Beef vs whey protein; which is superior for building muscle?
We’re going to discuss:
Table of Contents
- What they are and how they are made
- Beef vs whey protein: Amino acid differences
- Beef vs Whey on Building Muscle in Men
- The main thing that matters
- Does fast-acting protein matter?
- Pros and cons of whey and beef protein
What they are and how they are made
Whey is a high-quality protein made from cow’s milk. Cow’s milk contains two types of protein (whey and casein), and they are separated in the process of making cheese. Whey is then strained and dried to make a powder.
There are several types of whey protein, with the main three being:
- Whey protein isolate – the purest form of whey protein
- Whey protein concentrate – also contains varying amounts of carbs and fat
- Whey protein hydrolysate – predigested for even easier digestion
Depending on where you buy your beef protein, it differs in the cuts of meat, but what usually happens is beef is boiled in large vats. This creates a liquid containing protein and amino acids. This is then skimmed to remove any further carbohydrates and fats, leaving a high protein concentration. The liquid is then dried resulting in the final beef protein isolate powder.
Low-quality beef protein isolate is created from hooves, ears, etc. Similar to collagen. Thus you’re basically buying collagen.
Higher-quality beef protein isolates are made from muscle meat to create the isolate and not skin, hooves, ears, etc.
Top-quality protein powders are made from meat and organs. This provides superior nutrition, such as vitamins, minerals, peptides, etc.
Beef vs whey protein: Amino acid differences
The necessity of all essential amino acids
Although leucine is the most potent stimulator of muscle protein synthesis (MPS), it will not boost muscle growth due to the lack of other essential amino acids. The same happens with BCAAs.
Some people make the argument that because beef isolate has less leucine (nearly 3 fold), BCAA and essential amino acids than whey, it will be less effective for building muscle.
It’s commonly believed that you need 3g of leucine per meal to maximally stimulate MPS. Although that is true, it’s only in the context of insufficient intake of the other EAAs.
This study found that ingesting 20g whey dose containing 9.6 g of EAA and 2g of leucine was just as effective at increasing MPS as 3g of leucine with low dose EAA (3g) (R, R).
Additionally, other non-essential amino acids also play a role in building muscle.
For example, glycine restores the anabolic response to leucine in a mouse model of acute inflammation (R) and in humans (with kidney disease), glycine was able to increase lean body mass, whereas BCAAs were not (R).
In summary, even if beef isolate has less leucine, BCAA and EAAs than whey, it will still be sufficient for building muscles.
As you can see in this table, beef has the same amount of EAAs as human tissue. Thus, if you meet your daily protein requirements from any animal source, you’ll be building optimal amounts of muscle.
Mixing collagen with milk protein on MPS
Some people say that collagen is useless for building muscle and that it has a 0 score on the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). The PDCAAS is a method utilized by government agencies that measure the quality of protein based on the amino acid requirements of humans and their ability to digest these protein sources.
If the score is low or close to zero, it means that it’s a poor food source to survive off. So yes, if you were to only consume collagen as your protein source (no other sources of protein), that would not be good.
But just because collagen/gelatin has a PDCAAS of 0 doesn’t mean it’s useless.
Collagen is high in glycine, prolactin, hydroxyproline and peptides such as hydroxypropyl-glycine.
Glycine restores the anabolic response to leucine in a mouse model of acute inflammation (R).
Hydroxyprolyl-glycine has shown anabolic effects by activating AKT/mTOR signaling. Proteomic analysis of CP in combination with RET has shown an increase in the level of proteins related to mRNA translation (R).
Combining 10g collagen with 10g milk protein was just as effective at stimulating MPS than 20g of milk protein, despite significantly lower leucine and EAAs.
So even if beef isolate is lower in BCAAs and EAAs, the boost in MPS and long-term muscle growth will be the same as whey which has more BCAAs and EAAs.
Beef vs Whey on Building Muscle in Men
Two servings (46g) of beef protein isolate and whey protein isolate (R):
- increased lean body mass by 5.7% and 4.7% respectively.)
- Lead to a 10.8% and 8.3% fat loss over 8 weeks.
- Increased 1RM of the deadlift and bench press to the same extent (↑11.6%-19.3 % for deadlift and ↑11.4%-17.6% for bench press).
20g of hydrolyzed beef protein or whey, mixed with orange juice, resulted in (R):
- 2.0% and 1.4% increased fat-free mass.
- 11.1% and 12.1% increase in vastus medialis thickness
- 11.2% and 1.1% increase in biceps brachialis thickness, while only Beef increased arm (4.8%) and thigh (11.2%) circumferences.
- 21.6% and 14.6% increase in squat 1RM
- 15.8% and 5.8% increase in bench 1RM
Study 3 – 20g whey or beef protein
Triathletes consumed either 20g of beef or whey protein for 10 weeks. After 10 weeks, only beef protein significantly reduced body mass along with a trend to preserve or increase thigh muscle mass. Additionally, the beef protein increased ferritin from 117 ± 78.3 to 150.5 ± 82.8 ng/mL, whereas whey was ineffective (R).
Last but not least, this 2019 meta-analysis summarized that beef protein provides similar effects to whey protein on protein intake and body composition, lean body mass and lower-limb muscle strength (R).
The main thing that matters
Total daily protein is what matters most. Neither beef isolate nor whey isolate is better than the other. If you’re going to pick a supplement, pick one that you’re going to enjoy and will be consistent with the most.
