If you’ve been keeping tabs on health and nutrition trends, you’ve probably come across two hot topics: the role of protein for muscular strength and the health benefits of low-carb diets. Both are frequently debated in the health community, and today I’m going to present some compelling research on both subjects. Consider it a 2-for-1 blog this month. Whether you’re interested in gaining muscle, protecting your long-term health, or just exploring a plant-based diet, this is a must-read.
High Protein Diets: Muscular Strength and Performance
A common belief is that more protein equals improved muscle growth and strength. However, based on the best available evidence, consuming more than approximately 1.5 to 1.6g of protein per kg of body weight doesn’t appear to confer a significant, measurable benefit for muscle growth or strength gains.
With that being said, does the latest research validate this claim? Let’s find out.
Decoding the Relationship Between Protein and Strength
A recent study focusing on protein consumption and training sheds light on the topic. The researchers enrolled 48 resistance-trained males between the ages of 18 and 36, with an average training history of 4 years. Participants were divided into four distinct groups, with each consuming different amounts of protein and undergoing various training regimes. The focus here was to compare the results between those consuming 1.6g/kg and 3.2g/kg of protein.
The participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 4 groups:
- 1.6g/kg + resistance training
- 1.6g/kg + resistance training + endurance training
- 3.2g/kg + resistance training
- 3.2g/kg + resistance training + endurance training
The resistance training regimen was carefully designed, spanning 16 weeks with four sessions each week. To ensure consistency, every participant adhered to a standardized program. For those who also participated in endurance training, they engaged in cycling sessions following their resistance training. Evaluations of performance and body composition were conducted at the outset, at the 8-week midpoint, and upon the program’s conclusion.
Whether participants consumed 1.6g/kg or double that amount, the improvements in their endurance, muscular strength, and performance were strikingly similar. Only one minor variation was observed: a slightly lower peak power in those consuming less protein compared to those only doing resistance training and consuming more protein. However, those consuming more protein did tend to consume more calories as well, so the difference cannot be directly attributed to differences in protein intake. A clear takeaway is that doubling the typical recommendation for strength athletes might not be as beneficial as once believed. However, more substantial benefits are evident when you elevate protein intake from the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of 0.8g/kg to about 1.5 or 1.6g/kg.
The Rise of Low-Carb Diets: Evaluating Their Long-Term Impact
Low-carb diets (LCD) have been popular for many years due to their potential health and weight loss benefits. While many swear by their positive outcomes, it’s essential to understand that not all LCDs are created equal.
A Deep Dive into Low-Carb Diets
A recent systematic review and meta-analysis provided a comprehensive evaluation of different types of LCDs, notably: plant-based, animal-based, and overall LCDs. This research encompassed 10 prospective cohort studies, accounting for over 420,000 participants. Each diet was scored based on its carbohydrate content, offering insights into various LCD practices. It’s crucial to note that higher scores don’t necessarily equate to extreme LCDs but indicate a diet lower in carbs compared to the general population.
Here’s the breakdown:
- Higher overall LCD scores: Diets that prioritize lower carb-rich foods.
- Higher plant-based LCD scores: These diets minimize carbs but are higher in plant-based protein and fats.
- Higher animal-based LCD scores: LCDs that are higher in animal protein and fats.
What the Findings Suggest
The results from this analysis were enlightening. High overall and animal-based LCD scores didn’t show a significant association with all-cause mortality. However, those who adhered to a plant-based LCD showcased a 13% lower mortality risk. Moreover, for every 5-point increase in plant-based LCD scores, there was a 4% decrease in risk. Interestingly, overall and animal-based LCDs indicated a heightened risk of cancer mortality by 14% and 16%, respectively. Plant-based LCDs, on the other hand, didn’t show a significant association in this regard.
Opting for a low-carb diet can indeed be a sound health decision for many. However, the sources of your macronutrients play a pivotal role. The health benefits of integrating more plant-based protein and fats into your diet, as opposed to animal-derived sources, are becoming increasingly evident. If you’re contemplating an LCD, a plant-based approach may be the most beneficial route for long-term health and well-being.
Bridging the Protein and Low-Carb Gap
Given the findings, what’s the best way to navigate the world of high-protein, low-carb diets, especially if you’re leaning towards a plant-based approach? To strike a balance, consider incorporating these high-protein plant-based food options:
- Tofu and tempeh
- Soy curls
- Textured vegetable protein
- Hemp seeds
- Protein powder
- Powdered peanut butter
- Plant-based meat alternatives
Integrating these plant-based protein sources can be a game-changer, offering the benefits of a high-protein intake without neglecting the health benefits of a low-carb, plant-centric diet.
Wrapping It Up
The journey to understanding the optimal diet is ongoing, but the evidence is clear: while protein plays a pivotal role in muscle growth and performance, there’s no need to go overboard. And when considering a low-carb approach, lean more towards plant-based sources to maximize the health benefits.
Are you ready to learn more? Want to adjust your diet based on the latest research? As a plant-based doctor based in Vancouver, BC, I can help you navigate the transition and harness the power of a plant-based diet. Make an appointment today and embark on a healthier, more informed path to wellness.
Matthew Nagra is a Naturopathic Doctor and is a passionate advocate for evidence-based nutrition as medicine. I have a particular passion for plant-based/vegan nutrition, physical medicine, and chronic disease. With additional training in nutrition, I hold a Plant-Based Nutrition Certification from Cornell University and the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies where I’ve authored multiple articles on the subject.