You can keep working out, add more weight training, and do everything you can to keep muscle mass as you age. But even the fittest people are not exempt from the fact that we tend to lose muscle mass every decade after the age of 30, in a process called sarcopenia. Now comes news from the academic world that the right diet may help you retain more of your lean body mass, and stay strong well into your retirement years.

The latest research examined how a high plant protein diet among China's older population prevented muscle loss over time. The study also indicated that the Standard American Diet consumed in Western countries has a negative impact on retaining muscle mass. But the simple act of adding more plant foods and plant-based proteins to one's diet can help you retain the muscle you have.

The researchers examined data from nearly 5,000 individuals over the age of 60 and factored in both dietary choices and muscle mass. The data originally was collected as part of the 2018 China Health and Nutrition Survey. It showed that two-thirds of the protein consumed by participants came from plant-based foods such as soybean. The study revealed that the participants who consumed the most plant protein held onto higher levels of muscle mass. In comparison, the scientists found no link between animal protein and muscle mass.

The average amount of protein consumed was less than 20 grams per meal, slightly less than the recommended amount of protein per meal, which is 25 to 40 grams

This preliminary data suggests that eating more plant protein –– aiming for 68 grams a day for women and 78 grams a day for men –– could help prevent muscle loss as we age.

Diet for Healthy Muscle Mass

The study authors explained that animal protein provides individuals with significant levels of protein and all essential amino acids, but this consumption comes with a price. Animal protein typically contains high levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories. The study emphasized that the traditional Chinese diet has a much higher variation between plant and animal proteins that lends to a healthier diet.

“The traditional Chinese type of diet is [characterized] by large amounts of cereals and vegetables. Thus, plant protein intake contributed more to the total dietary protein intake than animal protein intake,” the authors stated. “It is possible that the ingestion of greater amounts of vegetable-source proteins may be [able to] achieve the same anabolic response evoked by smaller quantities of animal-source proteins. “To enhance the nutritional quality, the Chinese Nutrition Society suggests people consume cereals and legumes together,” the authors advised.

The study aimed to understand how plant protein could help prevent a major condition common among older individuals, sarcopenia –– a condition of muscle loss causing a lower quality of life and reduced function. The authors noted that more research is needed due to several limitations, which did not allow them to clearly determine causal relationships. For example, the lack of association between animal protein and muscle mass could be due to the sample population's generally higher plant protein consumption.

The authors continued by adding that “ascorbic acid found in vegetables and fruits can enhance plant protein absorption.”

Bone Density and Plant Protein

Muscle mass is a major worry for those reaching old age, and it is often accompanied by losing bone density. But this June, a new study found that a plant-based diet reduces the indicators of bone frailty by up to 42 percent in women over 60.

The study examined how animal, dairy, and plant protein helped prevent frailty in older individuals. The study found that even substituting 5 percent of animal-based protein with plant protein was associated with bone-strengthening benefits.

Building Muscle on a Plant-Based Diet

This January, one study set out to debunk myths that plant-based diets would not allow individuals to build muscle as well as animal protein. The study showed that plant-based protein when supplemented with soy can build muscle mass with the same efficacy as animal-based diets.

“A high-protein, exclusively plant-based diet (plant-based whole foods plus soy protein isolate supplementation) is no different than a protein-matched mixed diet (mixed whole foods plus whey protein supplementation) in supporting muscle strength and mass accrual, suggesting that protein source does not affect resistance training-induced adaptations in untrained young men consuming adequate amounts of protein,” the researchers wrote at the time.

Similarly, potato protein shows to have the same muscle-building effects as animal protein, according to research published in June. The study found that potato consumption caused near-equivalent levels of muscle protein synthesis as milk consumption, dispelling worries that plant-based proteins are inadequate for muscle building or maintaining strength.

For more plant-based happenings check out The Beet's News articles. 

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