PROTEIN POWER

What’s the better source of protein for building muscle – meat or plants?

New research on whether animal- or plant-based protein sources are better have been severely misrepresented.

Do vegan bodybuilders have the edge? A recent study was reported as showing plant-based protein was more effective for building muscle than that from animals.

The higher environmental impact of eating a diet rich in meat and dairy products could also provide a reason for gym enthusiasts to switch to a plant-based diet. In fact, most of the protein eaten worldwide (58%) actually comes from plant sources such as soy, cereals, pulses and potatoes, with the rest coming from meat, fish, dairy and eggs, (although these proportions are reversed in Europe and the US).

Unfortunately – as is all-too-often the case in the field of nutrition – the headlines that portrayed the new research in this way not only took the findings out of context, but also were inaccurate and misleading. So are plant proteins really better at building muscle?

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked at how consumption of six different plant and animal-based food groups related to muscle mass in around 3,000 primarily middle-aged volunteers. The groups were organised on the basis of the volunteers’ preferred protein source and were classified as red meat, chicken, fish, low-fat milk, fast foods and full-fat dairy, and fruit or vegetables.

This excellent research revealed two main findings. First, and consistent with previous research, the study showed people who ate the most protein were more likely to have the greatest amount of muscle mass. Second, there was no relationship between the amount of muscle mass the volunteers had and their most commonly eaten protein source. So, in contrast to the sensational headlines, this study (like others) doesn’t support the claim that plant protein is “better” than animal protein for building muscle.

Context needed

Like any other credible research, these study findings must be placed into context. So it might not be appropriate to apply these findings about middle-aged people to other groups such as the elderly or young gym goers.

Around 80% of these middle-aged volunteers met or exceeded the recommended total daily protein intake. Eating so much protein means the potential for different sources to have different effects would have been less important for overall muscle mass.

By contrast, older people are at a greater risk of not getting enough protein because they tend to eat less food overall. So, selecting the best protein source for muscle building is likely to become more important as we get older and struggle to meet protein targets.

Despite these limitations, there is some evidence that supports the idea that animal proteins are more effective for muscle building than plant proteins. Studies that have compared animal protein sources to plant sources on a gram-for-gram basis generally demonstrate that animal protein sources promote a greater muscle-building response.

Studies in older adults have also shown that to switch on muscle building you need a lower amount of an animal protein such as whey than a plant protein such as soy. As such, we can view animal proteins as more “efficient” at prompting a muscle-building response than plant proteins.

In trained young men of around 85 kg body mass, our own study and others have shown that 20 grams of whey protein is enough to maximise muscle protein synthesis, although this may be closer to 40 grams after certain types of exercise. Based on what we know about the efficiency of plant protein, we can presume you would need more of it to get the same effect (in young adult gym enthusiasts). So these findings from controlled laboratory studies actually suggest that animal proteins are better for muscle building than plant proteins.

High-quality protein

The reason why animal proteins are generally considered “higher quality” when it comes to building muscle is down to the type of amino acids they contain. Amino acids, in particular one called leucine, are thought to be key to driving muscle protein synthesis. In general, animal proteins have a higher proportion (9%-13%) of leucine than plant proteins (6%-8%).

Plus, animal-based proteins usually contain all nine essential amino acids whereas most plant-based proteins are missing one or more of these amino acids.

There are exceptions such as maize protein, which boasts a 12% leucine content, and quinoa, which has a full complement of all essential amino acids. So it may be that certain plant proteins are just as effective as so-called “higher-quality” animal proteins.

We can potentially increase the “quality” of a plant-based proteins by fortifying them with extra leucine, combining different sources to make sure the food has all essential amino acids, or simply increasing the recommended amount of a plant protein source. As a note of caution, the latter option could require as much as 60 grams of certain plant proteins (for example seven large potatoes) – a dose that some people may struggle to consume.

The search continues for a more sustainable and environmentally friendly source of protein that can offer similar muscle-building potential to animal proteins. But based on currently available evidence, vegan bodybuilders will have to pay particular attention to their diets to achieve the same results.

Oliver Witard, Senior Lecturer in Health & Exercise Science, University of Stirling; Kevin Tipton, Professor of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences, University of Stirling and Lee Hamilton, Lecturer in Sport, Health and Exercise Science, University of Stirling.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.