Veganism has been on the rise in the past few years and a survey from compare the market found that 7% of the 2,000 participants were vegan. To add to this, over 160,000 people signed up to Veganuary (Vegan for January) in 2018 compared to only 60,000 in 2017 (1). With the substantial increase, people often ask the question – what is better for building muscle, animal or vegan protein? In the ‘meat eaters’ camp, you have people claiming that you need to eat meat to build muscle. On the other hand, people from the vegan camp claim to get great results without any meat in their diet. So, lets look at the science to see what factors affect protein quality and who comes out on top!


Factors Affecting Protein Quality


There are 3 main factors that affect protein quality, which include:

  • essential amino acid (EAA) content
  • Digestibility
  • Leucine content

All these factors influence how much protein is available to the muscle, the quality of the protein available and how much muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is stimulated i.e. making gains.


EAA Content

Amino acids are the building blocks which form a complete protein, think of them as Lego blocks to build a structure. There are 20 different amino acids, all of which can be found in foods. Amino acids are also produced by the body; however, some of them (nine) cannot be made by the body. These are known as EAA and are available in some food sources. Nearly all animal products contain complete protein (all 20 amino acids), so you can get a good quality protein to aid MPS and recovery. Contrastingly, most vegan sources are lacking some of these EAA. This means that complete proteins are not available and would not achieve optimal MPS. However, people following a vegan diet can combine protein sources to create a complete protein. An example of this is beans on toast, the baked beans are missing one EAA and the bread is missing another EAA. Combine them together and you have a complete protein. For vegans to achieve equal amounts of MPS, its advisable to combine protein sources at each meal to get complete protein at regular intervals.



Now we have covered the quality of the protein, let’s look at how well animal and vegan protein sources are digested. Protein from animal sources have a high digestibility (80-90%), meaning that most of the protein you eat is broken down and absorbed into the body and can be used for MPS. Vegan sources have a varied digestibility and is lower (45-80%) than animal sources. This means that vegans may need to eat significantly more protein (depending on the source) to digest and use the same amount of protein as someone eating animal products.


Leucine Content

Leucine is one of the EAA and it’s a particularly important for building muscle as it’s the main amino acid for promoting MPS. Studies have shown greater improvements in MPS when resistance training is combined with a protein source high in leucine compared to lower leucine content (2). Taking this into account, following a vegan diet will make it more of a challenge to achieve a diet high in leucine, as vegan sources have lower leucine content.


Take Home Message

Protein from animal sources contain complete proteins, have a higher rate of digestibility and a higher leucine content. Therefore, if you eat a diet high in animal protein, eat enough calories and get adequate stimulus from weight training, you will see good improvements in muscle mass. Following a vegan diet does put you at a disadvantage with regards to MPS, as the quality and digestibility is lower. However, you can still make equal progress as someone eating animal products with a bit more effort. You need to combine sources to get all the EAA and you will need to eat higher amounts of protein to digest and use enough protein. This is where a protein shake is very useful as it helps increase total protein intake at a low cost and contains all EAA, with a high leucine content.


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