June 13, 2017
We were fortunate to grow up in a healthy household (our parents were basically hippies minus the drugs). As such, we ate a mostly plant-based diet and consumed a lot of homemade granola. Our mom insisted that we eat protein at every meal so we would grow and be strong. When a meal didn’t contain animal protein, we got our protein from beans and legumes (what many now refer to as pulses). When we reached middle school, we learned that one of our new friends was a vegan and didn’t consume anything from animals, which made us wonder if the protein she derived from plants was the same as protein from animals.
Today, as registered dietitians, we find that our clients wonder the same thing—is plant protein the same as animal protein? Does the body use them the same way? If you become vegan, can you really get the quality protein that you need? Here are the answers to these questions and more…
Q: First things first. What does your body do with protein?
A: Your body uses protein, which it breaks down into a more useable form called amino acids, for nearly every metabolic process in the body.
Q: Do all proteins contain the same amino acids?
A: Just as all fruits and veggies contain different combinations of phytonutrients, different proteins vary in the types and amount of amino acids they contain. The body uses 20 different amino acids, which are designated as either essential or non-essential proteins. While your body can produce the non-essential amino acids, there are nine essential amino acids that you want to make sure you get from the food you eat. These essential amino acids are needed for the body to function at its best.
Animal proteins (e.g., poultry, fish, meat, dairy products, eggs and seafood) typically contain a good mix of the body’s essential amino acids, while plant proteins (e.g., pulses, nuts and seeds) are known as “incomplete protein” and tend to be low in some essential amino acids such as tryptophan, lycine, methionine and isoleucine.
Q: If plant proteins are low in some essential amino acids, how do vegans get adequate protein to prevent muscle breakdown (and even to build it)?
Because every food contains different amino acids, simply eating a wide variety of foods that contain plant protein throughout the day provides a range of the necessary essential amino acids. Vegans, in particular, should include foods daily from each of the following categories:
- Pulses (beans and legumes)
- Nuts and seeds
Q: Aside from amino-acid content, are plant and animal proteins the same for your overall health?
A: While animal proteins have a leg up in the protein department because they contain all nine essential amino acids, plant proteins seem to have an advantage when it comes to health benefits. Just as some plant proteins lack certain essential amino acids, some animal protein foods, such as fatty meats and full-fat dairy foods (e.g., cheeseburger and a milkshake) are high in saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease when eaten in excess. By contrast, diets that are high in plant protein sources are associated with lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity. People who get most of their protein from plant-based sources are likely eating less cholesterol and artery-clogging saturated fat, while also being more likely to be living healthier lifestyles, both of which may attribute a good deal to the link with better health.
Weighing the Benefits
In addition to fiber, some of the winning nutrients in plant-based proteins are antioxidants and phytonutrients, which are not only critical in muscle recovery after a workout, they also protect cells from damage due to aging and help guard cells from disease. Animal proteins do not contain these added benefits.
Animal proteins do have some advantages, however, including vitamin B12, (which you can’t find in plants), heme iron (which is found mainly in meat and is much better absorbed than the non-heme iron found in plants) and often zinc and vitamin D (which are more difficult to get in plant protein foods). All of these nutrients are critical for optimal health.
Here’s some good news: If you eat a healthy diet, you can be a meat eater or a vegetarian and live to be a centenarian. However, because vegetarian diets are associated with added health benefits and a lower risk of diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, most people could benefit by consuming a few more plant-based meals.
If you’re interested in incorporating more meatless meals into your diet, here are a few delicious options to try:
- Barbecue Spice-Rubbed Tofu (140 calories, 14 grams protein per serving)
- One-Pot Black Bean Quinoa Chili with Avocados (300 calories, 15 grams protein)
- Lentil & Avocado Vegan Tacos ( 2 tacos = 400 calories, 20 grams protein)
- Veggie Bean Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette (2 servings = 204 calories, 16 grams protein)
And here are a few healthy animal-based protein recipes worth trying as well: