The variety of sources for protein supplementation has noticeably expanded in the past few years. Where once there were few choices besides whey, casein, and soy (the latter of which is not recommended), now egg white protein and plant proteins from hemp, rice, and peas are available. Until recently, however, animal-based protein supplement options for those with allergies or sensitivities to dairy or eggs were limited. Beef protein, a relative newcomer to this arena, fills this need, and may even have certain advantages over other sources of protein. Let’s take a closer look at the research on beef protein.
It may be best to start by acknowledging that, for the purpose of building or maintaining muscle mass, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends protein intakes substantially higher than is commonly advised. Compared to the oft-cited 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight per day (g/kg/d)—which is merely the minimum needed for nitrogen balance—ISSN suggests an intake in the range of 1.4–2.0g/kg/d as being sufficient. They also propose that protein intakes even higher than this (>3.0g/kg/d) may have positive effects on body composition (promoting fat loss) in resistance-trained individuals. Researchers have sounded the alarm that even for individuals not engaged in resistance training, the recommended protein intake of 0.8g/kg/d may have been “significantly underestimated,” and many people would likely benefit from a higher intake. (Increased protein consumption may be especially helpful for promoting bone health and supporting health and functioning among the elderly.)
With this in mind—that many individuals might benefit from increased protein intake, how does beef protein stack up against other supplemental protein sources? Pretty well, research indicates. Whey protein is frequently employed in protein supplementation studies because of its “robust ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis” owing to its rapid digestibility and high content of essential amino acids and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Beef protein has been shown to rival the effects of whey in randomized trials.
In a study evaluating the effects of different supplemental protein sources on body composition and muscle performance during 8 weeks of resistance training in young adults (both males and females), post-workout consumption of beef protein isolate was compared to hydrolyzed chicken protein, whey protein concentrate, or maltodextrin as a control. (Each group consumed 46 grams of their assigned compound immediately after training or at similar time on rest days.) All protein sources resulted in similar and significant decreases in fat mass and increases in lean mass compared to the control, but all groups experienced significant increases in one-rep max for both deadlift and bench press.
A randomized, double-blind crossover study published earlier this year looked at beef protein supplementation in young elite male triathletes from the Spanish national team (age 21 ± 3 years). Compared to an isocaloric carbohydrate supplement, 25 grams of beef protein daily for 8 weeks resulted in an increase in thigh cross-sectional area (increased thickness of the vastus lateralis muscle) and a more favorable testosterone-to-cortisol ratio compared to an isocaloric carbohydrate supplement. There were no significant changes to overall body mass or skinfold thickness, but this may have been because these were already elite athletes and 25 grams of protein is not an especially large dose. There were no adverse effects on hematological measurements. The study authors concluded that beef protein “seems to facilitate a more favorable anabolic environment” in these subjects.
A separate study comparing hydrolyzed beef protein supplementation to whey or carbohydrate among older male triathletes (age 35–60) found similar results regarding thigh muscle mass but also observed a favorable change in iron status. Subjects consumed 20g of their assigned supplement once daily, either immediately after training or before breakfast. Compared to whey or carbohydrate, only the beef protein significantly reduced body mass along with a trend toward preserved or increased thigh muscle mass. Only the beef protein led to a significant increase in ferritin (from 117 ± 78.3 at baseline to 150.5 ± 82.8ng/mL post-intervention)—an important finding, considering iron deficiency is not a rare occurrence among athletes.
A different study compared the effects of carbohydrate alone (maltodextrin) to carbs mixed with beef or whey protein (added to orange juice) among males aged 18-40 years of age who had been engaged in regular resistance training for at least two years. Subjects performed the prescribed resistance training protocol three times per week for eight weeks (alternated with their normal recreationally physical activity) and consumed either 45g of carbohydrate or 25g of carbs plus ~16g beef protein or ~18g whey. Beef and whey, but not carbs, were shown to increase fat-free mass, while all supplements increased vastus medialis muscle thickness, with greater increases coming from beef and whey compared to the carbs. All three groups had significant increases in 1-rep max for the squat (beef was the largest), but only beef and whey resulted in significant increases to 1RM for bench press, with the increase being larger for the beef group.
Beef protein appears to be an effective choice for individuals looking to augment their protein intake but who have sensitivities to dairy-based proteins.