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Plant vs. Animal Protein — The Differences

<article> <section> <p>You know protein is important for building muscle, feeling satisfied with meals, and helping with weight loss. The word <i>protein</i> comes from the Greek word for “primary.” Protein is the most essential macronutrient. The body can make most fats and carbohydrates from other macronutrients, if needed. But it cannot make the nine <i>essential amino acids</i>, the building blocks of protein. These must come from the diet. The essential amino acids can be found in varying quantities in both animal and plant foods, so which protein option is best?</p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>What Is the Difference between Plant Protein and Animal Protein?</header> <p>The first obvious difference between plant protein versus animal protein is that one comes from plants and the other from animals. But, that’s not the only difference. Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are twenty amino acids necessary for human health. As we mentioned, nine of these are <i>essential</i>, meaning they must come from the diet. The other eleven the body can make on its own.</p> <p>Animal protein, such as chicken, beef, or fish, contains all nine essential amino acids. It is considered a complete protein. Most plant proteins, such as beans, legumes, and nuts, are missing one or more amino acids. They are considered an incomplete protein. The exception is soy. Soy does contain all nine essential amino acids, but it is not as high in all nine amino acids as animal protein.<sup>1</sup> But, soy can be hard to digest; therefore, we recommend that it only be eaten fermented, as in <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">tempeh</a>. </p> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>Is Plant Protein as Good as Animal Protein?</header> <p>The answer to this question is a bit complex. Yes, with a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet, daily protein needs can be met. But it does take a bit of planning.</p> <p>In order to get all nine essential amino acids, someone following a plant-based diet must have a general understanding of which foods are high or low in each amino acid. For example, beans are low in the amino acid <i>methionine</i>, but high in <i>lysine</i>. Whereas rice is high in methionine, but low in lysine. When you eat beans and rice together (it doesn’t even have to be at the same meal), you have a complete protein.<sup>2</sup> These two foods are called <i>complementary</i> proteins. With an understanding of the different amino acids in each plant-based protein, a vegetarian can meet their daily protein needs.</p> <p>Plant proteins are also usually high in fiber, beneficial for digestive health. But fiber is a type of carbohydrate. This means that beans and legumes also come with a hefty dose of carbohydrates. A cup of cooked black beans has 228 calories, 41 grams of carbohydrates, and 15 grams of protein.<sup>3</sup> If you are following a keto diet, a cup of beans would exceed your <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">daily carbohydrate limit</a>.</p> <p>Sticking with animal protein as your primary protein source allows you to not think about planning meals around amino acids, since all animal proteins have all the amino acids, which makes it easier to stick with a low carbohydrate diet if your goal is weight loss. <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/jpf"> <source data-srcset=""> <img src="" class="img-fluid" alt="steak-on-plate"> </picture> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>Health Benefits of Plant Protein versus Animal Protein</header> <p>To further complicate the plant protein versus animal protein debate is how each type of protein may benefit different health goals.</p> <div class="sub-head">Can You Build Muscle with Plant Protein?</div> <p>The body needs amino acids to build muscle after a tough workout. Both animal and plant protein provide amino acids. The body is smart and resourceful. If it wants to build muscle, as long as you are giving it some type of protein, it will find the amino acids it needs.</p> <p>That being said, there is significant research indicating that whey protein, which comes from milk, is the most beneficial for muscle building.<sup>5</sup> But, plant-based proteins haven’t been studied as extensively for increasing lean muscle. One study compared rice protein to whey protein and found that they were equally effective in helping build muscle after a workout.<sup>6</sup> Collagen protein can also help keep ligaments and joints healthy, helping support those tough workouts that help you build muscle. For muscle building, it is unclear which protein is optimal. </p> <div class="sub-head">What Is the Best Protein for Weight Loss?</div> <p>Protein is the most satiating macronutrient. That means when you eat a meal high in protein, you feel full and satisfied for longer. This should in turn result in a lower overall calorie intake and help you lose weight.<sup>7</sup></p> <p>Carbohydrates, on the other hand, are the least satisfying macronutrient (fat is somewhere in between). When you eat a meal of carbs alone, you are hungry again quickly. Carbs are easy to overeat since they don’t provide the satisfaction of protein, so you end up eating more calories than you intended. If your goal is weight loss, it is probably best to not eat protein sources that are also high in carbs. </p> <p>Plant-based proteins are also very calorie dense. For example, a cup of beans has 228 calories and 15 grams of protein, whereas a four-ounce serving of breast chicken has 187 calories and 35 grams of protein. The chicken has double the protein for fewer calories. If you want to lose weight, animal protein is your best bet. </p> <div class="sub-head">What Is the Best Protein for Overall Health?</div> <p>It’s not just about muscles or weight; health matters too. So, in the battle of plant protein versus animal protein, which is healthier?</p> <p>As we mentioned, proteins are high in fiber, which is healthy for our digestion. But this means they are also high in carbohydrates. Plant proteins do not contain saturated fat or cholesterol, although recent research has found that neither of those matter all that much.<sup>8</sup></p> <p>Plants proteins are lacking all nine essential amino acids. Although plants are high in nutrients, a lot of the vitamins and minerals get trapped inside the fiber, so even though they are present, your body can’t access them. In addition, nutrients such as iron are more difficult to absorb from plant sources.<sup>9,10</sup></p> <p>Animal protein contains all nine essential amino acids and is a complete protein. It is also incredibly high in easy-to-access nutrients. For example, fish is one of the few sources of the essential omega-3 fats: EPA and DHA. Red meat is incredibly high in a well-absorbed form of iron. Animal protein is a primary source of vitamin B12, critical for brain and nerve health. The winner in the “best for overall health” category is definitely animal protein.</p> <picture class="lazy-load"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/webp"> <source data-srcset="" type="image/jpf"> <source data-srcset=""> <img src="" class="img-fluid" alt="beans-in-hands"> </picture> </section> <hr class="divider-50 divider-medium mx-auto"> <section> <header>Should You Eat Plant or Animal Protein?</header> <p>Back to the original question, which protein wins in the battle of animal versus plant? For most situations, animal protein wins. It is lower in calories, has no carbohydrates, is highly satiating, and is loaded with important nutrients such as B12 and iron.</p> <p>For optimal health, weight loss, and muscle growth, be sure to include a source of animal protein at every meal and snack. A few options might include red meat, wild-caught fatty fish, poultry, eggs, and animal-based protein powders such as <a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">GO2 Protein</a>. Planning your meals around protein will help reach your goals with ease.</p> <div class="sub-head">Resources</div> <ol> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Nutritional and health benefits of soy proteins</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Protein complementation</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Everything you need to know about black beans</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Health benefits of whey protein: A review</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Comparison of rice and whey protein osolate digestion rate</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Proteins and satiety: implications in weight management</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Saturated fat does not clog the arteries</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Bioavailability of minerals in legumes</a></li> <li><a target="_blank" href="" rel="noreferrer">Food Microstructure Affects the Bioavailability of Several Nutrients</a></li> </ol> </section> </article>

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