“I recently decided to change to a vegan diet. I’m also an avid gym goer trying to build strength and muscle. The biggest reason I didn’t become a vegan sooner is that I’d heard that plant based proteins are not as “bioavailable” as animal protein. Not sure how true this is, so I ask my favorite nutritionist.”
It’s true that animal-based protein generally has a higher biological value than plant-based protein. Because animal proteins deliver essential amino acids in proportions similar to the body’s requirements, it’s easier for our bodies to use these amino acids to synthesize new proteins.
This doesn’t mean that vegans cannot build strength and muscle, but they will probably have to work a bit harder at it.
As I talked about in a recent episode of the Nutrition Diva podcast, it takes a “dose” of about 30 grams of high quality protein to maximize muscle protein synthesis. If you’re still in your 20s, you can get away with just 25 grams. If you’re in your 70s, you might need 35 gram to maximize muscle growth.
One challenge for vegans is that it takes a lot more food (and calories) to get 30 grams of protein from plants than it does from animal sources.
Then there’s the issue of biological value–the concentration and distribution of essential amino acids in those proteins. Researcher Nancy Rodriguez has proposed that we think of protein sources not just in terms of the amount of protein they provide but also in terms of their essential amino acid density–or what percentage of your daily EAA requirements a serving provides.
Here again, you can see that animal protein sources tend to deliver more essential amino acids per serving–and per calorie.
|Food serving size||Calories||Protein (g)||EAA Needs|
|1 scoop (28 g) whey protein isolate||100||25||75%|
|3 oz beef tenderloin steak, grilled||168||26||72%|
|3 ounces sockeye salmon, baked||133||22||58%|
|1 scoop (28 g) soy protein isolate||95||25||55%|
|3 oz skinless chicken breast, baked||132||27||51%|
|3 oz canned tuna||109||20||51%|
|1/2 cup lowfat cottage cheese||81||14||45%|
|½ cup firm tofu||181||21||43%|
|1 container (7 oz) lowfat Greek yogurt||146||20||30%|
|1 cup lowfat (1%) milk||123||8||22%|
|¼ cup pumpkin seed kernels||166||9||19%|
|½ cup black beans, cooked||115||7.5||18%|
|1 large egg||72||6||17%|
|1 cup quinoa, cooked||222||8||16%|
|2 Tbsp peanut butter||191||7||12%|
|1 cup whole wheat pasta, cooked||175||7||12%|
|1 oz almonds||164||6||11%|
The vegan diet has many advantages but optimal protein quality is not really one of them. It’s certainly possible for vegans to hit these protein targets (hopefully you don’t have a soy allergy!), but it’s obviously much easier for those who include some animal products in their diets.
Of course, nothing says that you must maximize muscle protein synthesis at every (or any) meal in order to be healthy and strong. There are a lot of ways in which my diet is only perhaps 80% optimal, for example, and I don’t sweat it that much. Let’s hear it for the “good enough diet!”