You know the rumor: Protein will help you build muscle, but meat and chicken have more power than beans and lentils. Well, a February 2017 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) is here to vindicate the reputation of protein-packed plants.
Researchers in Boston analyzed the diets of nearly 3,000 healthy men and women and found those who ate more protein had more muscle and less fat on their arms and legs — regardless of whether they scored the macronutrient from fish, chicken, legumes, red meat, full-fat dairy, or low-fat milk.
Similarly, a November 2016 study published in Nutrients found that among endurance athletes, vegetarians have roughly the same amount of muscle and fat and perform at the same athletic level as their peers who are powered by meat.
That's great news considering a May 2016 study linked meat-free diets with significantly lower rates of heart disease and cancer, and a February 2015 study revealed a vegan diet is more effective for weight loss than eating like an omnivore, pescatarian, or vegetarian.
What's most important to both your waistline and health, it would seem, is simply getting enough protein, period. In the AJCN study, those on the lower end of protein intake not only had less muscle, but also weaker bones.
What's more, when women don't eat enough protein, they end up consuming more calories, according to a January 2017 study in The American Journal of Human Biology. Why? The researchers speculate that your body craves the macronutrient, so when it isn't fed adequate amounts, those cravings kick into high gear and you reach for pretty much anything edible in sight.
The good news: The first study in the AJCN found that 82 percent of participants met the recommended daily allowance of protein (that's 0.36 grams per pound of body weight — so 55 grams for a 150-pound woman).
However, the more you exercise, the more protein your body needs to help rebuild those muscles, so ideally you want your daily protein intake closer to 0.5 or 0.6 per pound of body weight (that's 75 to 90 grams for a 150-pound woman). And while that may sound like a lot, now that plant-based proteins are equal with meat, you have a lot more meal options to help you gain lean muscle and squash cravings.