Bored of chicken? Study finds plant-based protein has the same muscle-building effects

New research finds you can still hit your strength training goals on a vegan or plant-based diet

Post-workout chicken meal
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you're training hard, you need to use the most nutritious food to fuel your exercise and post-workout recovery. This is especially true for strength training, where it's essential to get the right mix of protein and carbs.

After an intense session with the best adjustable dumbbells, many people turn to the muscle-building staple of chicken and rice. The low-fat, affordable meat is high in protein, and the rice rebuilds your muscle's store of glycogen.

But if you've been considering going vegan or moving towards a plant-based diet, a new study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that plant-based protein is an effective muscle-building alternative.

When discussing the findings, the authors concluded that "ingestion of 40g protein in the form of a...plant-based protein product increases muscle protein synthesis rates to a similar extent as...chicken in healthy, young men."

The researchers recruited 24 aged 18 to 35 for the double-blind trial, so they didn't know whether they were eating the chicken or meat-free alternative. The plant-based option was available in stores with comparable levels of protein.

The team took blood and muscle samples before eating and for five hours after food at several points. To analyze the effects, they paid particular attention to amino acid levels, muscle protein synthesis rates, and muscle anabolic signaling responses. 

Vegan protein curry

(Image credit: Getty Images)

After the trial, the chicken and plant-based groups experienced increased muscle protein synthesis rates, with no differences between the two protein sources. Likewise, both groups had the same levels of amino acids. 

Despite the similarities, the chicken breast increased essential amino acids, which our bodies can't produce, more than the plant-based alternative. Still, there are plenty of ways to top up your levels and eat enough protein on a vegan diet

However, if you want to go this route, you need to choose your vegan protein carefully. As the authors note, "plant-based meat substitutes usually provide more fat and/or carbohydrate relative to the amount of protein when compared with animal-based products."

This study adds further evidence to the effectiveness of vegan protein for meeting your strength training goals, particularly if you've been debating whether to use dairy or vegan protein powders for muscle building and post-workout recovery.

Following a recent meta-analysis, the researchers found that "there is no difference in effect between animal protein and plant protein on strength outcomes." However, some plant-based powders don't contain as many essential amino acids as their dairy-based counterparts.

Whether you've been vegan for a while or you want to switch to a more plant-based diet, the best vegan cookbooks are a great place to start. You'll find meat-free recipes for some of your favorite foods, plus get inspiration for your next meal.

James Frew
Fitness Editor

James is a London-based journalist and Fitness Editor at Fit&Well. He has over five years experience in fitness tech, including time spent as the Buyer’s Guide Editor and Staff Writer at technology publication MakeUseOf. In 2014 he was diagnosed with a chronic health condition, which spurred his interest in health, fitness, and lifestyle management.

In the years since, he has become a devoted meditator, experimented with workout styles and exercises, and used various gadgets to monitor his health. In recent times, James has been absorbed by the intersection between mental health, fitness, sustainability, and environmentalism. When not concerning himself with health and technology, James can be found excitedly checking out each week’s New Music Friday releases.