Animal and plant protein; is one better than the other? Common protein sources from both sides go head-to-head.
Vegans and vegetarians are often lectured on the importance of getting enough protein. However, a good protein intake is not as simple as having steak or chicken every now and then. It is possible for meat eaters to have a little protein in their diets, and vegetarians to have a lot! But regardless of your diet lifestyle, it is important to ensure that you are getting enough protein every day, since the body doesn’t
Proteins are often referred to as the ‘building blocks’ of life. All the tissues in the body contain protein, like in the muscle, bone, hair, blood, skin and virtually all the body cells. Protein makes up the enzymes that power many chemical reactions and the haemoglobin that carries oxygen in the body.
However, all proteins aren’t the same. They are made of building blocks called amino acids. Some amino acids, called non-essential amino acids can be manufactured by the body. Essential amino acids, on the other hand, can’t be made by the body and have to be taken from food. For optimal health, your body needs to have all the essential amino acids in the right ratios.
Some protein sources (especially from animals) have all the essential amino acids while others lack some. The key differences between plant and animal protein are how they rank in terms of amino acid profiles and the rate at which the human body can absorb and use them.
Animal proteins are a lot like the proteins found within the body, so they are more readily and rapidly used compared to plant proteins. Animal proteins like meat, eggs, fish and poultry, are considered to be complete protein because they contain all the essential amino acids.
However, despite being highly compatible with the body’s naturally produced proteins, animal protein has been linked to health risks. Animal proteins can have high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat both of which are associated with increased risk of mortality. Processed red meats, thanks to the chemicals they contain, are strongly associated with increased risk of death.
Although few plant proteins contain all the essential amino acids, they are highly favoured by nutritionists as healthier than animal proteins. A recent study from Harvard University shows that substituting protein of animal origin with plant protein can significantly reduce the risk of mortality. Plant proteins are low in calories and fat, and they are also packed with vitamins and minerals. A 2010 review in Nutrition in Clinical Practice found that vegetarians had lower BMIs, lower blood cholesterol, and lower blood pressure than non-vegetarians.
Some plant proteins such as tofu, quinoa and amaranth have all the essential amino acids, making them a great option for vegans and vegetarians. Other great sources of plant protein include legumes, nuts and seeds.