As of late, the buzzword when it comes to dietary habits is plant-based eating, with many people doing their best to stay free of animal-based foods. The human body needs protein to function, yet it doesn’t store it. Therefore, it’s important for people to incorporate it into their diets on a daily basis. As a result, many have become concerned about whether they can switch out their animal foods for plant-based foods, especially since they need protein.
Yes, a lot of non-meat foods do contain protein, but aren’t animal-based meats the best source of it? Well, not exactly. Unfortunately, decisively stating that one source of protein is better than the other isn’t as simple as one might think.
Firstly, what is protein?
Protein is a macronutrient that makes up around 20% of the human body. It is needed for the growth, repair, and maintenance of the body’s various cells and tissues, ranging from the muscles and organs to the bones and skin. Additionally, it also plays a role in blood clotting, transportation of nutrients, hormone production, and immune system response.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are small organic compounds that help out with various bodily processes. There are 20 different kinds of amino acids, and the human body needs a balance of all 20 in order to function properly. Of these 20, 9 are considered essential because the body is unable to produce them on its own. Therefore, one will need to consume foods that contain these nine essential amino acids. Foods that contain all 9 essential amino acids are referred to as a complete protein source, and many encourage the consumption of these foods.
Complete vs. incomplete proteins
An incomplete protein refers to a protein source that’s low or lacking in one or more essential amino acids.
The difference between complete and incomplete proteins is where the differences between plant and animal proteins begin to look distinct. All animal proteins, be it beef, ham, fish, chicken breasts as well as egg and dairy products, are complete proteins. On the other hand, plant proteins are almost always incomplete proteins. The ones that are complete include soy products like tofu, buckwheat, and quinoa.
With that in mind, a lot of people would use the argument that animal proteins are automatically the best. However, it should be noted that plant proteins are not greatly lacking in all the essential amino acids. Rather, they’re only lacking in one or two, therefore a plant-based meal will have different foods complementing each other and form a complete amino acid profile.
Moreover, consuming a balanced, diverse plant-based diet throughout the day will help to ensure that you get a good supply of all the essential amino acids.
How beneficial is animal protein for my health?
Animal protein foods not only provide a dose of essential amino acids, but they also contain several beneficial nutrients. These include vitamin D, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acid DHA, and zinc. It is for this reason that it has been associated with positive health benefits, such as a reduced risk of heart disease and improved neurological health (1, 2).
So why the concern?
While sources of animal protein do contain beneficial nutrients, eating too much red meat protein can be detrimental to your health in a number of ways. It should also be noted that the process of cooking animal protein may lead to a reduction in protein value, leaving little to be absorbed during consumption.
Additionally, health problems linked to animal protein have been strongly associated with processed red meat. In fact, the World Health Organization has revealed the carcinogenic properties that these foodstuffs contain (3).
Negative health effects associated with excess red meat consumption include an increased risk of cardiovascular health disorders such as heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and diabetes.
What about plant protein?
Like animal proteins, plant proteins have their own share of nutrients that can benefit human health, particularly flavonoids, carotenoids, and polyphenols as well as fiber. These compounds help to protect the body against the damaging effects of free radicals.
Research from 2016, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, found that people who adopt plant-based diets tend to live longer, healthier lives.
This may have to do with the fact that a diet rich in plant-based protein is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and type II diabetes.
So, which is healthier?
As mentioned, each source of protein has its own unique set of nutrients that it can provide to the body. Therefore, if you’re looking to choose either or, then it may be advisable to factor in the other nutrients.
For one, animal protein contains saturated fat. Thus, someone facing an increased risk of cardiovascular disease may want to avoid it for this reason. Plant-based protein, on the other hand, may be a better choice if you’re battling digestive issues.
Secondly, for some people, the animal protein might be more readily available and affordable. Aside from this, with the rise of conscious consumerism, a lot of people are doing their best to reduce their intake of meat. They’re doing so in hopes of protecting both the environment and animal rights. On the other hand, for others, religion or culture may forbid them from consuming animal protein.
What are the best sources?
If you’re looking to include more protein into your diet, try to enjoy more of the following foods:
- Soy products (tofu, tempeh, and edamame)
- Hemp seeds
- Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck)
The bottom line
There are a lot of different ways to reap the benefits of a healthy diet. Therefore, you can incorporate both meat and animal products into your diet.
A diet rich in plant-based protein is a sure way to achieve optimal health. It should also include the occasional inclusion of animal-based proteins such as fish and poultry. If you want to enjoy red meat, stay away from the processed kind. Instead, opt for grass-fed beef.
At the end of the day, when it comes to your protein source, it’s all about finding that balance that will help to protect your health and well-being.