Approximately six percent of people in the United States are vegan, and recent research has suggested that a plant-based diet can be associated with lower bone mineral density and increased fracture risk. This new study aimed to find out if resistance training can offset any potential diminished bone strength in vegans compared to omnivores.
The study authors compared data from 43 men and women on a plant-based diet for at least five years and 45 men and women on an omnivore diet for at least five years. The researchers found vegan and omnivore participants who did resistance training exercises such as using machines, free weights, or bodyweight resistance exercises at least once a week had similar bone strength. The study also found that vegans who engaged in resistance training had stronger bones than vegans who did other forms of exercise such as biking or swimming.
“Veganism is a global trend with strongly increasing numbers of people worldwide adhering to a purely plant-based diet,” Christian Muschitz, MD, of St. Vincent Hospital Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna in Vienna, Austria, said in a statement. “Our study showed resistance training offsets diminished bone structure in vegan people when compared to omnivores.”
The study’s results challenge the notion that an exclusively plant-based diet is less efficient than a diet that includes animal products when it comes to health and fitness. Though bone strength is a benefit of strength training, especially as people age, vegans can further promote bone strength by performing strength training regularly. “People who adhere to a vegan lifestyle should perform resistance training on a regular basis to preserve bone strength,” Muschitz said.
Can you build strength with plant protein?
Similarly, a plant-based diet has been shown to support muscle-building equally as well as an omnivore diet. Traditionally, whey protein has been considered the optimal choice of protein for muscle-building; however, in recent years researchers have determined that animal-derived protein is not superior to plant-based protein.
A study published earlier this year in the scientific journal Sports Medicine found that vegans experience the same muscle gains using plant-based protein powder as omnivores using animal-derived whey. The study aimed to identify the effects of dietary protein sources—specifically plant-based versus a mixed omnivore diet—on changes in muscle mass and strength in healthy young men who strength train.
The study showed that a plant-based diet composed of whole foods and soy protein supplementation is as effective as an omnivorous diet composed of mixed whole foods and whey protein supplementation for supporting muscle-building and strength. The results may encourage those who strength train to consider using plant-based protein supplements instead.
“A high-protein, exclusively plant-based diet (plant-based whole foods plus soy protein isolate supplementation) is not different than a protein-matched mixed diet (mixed whole foods plus whey protein supplementation) in supporting muscle strength and mass accrual, suggesting that protein source does not affect resistance training-induced adaptations in untrained young men consuming adequate amounts of protein,” the researchers concluded.
Similarly, a study published in the scientific journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that potato protein can be as effective as animal-derived milk in building muscle. Conducted by researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, the study hypothesized that because potato protein and animal milk protein share a very similar amino acid composition that both might have a similar effect on muscle protein synthesis, or the body’s way of making amino acids into skeletal muscle protein.
“Ingestion of 30 grams of potato protein concentrate increases muscle protein synthesis rates at rest and during recovery from exercise in healthy, young males,” the study concluded. “Muscle protein synthesis rates following the ingestion of 30 grams of potato protein do not differ from rates observed after ingesting an equivalent amount of milk protein.”
And when it comes to overall musculoskeletal health, a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that dietary protein derived from plant sources is no different than that from meat sources. Among 3,000 participants with varied dietary habits, higher protein intake led to better overall musculoskeletal health, and the source of dietary protein—plant or animal—was irrelevant.
“We know that dietary protein can improve muscle mass and strength,” lead researcher Kelsey M. Mangano, PhD, RD, said in a statement. “However, until now, we did not know if one protein food source was better than another in accomplishing optimal results.”