Total daily protein requirements to maximize muscle growth
What matters most for building muscle is total daily protein intake.
The ideal amount of protein to maximize muscle growth stimulated by exercise is ~1.6 g/kg/day and up to 2.2 g/kg/day. This intake can be achieved by ingesting 3 meals, each containing ~0.53 g/kg protein, or 4 meals containing ~0.4g/kg protein (R).
This would translate to 160-220g protein for a 100g person. Each meal can then consist of 40-53 grams of protein to meet the daily target.
Ideal protein intake per meal
When someone doesn’t exercise, eating 40g of protein will not stimulate muscle protein synthesis to a great extent than 20g. That extra protein is then used for other purposes (R).
However, after someone has exercised, muscle protein synthesis is increased. In this case, 40g of protein does increase muscle protein synthesis more than 20g (R).
Areta and colleagues showed that 20g of whey protein every ~3 hours was more effective at stimulating MPS over a 12-hour period compared to 10g every 1.5 h hours or 40g every 6 hours (R).
But MPS is just one part of the equation. Muscle protein breakdown is also part of it.
Kim et al. recently compared the anabolic response of 40 g vs. 70 g of protein, in the form of beef patties. While muscle-specific protein synthesis was increased similarly in both groups, the higher protein group experienced greater suppression of whole-body protein breakdown (R).
In another study, by the same group, they demonstrated that a positive linear relationship existed between incrementally higher protein intakes (from ~6 g to 92 g) and whole-body net protein balance (less protein breakdown). This led the authors to conclude that there is no practical upper limit regarding the amount of protein that could maximize muscle anabolism (R).
- 20g of protein is enough to stimulate MPS at rest.
- 40g is better than 20g of protein after someone has exercised.
- There is a linear relationship between protein intake and net protein balance in the body.
In essence, more protein isn’t just a waste.
Does fast-acting protein matter?
One of the big “upsides” of whey is that it’s rapidly absorbed so that your hungry muscles can soak up all the amino acids and build muscle right away. Beef isolate is more slow-acting and peaks post-prandial amino acid concentrations after 3 hours (R).
But does that matter?
Long term vs short-term elevated amino acids
A fast-acting protein source is very rapidly digested and absorbed. This means that amino acids will peak in the blood in 30 minutes vs 2 hours. Sounds good right? Sounds like just what your muscles need.
Muscle full effect
Consuming amino acids increase MPS by ∼1.5 hours. After that, MPS goes to baseline despite sustained amino acid availability and intramuscular anabolic signaling.
This “muscle-full set-point” can be delayed by resistance exercise even ≥24 h beyond a single exercise bout, casting doubt on the importance of nutrient timing vs. sufficiency per se. (R)
Back to acute vs chronic availability.
Taking leucine will spike leucine in the blood for about 60min. Eating a steak rich in leucine will increase leucine in the blood for 4+ hours (R).
In this study, they compared essential amino acid concentrations in the blood after eating 24g of protein from mince, steak and hydrolyzed beef. The hydrolyzed beef is fast acting, mince is “medium” acting and the steak is slow acting.
As you can see the amino acids from the hydrolyzed beef (light gray line in the graph) are in and out of your system relatively quickly, which, IMO, makes it less effective (R).
After eating the steak, EAAs are still elevated after 5 hours.
Skim milk (20% whey and 80% casein) vs ground beef. Skim milk increased myofibrillar MPS rates to a greater extent than beef during the first 2 hours post-exercise. However, the increase in myofibrillar protein synthesis rates did not differ between milk and beef ingestion during the entire 5-hour post-exercise phase (R). At the end of the day, the initial spike doesn’t matter.
Yet another example is ground beef vs a steak. Minced beef is more rapidly digested and absorbed than beef steak, which results in increased amino acid availability. However, this does not result in greater postprandial muscle protein synthesis rates (R).
Beef isolate, despite being refined, still peaks post-prandial amino acid concentrations after 3 hours. (R)
What matters is the long-term exposure to amino acids. Remember, exercise can elevate MPS for over 24 hours. You want amino acids in the blood during that time. In that context, fasting acting doesn’t matter.
This means that a steak will be better for long-term results compared to taking leucine, BCAAs or whey due to the amino acids being available for longer.
Long-term exposure to amino acids > short-term exposure.
Excess amino acids in the blood will be converted to glucose and be used for other things, other than muscle growth.
Pros and cons of whey and beef protein
- Great for building muscle (equally as effective as whey).
- Contain lots of collagen (which is anti-inflammatory and reverses anabolic resistance).
- Higher in certain vitamins and minerals (especially if it’s made from muscle and organ meat).
- Allergen free
- Has a distinct taste that is harder to mask
- Doesn’t dissolve completely
- Tastes great
- Dissolve completely
- Low in collagen and other micronutrients
- Can be allergenic. Whey protein isolate is lactose-free, but it’s also more expensive than regular concentrate or hydrolysate.
Even though whey has a superior PDCAA score and higher leucine, BCAA and EAAs, it’s not better than beef at boosting muscle mass or strength.
What matters most is having enough total daily protein.
All this BS about “better digestibility”, “faster absorption”, etc, etc, doesn’t matter.
Do what you enjoy the most and will be consistent with.
I personally don’t use protein powders and only consume whole foods, but I’m not opposed to supplementing whey, casein, beef isolate, milk powder, egg protein powder, etc. I just don’t see much value in it if you can eat whole food only.
Beef vs beef isolate? Beef and organ meat will always win!
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