needs of the majority of vegan fitness athletes, bodybuilders, and
1.6-2.2 grams of per kilogram per day.
An important thing to realize here is that these numbers do not expect all protein types you consume to be super well-digested and exceptionally rich in EAAs. You see, protein recommendations are based on 'normal' diets - i.e. where some protein is animal-based, a lot of it is plant-based, some well-digested and some not so much.
This means that it already factors in some of the shortcomings of vegan products. However, to indulge in speculation, I would recommend shooting for the higher end of this range seeing as:
Personally, I aim for 2 g of protein per kg so that I know I get in all the EAAs and muscle-building leucine every dietl. Beyond maximizing muscle protein synthesis, higher intake can also provide other benefits, including:
So feel free to go higher on protein if desired, but do it within reason so that you don't need to drastically cut down carbohydrate or fat - both of which are required for optimal health and physical performance.
How Much Plant Protein Do You Need to Lose Weight?
When it comes to shedding some unwanted pounds, most people focus way too much on fat and carbs. It is understandable as these are the major vegan macros that cause most people to pile on the pounds (just think of the indulgences around Thanksgiving and Christmas!)
However, this often results in people forgetting to count all the calories from protein. See, any excess protein that isn’t used for building and repairing muscles, or the function of many essential organs, is actually broken down through a process called gluconeogenesis which results in higher glucose levels.
And what happens when you have more glucose than you need? That’s right; it’s transformed into fat storage for later use. Because many popular plant based foods like beans are high in protein, this can actually lead to regular glucose spikes that will do the exact opposite when it comes to getting rid some fat resources.
So, what does all this mean? Essentially, it all comes down to finding the right balance for your goals and current exercise routines. If you do regular high-intensity training, along with several runs a week, all adding up to more than 10 hours of exercise, then you can tolerate higher amounts.
However, if you’re a semi-lazy couch potato, then you could be in trouble with the same volumes. Here’s a rough guide that you can use to get started.
If you exercise a lot and want to go through a cutting phase, then aim for between 1 and 2 grams for each kg you weigh. And if you just do the occasional light exercise, then try to keep it below 0.8 grams per kg.
These amounts of protein per day are perfectly manageable, but you will likely need to experiment a little to get it right. If after a week or two you’re not getting the results you hoped for, then reduce it a little bit.
As always, keep track of these details in a food diary. This will make it so much easier to keep track of what works and what doesn’t.
Awesome Sources of Vegan Protein
Unsure as to how to actually get all of the protein in your diet?
Don't fret; it's actually quite easy if you simply know where to look. Traditional high-carb foods all contain protein, such as whole grains and vegetables.
At the end of a day's worth of vegan eating, you'd be surprised at how much you get from foods such as chickpeas and broccoli.
However, no plant group can compare themselves to legumes when it comes to the protein department, with the humble lentil, peas, and beans taking the top spot, closely followed by tofu and tempeh et al.
This stuff is chocked full of BCAA and plant based protein - so eat a bunch of it!
Another hassle-free way of getting enough protein is to simply include a vegan protein shake or two per day - not sure what to get? Here's the best vegan protein powder, in my opinion.
Here are some great vegan protein sources:
Check out some of the best meat alternatives for vegans here.
The Bottom Line
Whether you need to get to a state of top athletic performance or just want to shed some pounds, you have to get the right balance of all the macronutrients.
There are so many different theories out there that are misleading, and we’ve hopefully provided some clarity. Protein for vegans is often just planned as a big pile of nuts and seeds. But there is so much more available that can give you everything you need to achieve your goals.
With so many vegan foods available, you shouldn’t run out of options any time soon.
And if you do struggle to find recipes, then why not just go for a simple supplement booster from our recommended list.
Like this article? The Game Changers Documentary might also interest you.
1. The Myth of Complementary Protein Explained. (2019, March 19). Retrieved from https://www.forksoverknives.com/the-myth-of-complementary-protein/
2. Poortmans, J. R., Carpentier, A., Pereira-Lancha, L. O., & Lancha, A. (n.d.). Protein turnover, amino acid requirements and recommendations for athletes and active populations. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3854183/
3. Rutherfurd, M, S., C, A., Miller, J, B., & J, P. (2014, November 26). Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino Acid Scores and Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Scores Differentially Describe Protein Quality in Growing Male Rats. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/145/2/372/4585766
4. Branched-chain amino acid. (2019, April 16). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Branched-chain_amino_acid
5. Blomstrand, E., Eliasson, J., Karlsson, H. K., & Köhnke, R. (2006, January). Branched-chain amino acids activate key enzymes in protein synthesis after physical exercise. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16365096
6. Norton, L. E., Layman, D. K., Bunpo, P., Anthony, T. G., Brana, D. V., & Garlick, P. J. (2009, June). The leucine content of a complete meal directs peak activation but not duration of skeletal muscle protein synthesis and mammalian target of rapamycin signaling in rats. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19403715
7. Norton, L. E., Layman, D. K., Bunpo, P., Anthony, T. G., Brana, D. V., & Garlick, P. J. (2009, June). The leucine content of a complete meal directs peak activation but not duration of skeletal muscle protein synthesis and mammalian target of rapamycin signaling in rats. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19403715
8. K, D., Anthony, G, T., Rasmussen, Blake, Adams, . . . A, T. (2015, April 29). Defining meal requirements for protein to optimize metabolic roles of amino acids. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/101/6/1330S/4564493
9. Stark, M., Lukaszuk, J., Prawitz, A., & Salacinski, A. (2012, December 14). Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3529694/
10. Morton, R. W., McGlory, C., & Phillips, S. M. (2015, September 03). Nutritional interventions to augment resistance training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4558471/
11. Robert R. Wolfe. (2017, August 22). Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: Myth or reality? Retrieved from https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0184-9
12. Phillips, S. M., Moore, D. R., & Tang, J. E. (2007, August). A critical examination of dietary protein requirements, benefits, and excesses in athletes. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18577776
13. Houltham, S. D., & Rowlands, D. S. (2014, February). A snapshot of nitrogen balance in endurance-trained women. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24476478
14. Van Vliet, S., Burd, N. A., & Van Loon, L. J. (2015, September). The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26224750
15. Eric R Helms, Alan A Aragon, & Peter J Fitschen. (2014, May 12). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: Nutrition and supplementation. Retrieved from https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-11-20
16. Veldhorst, M., Smeets, A., Soenen, S., Hochstenbach-Waelen, A., Hursel, R., Diepvens, K., . . . Westerterp-Plantenga, M. (2008, May 23). Protein-induced satiety: Effects and mechanisms of different proteins. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18282589?dopt=Abstract
17. Halton, T. L., & Hu, F. B. (2004, October). The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: A critical review. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15466943
18. Evans, E. M., Mojtahedi, M. C., Thorpe, M. P., Valentine, R. J., Kris-Etherton, P. M., & Layman, D. K. (2012, June 12). Effects of protein intake and gender on body composition changes: A randomized clinical weight loss trial. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22691622
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