If you still think you need to eat meat to gain muscle, researchers at Arizona State University are here to set you straight. In a new study in Nutrients, both vegetarian and omnivore endurance athletes tracked their diet for one week and were put through a series of fitness tests. The researchers’ findings: Whether the athletes were fueled by plants or animals, they had pretty much the same body composition and same level of physical performance—with maybe even a slight edge to the green eaters.
The male athletes clocked in with pretty comparable BMIs, body fat percentages, and lean body mass regardless of whether their food came with roots or four legs. And the meat-eating men actually turned up significantly more visceral fat—the kind stored around the abs that increases your risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes.
Vegetarians ate the same amount of protein, relative to body mass, as the guys scarfing meat—roughly 1.2 grams per kg of body mass. And, even though previous studies have found vegetarians tend to consume fewer calories, this study found when it comes to athletes, pretty much everyone puts the same amount of calories in their mouth per day no matter the source.
When researchers put the guys on a treadmill, they found vegetarians had a significantly higher VO2 max, meaning the plant-fueled fellas were able to sustain physical effort for longer (helpful during, say, a marathon).
Perhaps most interesting: When the men completed a series of leg extensions, the vegetarians' strength rivaled that of the meat eaters'. That’s right—even if you forgo steak, chicken, and (gasp) bacon, you will be just as strong as the guys that pile it on their plate.
What’s more, you may even be healthier. Studies show guys who nosh on plants are 32 percent less likely to develop heart disease, 35 percent less likely to develop prostate cancer (as well as most other forms of cancer), and actually live a longer life than men who eat meat.
If you’re thinking of taking a few nights off beef and poultry, the one thing to watch is that you’re still loading your plate with enough protein. But, despite stereotypes, that’s pretty easy to do. Tempeh has 34 grams of protein per 6 ounces, cottage cheese 23 grams per cup, Greek yogurt 18 grams per 6 ounces, and edamame 18 grams per cup. Right behind these in line are black beans, kidney beans, lentils, eggs, quinoa—well, you get the picture.