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Protein in Meat Substitutes for Muscles

Does the protein we choose make a difference?

Graphic of nuggest in chicken mask to illustrate protein in meat substitute

Whether a person gains or loses muscle depends on the long-term balance between muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and muscle protein breakdown, both of which are affected greatly by exercise and the amount and quality of the protein in the diet. Concerning the latter, can protein in meat substitutes, like nuggets, burgers and other products, tilt the balance in favor of building muscle to the same degree as their genuine counterparts? After all, these products are increasingly becoming a fixture in supermarkets and on menus.

In a randomized controlled trial published in the British Journal of Nutrition, 24 healthy adult men ate 40 grams of protein from either chicken breast or a plant-based meat substitute made with wheat and chickpeas. MPS rates were measured for several hours afterward for both trials. Based on these measurements, the increase in MPS was about the same in both groups at 2 hours and 5 hours after consumption. So, yes, going plant-only with your “meats” does not mean you’ll be sacrificing muscle mass.

Worth keeping in mind, however, is that this study added lysine to the meat substitute to give it a higher-quality protein score. (Lysine is a limiting amino acid in wheat and legumes.) We can expect manufacturers to be on the lookout for ways to make sure their meatless products hit the amino acid sweet spot. Also, to eat as much protein in meat substitutes as the meat group, the plant group had to consume 21% more calories (559 versus 461). And this study was conducted in young, healthy men; results may vary for females and older adults.

See also: Alternatives for Red Meat

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a James Beard Award–winning food journalist, dietitian and author of the cookbook Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sport + Adventure (VeloPress 2016). He has written for dozens of magazines, including Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Shape, Men’s Fitness and Muscle and Fitness.

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