Vegans and vegetarians rejoice: a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that plant protein is just as beneficial as animal protein when it comes to muscle and bone health.
It had previously been thought that plant-based protein was inferior to the animal variety when it came to post workout recovery. This is because most plant based proteins—with the exception of a few foods like buckwheat, quinoa and soy— are not ‘complete’ proteins, in that they do not contain all nine essential amino acids. But this new research shows that while the quantity of protein consumed is important – those who ate the least had the lowest measures of muscle mass and strength – the source of the protein didn’t seem to make any difference.
The study involved around 3,000 volunteers, male and female, between the ages of 19 and 72. Researchers looked at their health records and fitness indicators like lean muscle mass, bone mineral density, and quadriceps strength. They also looked at the participants’ daily diets, and from this estimated the percentage protein intake from specific sources.
“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,” said Dr Kelsey Mangano, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and lead author of the study.
Eating a sufficient amount of protein is especially important from middle age onwards, since people tend to lose muscle mass as they age. Mangano stressed that the study was not conclusive enough to show whether the type of protein consumed was more important in different stages in a person’s life, although she speculated that it might be.
The study also only looked at bone and muscle health, just two indicators of overall good health. So when taking broader dietary factors into account, plant based protein may actually have the edge, nutritionally, on some animal sources, given that things like processed meat are high in fat and sodium. In a separate study conducted by Harvard Medical School, researchers actually found that substituting 3 percent of calories from animal protein with plant protein was linked to a 12 percent reduced risk of dying from heart disease and a 10 percent reduced risk of dying from any cause during the 32-year study period.
“Therefore, people should choose their protein sources keeping overall dietary recommendations in mind. Choose protein sources that are lean,” Mangano continued. “There is no clear evidence whether animal or vegetable sources may be more beneficial for overall health.
So what are the best plant sources of protein? Beans, legumes, quinoa, and tofu are good places to start. Vegetables like green peas, broccoli, mushrooms and dark leafy greens are great options too, and they come with all kinds of other nutritional benefits. Nuts and seeds like peanuts, almonds, hemp, chia, sesame and sunflower are also good sources of protein, as well as containing health fats.