Dr Justine Butler
Post published at July 13, 2020

Older people don’t need meat for muscle

Old people

More contradictory tosh in the media today! “Meat-eating boosts muscle health better than plant-based diets as we age” says the Daily Mail headline – don’t buy it!

The story says that vegans need to eat a lot more grains, pulses and beans if they want to get the same protein benefits that meat, dairy and eggs offer to ageing bodies. No mention of how harmful to health animal protein is and no discussion of the huge health benefits vegan diets offer.

On average, men need around 55 and women 45 grams of protein daily – most people in the UK get more than enough. Government surveys suggest that the average daily intake for most is at least 130 per cent of the recommended amount. Too much protein – especially from animal foods – can be harmful and high intakes have been linked to disease and early death. High intake of animal protein may also weaken bones and increase the risk of fractures.

The idea that animal protein is superior to plant protein is not supported by the evidence; a review in the journal Nutrients says that the question of any amino acid deficiency in plant foods has been substantially overstated and that the term ‘complete protein’ is misleading. They suggest that it’s time to shift away from unnecessary questions about protein adequacy of vegetarian diets. Put simply, if your varied vegan diet provides enough energy, it will provide enough protein.

Older people require less energy because the basal metabolic rate (the number of calories you need to keep your body functioning) falls with age. As a result, there can be a tendency for some older people to fall short on protein, regardless of diet; this can lead to loss of muscle – sarcopenia.

There are plenty of excellent, healthy, vegan sources of protein such as pulses (peas, beans, lentils and tofu), nuts and nut butters, seeds and wholegrain foods. If you compare the protein in 100g of scrambled egg (around two eggs) to tofu, the eggs provide around 11 grams but the tofu may give you up to a whopping 23.5 grams but without the cholesterol and saturated fat. For an extra boost try snacking on nut butter on oatcakes, add tahini to salad dressing and nibble some cashew nuts in the afternoon!

It is nonsense to suggest that vegans are more likely to feel the effects of aging bodies by not eating meat; vegans have healthier levels of fat in their blood, a lower risk of chronic disease and tend to live significantly longer than meat-eaters.

Years of advertising and marketing meat, fish, eggs and dairy foods have created this myth that animal protein is best – the opposite is true. If you eat a healthy and varied vegan diet, protein won’t be on your worry list!

Find out more about protein and which plant foods are best here and read our health feature Muscle without meat.

The author
This post was written by Dr Justine Butler
I joined Viva! as a health campaigner in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. My scientific training helped me research and write numerous reports, guides and fact sheets for Viva! including Meat the Truth, Fish-Free for Life, One in Nine (breast cancer and diet) and the substantial report on the detrimental health effects of consuming dairy; White Lies. This accompanied Viva!’s report The Dark Side of Dairy which spelt out the inherent cruelty of dairy farming. We were the first UK group to take on the dairy industry in this way, and many of our supporters go vegan after reading these reports.

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