Years ago, while attending the Mr. Olympia contest, I decided to survey a few of the contestants on the subject of eating meat. Specifically, I asked if they continued to eat meat all the way up to a contest.
At the time bodybuilders often cut meat from their precontest diets in favor of allegedly leaner protein sources such as fish and chicken. They even stopped eating egg yolks, somehow fearing that the fat in them would obscure their hard-earned muscular definition.
Sure enough, many of the Olympia contestants confirmed that they’d eaten only fish and chicken up to the contest, with quite a few opting to stick with fish. I recall that the winner that year, Dorian Yates, had seemed perplexed by the question. “What’s wrong with eating meat?” he asked.
Indeed, when considered objectively, the rationale for cutting out meat when you’re trying to get in maximum condition is hard to understand. It’s now clear from numerous studies that the culprit in promoting bodyfat synthesis is carbohydrates, especially when consumed in excess of activity requirements. That idea is not really on the mark, since there is no biological requirement for carbohydrates. The body needs glucose, the only type of sugar that circulates in the blood, and it’s capable of producing glucose from other nutrients, including amino acids from protein, glycerol from fat and even the lactate that forms during intense exercise.
The point here is that meat is carbohydrate-free, and depending on the cut you consume, it doesn’t contain that much more fat than chicken. Besides, in active people, such as bodybuilders, the fat in meat is rapidly oxidized, especially when they’re eating a low-carb diet. The positive aspects of eating meat far outweigh any alleged negative effects. Meat was even recently exonerated regarding its long-purported role in the onset of cardiovascular disease.
Meat contains a number of important nutrients, including zinc, which is vital for testosterone and insulin synthesis. Its main feature, though, is its high protein content, especially beef. The essential amino acid pattern found in meat is similar to that existing in human muscle tissue, and the fact that meat is a concentrated source of protein is a definite advantage, especially for those over 40.
As we age, muscles become less sensitive to anabolic stimuli, including the amino acids we take in. Studies show that overcoming this anabolic resistance requires a greater intake of protein for older people than their younger counterparts need. One key method of balancing the anabolic equation for the over-40 set is to ensure that every protein meal contains at least 2.5 grams of leucine, a branched-chain amino acid that is the key amino involved in triggering muscle protein synthesis. To do that effectively, though, all the other essential amino acids must also be present.
Meat is ideal for that purpose. Pound for pound it contains more protein than other protein foods, although the quality, as measured by essential amino acid content, isn’t superior to that of milk and eggs. Still, a serving of beef contains more actual grams of protein than you’ll get from those other sources.
One study found that giving older people a meal that contained 113 grams of beef—providing 10 grams of essential amino acids—effectively stimulated mixed muscle protein synthesis about as much as what occurs in much younger people. A later study showed the same effect with a meal containing 340 grams of beef.
One notable problem with those studies, however, is that they focused on mixed muscle protein synthesis, meaning how much protein was being used throughout the body, such as in internal organs. The real question is, Does eating beef provide similar beneficial effects in isolated muscle protein synthesis?
A recent study looked at the benefits of eating beef in middle-aged men.1 The object was to determine the dose-response effect of eating meat when combined with resistance exercise vs. no exercise. Thirty-five healthy men, average age 59, were divided into groups, consuming one of the following:
1) No beef
2) 57 grams of beef, or two ounces, containing 12 grams of protein
3) 113 grams of beef, or four ounces containing 24 grams of protein
4) 170 grams of beef, or six ounces containing 36 grams of protein and a 15 percent fat content
The men did bouts of one-legged extensions after eating their meals and also got infusions of tagged leucine to determine leucine oxidation rates as well as tagged phenylalanine, another amino acid, to determine muscle synthesis rates.
Muscle protein synthesis increased the most after the largest beef meal both at rest and after exercise. Leucine oxidation began to increase with the four-ounce-beef meal and further increased with the larger meal. The increase in protein synthesis was 50 percent greater in those who got the six-ounce-beef meal than those who got no beef; however, the difference wasn’t significant between the smaller meat meals.
This study underscores previous findings showing that the older you are, the more protein you must get after a weight workout. The beef meals containing two and four ounces of protein weren’t enough to produce a significant anabolic response in the middle-aged subjects. That implies that the mechanisms for synthesizing more protein are maintained as you age, provided that you up your intake of protein per meal.
The quality of the protein meal, as determined by essential amino acid content, is also vital. The largest protein meal in the study, which produced the highest anabolic response, also produced the greatest leucine oxidation rate, which shows that while some of the excess protein was being oxidized, which is the usual fate of excess protein in active people, those who got the six-ounce portioned still had enough to maximize the anabolic response.
Even when they’re getting a higher-quality protein, such as whey, those over 40 still need more protein per feeding. While 20 grams of whey protein is sufficient to maximize muscle protein synthesis in the young, it takes 40 grams to produce the same effect in older people. In addition, other studies have shown that while eating smaller, more frequent protein meals benefits younger bodybuilders, those over 40 get better anabolic effects from eating fewer protein meals but larger ones, with at least double the protein content than younger people need.
1 Robinson, M.J., et al. (2013). Dose-dependent responses of myofibrillar protein synthesis with beef ingestion are enhanced with resistance exercise in middle-aged men. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 38:120-25.