Do You Need to Eat Meat to Build Muscle?

October 03, 2017

Whether your goal is cutting down your body fat percentage, building lean body mass, or both, you’ve probably heard mixed (and oftentimes strong) opinions about how eating meat can help or hinder achieving those goals.

Some say it’s integral to building or maintaining your body composition.

Others argue that eating meat is really bad for your health and eating it will prevent you of making the changes you want.

In this article, we’ll take an objective look into how eating meat impacts your body composition and your health.

We’ll review studies on both sides of the argument … so you’re armed with the knowledge to make your own decision about where you get your protein from.

This one’s going to be meaty, so let’s dig in (sorry, we couldn’t resist) …

Meat-Focused Diets: What the Science Says

We’ll start by breaking down a handful of clinical studies that look at how meat impacts your weight and overall health …

Can Meat Consumption Impact Your Weight?

In a large scale study called  EPIC-PANACEA, the research team investigated the impact of total meat consumption, red meat, poultry, and processed meat on weight gain after 5 years. The study included over 370,000 European adults!

Researchers concluded that decreasing meat consumption was an effective strategy in improving one’s ability to manage his/her weight. So that’s it? Can just conclude that reducing meat intake will help us lose weight?

Not exactly. First of all, this study is observational and based on self-reported data. Secondly, it’s hard to truly assess whether meat was the problem or even if this higher meat intake was at the expense of vegetable intake, which we all know is important for our overall health and weight maintenance. Additionally, many argue for increased protein intake to increase satiety (fullness) and promote greater weight loss success.

As a result, a slew of researchers have disagreed with the conclusions made in this study …  

Potential Health Risks of Eating Meat

Another study did not agree with the conclusions the authors made in the aforementioned study.

This research team stated that eating processed foods was the strongest predictor of disease and weight, not meat per se. They also argued that since no adjustment for dietary fat was performed in the study, it was impossible to distinguish between the effects of lean vs high fat meat. Finally, the most important shortcoming is that the observed weight changes may be due to changes in either lean body tissue or fat mass or both. Meat is a high-quality source of protein for building and maintaining lean body mass. Consequently, the noted association between meat intake and weight change may partly be due to gain of lean body mass in participants with high meat intake.

It should be noted that one of the study authors serves on a speaker's bureau for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. However, they bring up some good discussion points.

And that brings us to our next research question: how lean meats impact your body composition versus higher fat, processed meats.

In this review, researchers looked at 62 studies and made some interesting assertions.

Red meat has long been considered a villain in the human diet. However, in this study the research team found that eating lean red meat does not appear to increase biomarkers of disease.

They found an association between red meats high in saturated fat and heart disease; however, no such association could be found with lean red meats.

In fact, lean red meats and lean white meat like chicken have been shown to have similar effects on your blood lipid profile.

The researchers also went on to say that cancer studies comparing vegetarians and non-vegetarians are controversial and don’t present clear evidence that the rates of cancer were reduced in vegetarian individuals because of the absence of meat consumption.

In other words, there’s a correlation between eating meat and getting certain types of cancer; however, that doesn’t mean that eating meat caused the cancer.

This research team concluded that a balanced diet accompanied by exercise are the biggest predictors to a healthy life, not the consumption (or lack of consumption) of red meat.  

Next, we’ll look at some studies that measured how eating (or not eating) meat affects your body composition …

How Meat (or Lack of) Affects Muscle Mass

In this smaller study, researchers looked at whether eating an omnivorous (meat-containing) diet would influence resistance training-induced changes in body composition and skeletal muscle size in older men compared with a lacto ovo vegetarian (meat-free) diet.

They found that eating a diet that included meat contributed to greater gains in fat-free mass and skeletal muscle mass when combined with resistance training in older men than did a vegetarian diet.

Another study of 40 women examined the relationship between the type of protein intake and the level of muscle mass in healthy meat-eating and vegetarian women. 

Researchers concluded that “a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower muscle mass index than is an omnivorous diet at the same protein intake.”

So now you’re saying I have to eat meat?

