Let’s talk about plant protein vs animal protein. What’s the difference?
We begin the debate by explaining proteins. Proteins are a magnificent source of nutrition and are directly linked to the chemical processes essential for life. Protein is made up of 20 amino acids, which are all present in your body. Your body produces all but nine of them; these are called essential amino acids.
On a chemical level, proteins are by far the most structurally complex and functionally sophisticated molecules. All protein in the body serves a purpose, and because your body can’t store it, you need to rely on food to get the protein you need. It’s necessary for important body functions like blood clotting and hormone production.
This is where the great debate begins. What is the best source of protein? The short answer is, where you get your protein is a personal choice. In this article, we examine the details to help you make that choice.
What makes plant protein and animal protein different?
The USDA’s Dietary 2015-2020 Guidelines for Americans recommends that between 10 and 35 percent of an adult's daily calories should come from protein. It’s important to mention that this number is a recommendation and not an exact figure. Giving you an exact number is difficult because the right number for you is dependent on your age, gender, activity level, genetics, and current state of health. This is a good starting point if you are uncertain.
The two main food sources of protein are plant protein and animal protein. The main distinction between these sources relates to their amino acid content. Animal protein and plant protein are fundamentally similar in that they both contain amino acids. What sets them apart is the ratio of amino acids present in each source.
Plant proteins, which are considered incomplete, lack at least one of the essential amino acids you need for optimal performance. Conversely, animal protein is comparable to the protein found in your body and it contains all the amino acids you need.
Researchers agree that the amount of your protein intake is more important than the type; however, there are an array of factors to consider when making the choice. On an omnivorous diet, you can get the right amount of protein and quality simply by combining plant and animal sources. If you are on a vegetarian or vegan diet, getting complete protein might be challenging, but it is doable.
Plant protein vs animal protein: let’s compare them
Protein helps stimulate muscle growth, facilitates fat-burning, and strengthens your immune system. Unless you’ve sworn off meat and animal products from your diet, deciding where to get your protein from is a concern only insofar as it contributes to a well-balanced diet.
Here’s the scoop on animal and plant protein:
1. Plant Protein
Plants are naturally lower in calories and have higher amounts of healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants, which can help fight chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke, cancer, and brain disorders. Research shows that people who don’t consume animal-based protein have lower body weight, lower cholesterol, and lower blood pressure.
However, there are plant-based protein sources that on their own do not contain the nine essential amino acids needed in the human diet. The human body creates 11 amino acids and must get the remaining nine amino acids from food.
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you must find the right mix of foods to create complete proteins. The good news is that plant-based foods contain a wide variety of nutritional profiles, so even if you rely solely on plant protein, it’s possible to get all the amino acids you need to form protein in your body.
In fact, plant-based proteins are associated with lower death rates from chronic diseases than animal-based proteins are. To get the needed ratio of amino acids, eat a variety of plant-based foods throughout the day. Sample sources include high-protein foods, such as tofu, tempeh, lentils, nuts, seeds, and quinoa.
Because your body can use the amino acids from recent meals to form complete proteins, your body doesn’t need to get all the essential amino acids in one sitting. Finding the right mix throughout the day ensures there’s no risk of a deficiency.
2. Animal protein
Animal protein contains all the amino acids your body needs to perform at its best. Animal-protein sources are high quality and including them in your diet can help ensure that you get an adequate intake of amino acids and other essential nutrients. These proteins contain the nine essential amino acids in generally equal proportions and include sources like meat, pork, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.
Animal protein tends to be high in several nutrients that are lacking in plant-based proteins, including the following:
On the flip side, some animal proteins like red meat can be high in saturated fat, which can lead to things like heart disease, obesity, chronic inflammation, diabetes, and even cancer. For that reason, it’s important to consider the quality of the animal protein you purchase. When choosing meat sources for protein, it’s best to select cuts that are lean, organic, or grass-fed. Lean white meat is an excellent source of essential amino acids.
Plant protein vs animal protein: the verdict
Protein is an essential nutrient that, if lacking in your diet, will cause your health to suffer. This macronutrient provides the body with a consistent supply of protein to perform at peak levels. The body cannot store it in reserves, so we must replace stores with nutrition. Protein is part of a chemical process that is:
vital in muscle and tissue repair
crucial to build muscle mass
useful to weight loss goals because it helps reduce cravings
essential for your overall health
When it comes to plant protein vs animal protein, you don’t need to choose one over the other (unless you are or want to become a vegetarian or vegan). But if this is the case, then the distinction between animal protein and plant protein becomes very important.
It should be noted that, while evidence shows that certain animal-based proteins can negatively impact the human body, no evidence has been found to support negative health effects from consuming plant-based proteins.
Both plant protein and animal protein come with a long list of pros and cons. Each contains nutrients essential to the human diet, some of which are only available in either plant or animal sources. Ultimately, it’s best to diversify and get some of both, with an emphasis on seafood and plant-based proteins over red meat. If animal-protein is not an option, though, you can rest easy knowing that, when done mindfully, you can get all the nutrients you need from plant-based proteins.
The biggest takeaway in this debate is that not all proteins are created equal. Proteins that are high in saturated fats tend to negatively impact heart health. The information we researched showed that the risk of heart disease-related deaths was linked to higher consumption of animal-based protein. The risk level dropped among people who consumed protein from nuts and seeds.
As always, to determine the best solution for your dietary needs is to get medical advice from a professional.
Comparison of Nutritional Quality of the Vegan, Vegetarian, Semi-Vegetarian, Pesco-Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diet https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/6/3/1318/htm
Daily Nutritional Goals https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-7/
Low Protein Intake Is Associated with a MajorReduction in IGF-1, Cancer, and Overall Mortalityin the 65 and Younger but Not Older Population https://www.cell.com/action/showPdf?pii=S1550-4131%2814%2900062-X
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/
The Shape and Structure of Proteins https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26830/