Study finds plant-based diets can be used to gain muscle, but it's tricky

Despite popular beliefs otherwise, eating a vegan diet and exercising to increase muscle mass are not mutually exclusive. That's according to a new study from the University of São Paulo, which found no difference in muscle gain between people who ate a vegan diet and omnivores. The findings come with a caveat, however, in that it's a bit trickier for vegans than meat-eaters to hit their goals.

According to the new study, the amount of protein you get in your diet is more important than the source of the protein when it comes to packing on muscle mass. The big benefit meat-eaters have over vegans is that it is much easier to hit one's daily protein goal compared to people who eat only plant-based food products.

That's according to the researchers who evaluated 38 healthy adults over the course of 12 weeks, half of which were eating a plant-based vegan diet and the others who ate a meat-based omnivore diet. The participants were tasked with performing exercises designed to increase muscle mass.

The participants consumed 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily, with some receiving milk-based protein isolate and others receiving soy-based protein. At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers report no noticeable differences in the amount of muscle gained between the two diet groups.

The researchers do note that while it is possible to gain muscle mass while eating a plant-based diet, it is harder to hit the required amount of protein in the absence of meat and other animal products. As well, plant-based diets are lower in the essential amino acid leukin, which plays a key role in stimulating muscle mass gain.

For this reason, athletes wanting to gain muscle mass while eating a plant-based diet should ideally seek nutritional counseling to ensure they're getting the proper amount of nutrients for their goals. As well, the researchers note that the results were based on young, healthy people and may not translate to older adults.