Whether you lose muscle or gain it depends on the balance between muscle protein breakdown and muscle protein synthesis. Both factors are affected by exercise and the amount of protein you consume daily (1, 2, 3).
Studies have shown that the quality of animal protein tends to be higher than that of plant proteins. This is attributed to the greater bioavailability and high-quality amino acid profile. The amino acid profile is significant because every protein you eat and the one in your body combines over 20 amino acids (AAs). The human body is capable of producing 11 of these amino acids. In addition, the body can produce amino acids called non-essential amino acids (NEAAs). The other nine can only be gotten through the diet, making them essential amino acids (EAAs).
Plant proteins tend to be of lower quality. However, there are several ways to compensate for this. For example, you can eat more of it or combine them to ensure that you have enough essential amino acids. You may also supplement with individual essential amino acids if you know which your diet lacks.
In the same way, manufacturers can enhance the amino acid profile of their plant-based products by adding at least one essential amino acid. The question is — can these products stimulate muscle protein synthesis and animal-based protein?
Here’s the thing — you must understand the process of muscle building. The technical name for muscle growth is hypertrophy. Muscle growth comes from an increase in myofibrils.
Myofibrils are long proteins. The increase in myofibrils can be stimulated through working out. For instance, an increase in myofibrils can be stimulated by weightlifting. Weightlifting causes small-scale damage to the muscle tissue. The recovery process (from this small-scale damage) promotes hypertrophy.
The human body undergoes several changes during exercise; small-scale muscle damage is just one. It can also trigger an increase in body temperature, dehydration, and a disruption to the cardiovascular and nervous systems. Why is this so? Well, exercise puts the body under stress. Eating right ensures efficient and speedy recovery from these things. However, it is also vital that you take other steps to boost recovery. These include stretching, resting sufficiently, and drinking lots of fluids.
All 20 amino acids are involved in the build-up of muscle tissue (4). The essential amino acids stimulate muscle protein synthesis in your food (5, 6). However, plant proteins have a lower amount of essential amino acids compared to animal proteins. A particular study found that the amino acid content of potato protein (37%) and corn protein (32%) was similar to that of egg protein (32%) and casein (34%) (7).
It is important to note that plant proteins have small amounts of essential amino acids — the portions are so small that they cause a bottleneck in protein synthesis. For example, lysine is the most familiar limiting amino acid, especially in cereals like rice and wheat (11).
And so, limiting amino acids, lower essential amino acid content, and low leucine content are a pointer as to why plant proteins don’t stimulate muscle protein synthesis and animal proteins (12, 13, 14).
However, plant proteins do not have to limit amino acids. For example, soy and pea are rich in leucine, while rice has plenty of methionine. In addition, corn is loaded with leucine compared to casein and whey. Therefore, by combining a variety of plant proteins, you can make up for their weaknesses.
For those considering going vegan or switching to a plant-based diet, it is worth mentioning that plant-based protein helps immensely in muscle building.
According to a new study published in the British Journal of Nutrition (15), plant-based protein is effective in muscle building.
According to the results from the study, ingesting 40g of a plant-based protein increases the synthesis of muscle protein at rates similar to chicken in young men with no underlying health issues.
In the study, 24 young men aged 18–35 were recruited for a double-blind trial, the implication being that they had no idea whether they were eating a meat-free alternative or chicken. The plant-based proteins had comparable levels of proteins.
The researchers took muscle and blood samples before eating and five hours after meals at several points. Then, the effect of the food was analyzed by measuring the levels of amino acids, rates of muscle protein synthesis, and muscle anabolic signaling responses.
Analysis of the results showed increased muscle protein synthesis rates in both the chicken and plant-based groups. However, there were no differences between both protein sources. It is also important to note that both groups had similar amino acid levels.
The similarities notwithstanding, the chicken breast increased the level of essential amino acids in the body (note that the body cannot produce these amino acids on its own) more than the plant-based protein sources. Either way, there are many ways to boost your amino acid levels.
Protein is key. This fact cannot be overemphasized. However, one must remember that the term ‘protein’ is complex and encompasses a lot of different amino acids. Some of these amino acids are essential, meaning that your body cannot produce them. Others are non-essential — an indication that your body can make them. Your diet should include the essential amino acids (your body cannot synthesize that). Essential amino acids include:
It is important to note that meat contains these essential amino acids. On the other hand, these essential amino acids lack plant-based protein sources. However, you can get the required amounts by carefully researching vegan bodybuilding recipes. Quinoa, buckwheat, and soy contain these amino acids — with soy being the most efficient per portion size.
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