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Plant Protein vs. Animal Protein: Which One is Best?

by Rebecca Jacobs

No matter what diet you follow, whether you eat meat or not, protein is an essential part of a healthy diet. And, while protein is often associated with muscle growth, it does so much more.

We need protein to help build and repair tissue, to make hormones, support the immune system, promote satiety, and support healthy hair and skin.

The interesting thing about protein is that unlike carbs and fat, we don’t store protein. This is why it’s so important to make sure we are eating enough high-quality protein to make sure we are keeping up with our bodies demands.

We are going to cover everything you need to know about how much protein you need, where to get it from, and the differences between plant and animal protein.

What is Protein?

First, let’s talk about what protein actually is.

  • Protein is one of the three macronutrients that can be found in both animal and plant-based foods.
  • Protein provides us with 4 calories per gram and makes up roughly 15% of our body weight.
  • Protein is made up of amino acids, which are often referred to as the building blocks of protein.
  • Amino acids help build protein and protein acts as the building blocks for muscle mass.

Essential vs. Non-Essential Amino Acids

Amino acids can be broken down into three different classifications. Essential, non-essential, and conditional amino acids. Let’s take a closer look at each.

The human body is able to produce some amino acids (non-essential amino acids), but there are 9 that our bodies cannot produce and must be obtained from diet.

9 Essential Aminos:

    • Histidine: supports growth and repair of muscle tissues, and helps make blood cells, while also protecting nerve cells.  
    • Isoleucine: may play a beneficial role in supporting energy levels, managing blood sugar, and supporting muscle recovery.
    • Leucine: an important amino acid that skeletal muscles can use for energy during exercise.
    • Lysine: most commonly known as an amino acid that helps in both the prevention and treatment of cold sores.
    • Methionine: most commonly used in the treatment of liver disorders, supporting wound healing, depression, and allergies.
    • Phenylalanine: commonly used in the treatment of depression, chronic pain, arthritis, and a skin condition called vitiligo.
    • Threonine: often used for treating certain nervous system disorders such as multiple sclerosis, and may help reduce muscle contractions.
    • Tryptophan: the body converts this amino acid to 5-HTP, which is then converted to serotonin, melatonin, and vitamin B6.
    • Valine: often used to help support energy during exercise, and may help promote nervous system and cognitive health.

In order to get these amino acids, we must consume foods that are considered complete proteins.

Animal proteins are complete; however, there are a few plant-based foods that are considered complete as well. We will cover these in more detail, so read on to learn more about the difference between plant and animal protein.

  • Non-Essential Amino Acids: amino acids the body is able to make on its own. Non-essential amino acids include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.
  • Conditional Amino Acids: these aminos can become essential during times of illness or chronic stress. Conditional amino acids include arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine. While the body can produce these, during times when you are sick or under a lot of stress, they may become compromised, which is when we would need to rely on dietary sources to make sure we are getting enough.

6 Reasons Why Protein is Important for Your Health

Protein is essential for overall health, and we need protein for more than just refueling our muscles after a workout. Since every cell in the body needs protein, it makes sense that this macronutrient plays a critical role in supporting the body.

Here’s why protein is important for health:

The human body relies on protein for cell repair and growth.

Children, teens, and pregnant women rely heavily on protein for growth and development.

Eating enough protein may help boost metabolism.

Protein is filling and may help keep you full between meals. This is especially true for plant-based protein sources like chickpeas and lentils, which have been found to increase fullness.

Protein plays a huge role in helping the body recover during and after illness or injury since proteins are building blocks for tissues, and can help repair body cells.

Our muscles need protein for growth and repair. This is why many people rely on protein shakes or a high-protein meal after exercise.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

With protein playing such an important role in supporting our overall health, we want to make sure that we are getting enough. The good news is that most of us are doing that, and it’s actually easier to overdo your protein intake than not get enough since there are an abundant amount of protein-rich foods to add to your diet. With the right dietary tweaks, you can very easily reach your daily protein requirements.

Here’s how much protein you should aim to get into your diet each day.

As a general guideline, the adult recommended daily allowance (RDA) is 0.8 g/kg of body weight of protein per day.

Take your body weight in pounds and divide that number by 2.2 to get kg. Then, take your weight in kg and multiply that by 0.8. This will give you how many grams of protein you should aim to consume each day.

Example:

  • 150 pounds divided by 2.2= approximately 68 kg.
    • 68 kg multiplied by 0.8g= approximately 55 grams of protein per day.

While individual protein requirements are going to vary depending on weight, generally speaking, adult men need about 56 grams of protein per day. For the average adult woman, protein intake should be approximately 46 grams, and 71 grams if pregnant or breastfeeding.

How Much Protein Do Athletes Need?

An athlete's protein needs go beyond the needs of an average person due to the amount of stress their bodies are under. Protein assists the process of muscle protein synthesis and facilitates a faster recovery after strenuous exercise.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the American College of Sports Medicine, athletes should aim to get 1.2-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Protein intake should be spread out across the day with special emphasis on consumption immediately after exercise.

