Whether you want to get lean or build strong muscle, protein is the buzzword that everyone (gym-goers, cyclists, and bodybuilders alike) is obsessed with. Most people wonder: Can you build muscle on a plant-based diet, and how much protein do you need? The answer is that to create lean, healthy muscle, whether using plant-based protein or animal protein such as whey, you probably don't need as much protein as you think.

A recent study found that plant-based protein works just as well as whey does in building muscle. The reason people think that plant-based proteins are not as good as animal proteins is that they are not "complete" proteins, since they are missing one or more amino acid building blocks. The counterargument is that your body knows how to combine two incomplete proteins into a complete protein, as long as both proteins are eaten within a 24-hour window, according to research.

Incomplete proteins combine in the body to make complete proteins

Your body makes 11 out of 20 amino acids it needs, leaving the other nine to be assembled from the foods we eat. “Although supplementing with protein post-workout is pretty common, it’s often unnecessary,” states Registered Dietitian, Lauren Armstrong. “We can meet our protein requirements simply through our diet by choosing various plant-based sources. The right combination can also make it a complete protein — with all the essential amino acids you need!"

In order to get a complete protein (found in animals), you need to combine different plant proteins into combinations so your body can create "complete" proteins. Some examples, from experts at Piedmont Health:

  • Nuts with whole grains, such as almond butter on whole-grain toast
  • Whole grains with beans: rice and beans, hummus on whole wheat pita
  • Beans with nuts or seeds such as salad with chickpeas and sunflower seeds

So the key is to vary your diet to make sure you get an array of protein sources throughout the day. Studies have shown that eating protein before working out can help create a surplus of protein in the body, making it easier to build lean muscle, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

In a study of college athletes given rice protein and whey protein, the athletes each trained three days a week and took in 75 grams of protein per day, divided into two groups: those who used rice protein and whey protein, and at the end of the study, each group had the same results in their perceived recovery, soreness, and readiness to train. At the end of the 8 weeks, there was no measurable difference in the two groups in terms of muscle gains or fat loss.

Plant-based foods that are nearly complete proteins

When choosing your protein source on a plant-based diet, some foods get you closer to the goal than others. Anything made from soybeans is an excellent source: Tempeh has the most protein, with 11 grams per 3 ounces, whole tofu has 8 grams per 3 ounces and 1/2cup of edamame contains 8 grams of protein.

Whole grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth also are high in plant-based (clean, fat-free, heart-healthy) protein, so choose these when cooking dinner. One cup of cooked quinoa has 8 grams of protein, while one cup of cooked amaranth contains 9 grams and is gluten-free, while one cup of buckwheat delivers 6 grams of protein.

How much protein do you need to build muscle?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that you consume no more than 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of your body weight or .35 grams per pound of body weight per day to maintain the body composition you have now. So a person that weighs 165 pounds (75 kgs) should consume about 60 grams of protein per day. Protein contains 4 calories per gram so that means eating 240 calories in protein a day. You can get this from your diet, without the need to supplement, which can create protein overload.

As you age, you lose muscle mass each decade after the age of 30 in what's known as sarcopenia, so the recommendation for daily protein goes up with every decade to rebuild the muscle you need. After age 30, people lose between 3 percent to 5 percent of their muscle mass per decade, so to maintain healthy muscle mass it's recommended that people over the age of 65 consume 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily, according to research. A 130-pound woman over 65 needs 59 to 70 grams of protein daily, while a 150-pound man needs 68 to 81 grams.

As for muscle gain, studies have found that you need slightly more (but not that much more) protein in order to gain muscle mass, and it works best in combination with regular strength training. To facilitate muscle building, weight train at least three days a week, and add protein to your daily diet, since as your muscles recover and repair, they will absorb the protein and build back bigger after the punishment of working out. A meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reviewed 50 studies and found that regular protein consumption, combined with regular resistance training, will use the protein to repair and rebuild, increasing their mass.

Exactly how much protein do you need to build muscle mass: To increase muscle mass in conjunction with regular exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that a person consumes between 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For a 130-pound woman looking to gain muscle mass and strength, that’s 71 to 100 grams a day, and for a 150-pound man, that’s 82 to116 grams per day.

More protein than the recommended daily amount is not better for you

More protein is not better for you, however, and “too much of a good thing” could be useless or even harmful for healthy individuals, causing a metabolic overload on the body, according to studies. Bodybuilders and dieters who routinely take in too much protein put a strain on their bones, kidneys, and liver, researchers state. "Moreover, high-protein/high-meat diets may also be associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease due to intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol or even cancer," the study authors write.

Studies of what happens when people eat too much red meat have shown that they are increasing their long-term risk of heart disease. That study linked red meat consumption to elevated levels of TMAO, which is a marker that coincides with higher rates of cardiovascular disease.

So if you want to build muscle, add resistance training, and take in protein prior to exercise, according to the ACSM. "The process of protein turnover is increased with resistance training and can remain elevated for up to 48 hours in people beginning a new resistance training program," according to their report. And before you use any protein product, discuss your supplementation plans with your trusted medical professional.

High protein diet has shown to maintain a healthy weight and lower appetite

Protein has been shown to help dieters feel full and muscle burns more calories at rest than fat does, but even if you are seeking to increase protein consumption for satiety you don' need to take in more than 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, research has shown.

In a meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the quantity of protein necessary to promote improved weight management and cardiometabolic outcomes lies somewhere between 1.2 and 1.6 g protein per kilogram of body weight, which is roughly 89 to 119 grams of protein per day for women or 104 to 138 grams of protein a day for men. "However, recent evidence suggests that lower protein quantities [i.e., 0.8 g protein per kilogram of body weight a day during energy restriction might be sufficient for body weight and fat mass losses, whereas higher protein quantities ([.e., 1.2 g protein per kilogram of body weight per day] are required for the preservation of lean mass."

Bottom Line: To build muscle, don't try to consume more than about 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, since more protein is not better for you. If you are plant-based, vary your protein sources and add soybean products, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, since your body will make complete proteins out of the plant-based building blocks in your diet.

Top 10 Sources of Plant-Based Protein According to a Nutritionist


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