The meat-based vs plant-based protein debate has been going on for years. Proponents of both types of diets have their good and bad arguments and there are indeed benefits to both vegan and meat-eating diets. The general consensus most research seems to boil down to:
1. Meat-sourced protein is more abundant and easy to consume. This means that if you require increased protein consumption, meat is usually the easiest and most effective way to go about it.
2. Plant-based proteins require the consumption of more food as there’s less protein-per-pound in grains and plants. This seems to be the case even in protein rich foods such as hemp seeds, peas, almonds, brussel sprouts, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, and others.
While most vegans quit meat and dairy for a number of reasons – including health, animal welfare and to protect the environment – one study suggests they may be better off balancing their diet with both animal and plant proteins.
A new study from The King’s College London has found that animal protein is more effective than plant protein in preventing muscle loss as we grow older.
Old age comes with a lot of health problems and one of them is muscle loss (sarcopenia). Even physically active and health-minded individuals tend to lose ~3-5% of their muscle mass each decade after 30. And while eating lots of vegetables and grains is crucial not just for their protein content but overall nutrients, the research suggests that cutting animal protein entirely might be a bad idea if you want to prevent or slow down muscle loss.
The more lean muscle tissue you lose, the slower your metabolism. The slower your metabolism, the easier it is to gain weight and develop health problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
The King’s College report put it like this:
“While we know plant-based diets are beneficial for the environment, we don’t know how healthy these diets are for keeping muscles strong. Transitioning from an animal-based protein diet to a plant-based diet is likely to be detrimental to muscle health during ageing.”
There are three main components to maintaining lean muscle tissue – amino acids (building blocks of protein) and physical stress via exercises. As our bodies age, they need extra help in virtually all areas. And since animal protein is a more effective source, especially per pound, they become even more important as we get older.
The research team conducted their study by giving participants either animal-based proteins or soy- and wheat-based proteins. After that, the team monitored the participants’ isotopes, took blood samples, and made muscle biopsies to examine the muscle growth as comprehensively as possible.
The study’s lead researcher Oliver Witard still points out that plant-based proteins are nevertheless important and shouldn’t be ignored. Transitioning to a fully or predominantly meat-based diet may have its benefits but it will have its drawbacks too. Instead, the researchers recommend a balanced meat & plant diet for most people.
The report concluded that:
“A more balanced and less extreme approach to changing dietary behaviour, meaning eating both animal and plant-based proteins, is best. Further tests on alternative plant based proteins such as oat, quinoa and maize are to be carried out to see if they are more effective on a gram for gram basis.”
Witard added that “This research challenges the broad viewpoint that plant proteins don’t help build muscles as much as animal protein by highlighting the potential of alternative plant-based protein sources to maintain the size and quality of ageing muscles.”
Hopefully, the report will offer some food for thought to people on both sides of the “vegan vs meat-eaters” debate.