Certainly not. This simply means that vegetarians might have a harder time getting adequate protein intake numbers but more importantly, may not be receiving the same quality of amino acid variety to support muscle maintenance/growth compared to meat-eaters. These obstacles can always be overcome, either through variety in the diet (which we’ll discuss later) or through supplementation. 

How Meat Affects Body Fat

One interesting study looked at the impact of the Mediterranean Diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, monounsaturated fats, and lean meats like fish, on body composition.

The study found that subjects that adhered to a Mediterranean-style Diet had lower body fat levels. However, body fat levels were higher in one of the study groups that ate more processed meat (sausage, bacon, salami, etc.).

So while meat has positive effects on muscle building, the types of meat you eat also have a clear effect on how you gain, maintain, or lose body fat. Keep an eye on those meat sources.

 

The X Factor: Protein

You know by now if you’ve read any of our articles that eating the right amount of protein is one of the keys to improving or maintaining your body composition.

But how much, exactly, do you need? Are there differences between plant-based sources of protein vs. animal-based? If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, what are the best sources of protein? That’s what we’ll explore in this section.

First off, let’s recap: we know there’s an association between eating certain types of meat and heart disease, hyperlipidemia and hypercholesterolemia. But lean meats don’t appear to have the same effect (see above).

We also know that diets low in protein (plant- or animal-based) can cause you to lose lean body mass and body weight along with skeletal muscle mass.

You have have heard that animal-based sources of protein are more “bioavailable,” which means your body absorbs them better. The theory is, since animal proteins have a more “complete” amino acid profile, they’re absorbed more efficiently, which means more fuel to be utilized by your lean body mass.

In one study that compared animal protein (from powdered whey) to plant protein (from rice), researchers found that rice protein had similar effects on body composition as whey. There was no difference between the group of subjects that took rice protein and the one that took whey protein; both experienced positive body composition changes.

However, since plant-based proteins are incomplete (meaning they don’t contain all essential amino acids), it’s important to pair several different sources together (e.g., rice, pea, and hemp) to obtain a more complete amino acid profile.

How much protein do you need?

The short answer is, it depends on your activity level. But we’ll provide some general recommendations, based on what the evidence says.

In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, a team of researchers looked at muscle development in three groups of strength and power athletes on the same exercise routine but with different protein consumption levels.

The first group consumed below or at the daily recommended amount (RDA) for athletes--1.4g/kg of body weight, the second group consumed the current RDA of 1.8g/kg of body weight, and the third group consumed more than the RDA (2.0g/kg of body weight).

The researchers found no significant improvement in strength or body composition in the group that consumed the most protein. They concluded that 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight was sufficient to see favorable changes in body composition in strength/power athletes.

For non-athletes and particularly older adults, those that had a higher protein intake than the RDA 0.8 g/kg per day has been shown to have a positive association with LBM.

Long story short, most people don’t need to guzzle down protein shakes like bodybuilders to see changes in body composition. With proper advice from your doctor, it may be best to shoot for between .8-1.2g/kg per day for muscle maintenance.


Wrap Up: To Meat Or Not to Meat: That Is the Question

If you want to improve your body composition and overall health, you don’t have to give up meat. According to the latest research, you can have your steak … but make sure you eat plenty of veggies too.

Eating meat can help you build or maintain body composition; however, it’s widely known that eating fruits and vegetables is one of the best strategies for disease prevention. If your diet is meat-heavy (particularly processed meats) and lacking in fruits and veggies, you may be predisposing yourself to diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments down the road.

And if your diet is plant-focused, make sure you're incorporating a wide variety of protein-rich vegetables so that your body has the necessary “complete” building blocks for optimal body composition.

Good sources of plant-based protein include:

  • Beans
  • Tofu
  • Quinoa
  • Lentils
  • Nuts and seeds  
  • Spinach
  • Rice
  • Peanut or almond butter
  • Buckwheat

 

Regardless of the type of diet you adhere to, getting enough protein seems to be one of the keys to achieving your body composition goals.

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Scott Christ is a health and wellness entrepreneur, writer, and website strategy consultant. He's also the creator of the world's healthiest plant-based protein powder.