Protein is indispensable for building and maintaining muscle. Dutch scientists are now also emphasizing the importance of getting protein from an animal or plant-based diet. Older adults who avoid animal foods are detrimental to the health of their muscles.
Nothing works without proteins. The body needs proteins for a strong immune system, transporting oxygen and, above all, building and maintaining muscle. All vegans should take off their reading glasses here. Based on the state of the current study, a team of Dutch scientists came to the conclusion that getting important proteins from animal and plant products makes a big difference. The vegetarian diet was not good. Consuming only vegetable protein is said to have a negative effect on muscle maintenance and muscle strength, especially in the elderly.1
A plant-based diet is bad for muscle maintenance
People lose muscle mass, muscle strength, and physical stamina as they age. In technical terms, this is also referred to as sarcopenia. To slow this process, older adults should also get enough high-quality protein in addition to physical activity. This contains the so-called essential amino acids, which are indispensable for maintaining muscle mass and strength throughout life. However, according to an article published in Advances in Nutrition by a team of researchers from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, a vegetarian diet will not provide enough of these essential amino acids. A plant-based diet can provide health benefits for many people because it involves consuming more fruits and vegetables. However, in older adults, it can affect muscle mass and strength. The reason is the lower bioavailability of plant protein compared to animal protein. So the researchers concluded that a vegetarian diet is not recommended for older adults.
Comparison of animal and vegetable protein
Just because you’re eating a great protein shake after a gym session doesn’t automatically mean that your protein intake can also be absorbed and processed by your intestines. It always depends on the quality. This is what is meant by the so-called bioavailability. It is a measure of how quickly and how quickly a substance is absorbed and simply how much is excreted. If all the essential amino acids are present in the correct proportion in the food, it is said to be a complete protein with high bioavailability.2 Animal protein has such a high bioavailability, but not vegetable protein.
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Quality protein in a vegetarian diet
According to the study, the amino acid content between animal and plant foods is completely different. More precisely, the quality of vegetable protein is lower compared to animal protein. Animal protein contains all the important amino acids and is therefore of higher quality, while vegetable proteins contain very little of them. So plant proteins will have less or limited biological value.
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Older adults need animal protein
But what does this result mean for the elderly? According to the study, observational data showed that most elderly people actually get very little protein from their diet. If those affected also eat only vegans, they consume fewer essential amino acids compared to an animal diet. In addition, plant proteins have a lower density and you will have to significantly increase your servings on a vegan diet in order to get an adequate amount of essential amino acids. However, this is an obstacle, especially for the elderly, because in addition to physical activity, the appetite also especially decreases over the years.
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Therefore, animal foods and proteins contain more valuable amino acids, which a vegetarian diet can only provide to a small extent. So the scientists concluded that adults over the age of 65 should avoid a vegetarian diet. Anyone who, for example, does not eat animal foods for cultural or personal reasons, should at least consult nutritional supplements.
- Jacintha Domić J, Grootswagers P, Lisette CP (2022). Perspective: Vegetarian diets for seniors? A perspective on the potential impact on muscle mass and strength. Advances in Nutrition.
- European Patients Academy for Therapeutic Innovation. Bioavailability and bioequivalence. (Accessed 07/11/2022).