Example:

  • 180 pounds divided by 2.2 = 82 kg
    • 82 kg x 2.2g = 180 grams of protein per day  

Plant Protein vs. Animal Protein: The Basics

There are various ways to get protein into your diet. While animal proteins are considered the most complete, there are certain plant-based proteins that are complete as well. Let’s take a look at the difference between plant and animal proteins, and what foods you will want to eat to make sure that you are getting enough protein.

ANIMAL PROTEIN

Animal proteins are often viewed as the ideal protein source since they are complete. Since the body relies on food to get enough complete proteins, it’s important to make sure that you are getting enough. However, there are some things to keep in mind when it comes to animal protein.

  • How Animal Proteins Are Used in the Body: The way animal proteins are used in the body also makes them quite different from plant-based proteins. Since animal proteins are more similar to the protein structures in our body, they are used faster and are more readily available in the body once ingested to go to work and support our cells and muscles.
  • Quality: The first thing to keep in mind is the quality of the animal protein. Conventional meats may come from animals that were treated with steroids, antibiotics, and fed a diet full of grains, soy, corn, and inflammatory foods. This is where grass-fed and organic meats come in. If you can manage to consume grass-fed or organic when it comes to animal proteins, that’s ideal.
  • High-Quality Animal Protein Sources: Keeping quality in mind, some great sources of animal protein include pasture-raised eggs, chicken, turkey, and wild-caught fish. High-quality dairy like full-fat unsweetened Greek yogurt, in moderation, can also be a good choice.
  • Animal Proteins to Avoid: There are some animal proteins you will want to avoid or at least limit in your diet. Things like cold cuts are very high in sodium and should be kept to a minimum. Other processed meats like bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and red meat should also be limited.

PLANT PROTEIN

While not all plant-based protein sources are considered complete, there are some that are. And, as long as you are adding a variety of plant-based protein sources to your diet, you will be covered.

Here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to plant-based protein:

  • Complete Plant-Based Protein Sources: Hemp seeds, chia seeds, buckwheat, spirulina, and quinoa are all excellent complete plant-based protein sources to add to your diet.

  • Adding Variety: While it was once believed that we need to combine plant-based foods to create complete proteins at each meal, we now know that adding variety throughout the day is enough. Eating a variety of plant-based protein sources like nuts, seeds, beans, buckwheat, and quinoa with each meal is enough to make sure that you are getting a balance of protein in your diet.

Good Sources of Plant-Based Proteins: You would be surprised at just how protein-rich certain plant-based foods are. There are plenty of high protein vegetables such as broccoli which includes almost four grams of protein per cup. Other good sources of plant-based protein include all varieties of beans (black, kidney, garbanzo, navy), lentils, nuts, seeds, oats, buckwheat, quinoa, tempeh, asparagus, brussels sprouts, and dark leafy green vegetables.

Plant or Animal Protein: Which is Best?

So, what’s better, plant or animal protein? There are certainly pros and cons to both, but the consensus is that while animal protein is complete, we should really be focusing on getting our protein from plants as often as we can.

  • Plant Protein provides secondary benefits: Unlike animal protein, plant-based protein sources like beans, nuts, seeds, and dark leafy greens come with the added benefit of fiber and anti-inflammatory health benefits. It’s ok to get protein from animal sources as well, so long as quality is kept in mind. Animal proteins should be organic and grass-fed when possible.

When including animal protein in your diet, avoid inflammatory choices like processed bacon, sausage, and cold cuts, and balance your animal protein intake with lots of plant-based foods.

  • Strike a balance between both: So, while there is no one straight answer when it comes to which one is better, it’s really all about balance and quality. With a large focus on getting lots of plants in your diet, with high-quality animal proteins to complement your protein intake, you will be setting yourself up for success in the protein department.

A great example of a well-balanced protein-rich meal would be a kale salad with two cups of chopped kale, one three-ounce salmon filet, a handful of walnuts, a tablespoon of hemp seeds, and a drizzle of raw apple cider vinegar. This is the perfect balance between various protein sources, both complete, and incomplete.

The Takeaway

Protein is essential for health. We need to make sure we are getting enough to support cell repair, muscle growth, hormone health, and immune function. The good news is that it’s easy to make sure we are getting that 0.8 g/kg of body weight per day. The key is to focus on high-quality protein sources. Focus on getting lots of your protein from plants, balanced with quality animal-based protein, should you choose to consume meat.

It’s all about balance, and a well-balanced diet is not only key to optimal protein balance, but it’s essential for optimal health as well.

High-Protein Recipes

Here are two protein-rich recipes, one that’s 100% vegan and plant-based, and the other that includes animal protein. These can be enjoyed as a quick grab and go breakfast or snack to fuel your body with high-quality protein.

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