Plant vs. Animal Protein

There are many benefits to including plant-based foods in your diet, like protecting you from cardiovascular disease and improving your overall health.

Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes are loaded with vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber (to help regular blood sugar and curb hunger). There are also many plant-based foods that are excellent sources of protein, such as edamame, lentils, chickpeas, pistachios and quinoa.

But as is often the case once the internet gets a hold of nutritional science research, somehow the benefits of plant-based protein have been interpreted to mean that animal protein should be avoided.

Maybe it’s the polarizing nature of social media and modern society, but somehow we got to a place where the average person believes you should be eating animal protein OR plant protein.

Unless you have personal reasons for avoiding animal products, why not enjoy the benefits of both?

First, let’s review why we want to consume adequate amounts of high-quality protein in the first place. It’s the amino acids that we’re after … the building blocks of protein.

There are 20 amino acids that make up protein. Nine are considered essential, meaning the body cannot produce them and we need to get them from our diet. 

The remaining 11 amino acids are considered non-essential, meaning our body can produce them out of the other 9.

Animal proteins (eggs, fish, beef, chicken, milk, etc) contain sufficient quantities of all 9 essential amino acids. Plant proteins also contain all 9 essential amino acids, but often are lacking sufficient quantities of one or more. 

In other words, you could get sufficient quantities of all 9 essential amino acids from consuming only plant-based proteins … but you’d have to work for it. It would require researching the amino acid content of the various plant-based protein sources and doing a form of “protein stacking” to make sure you’re getting sufficient amounts of all 9 essential amino acids.

Again, if you’ve made a personal choice not to consume animal proteins, that’s fine. Just know that you’ll need to be diligent about mixing and matching your plant-based protein sources – pistachios, soy, and quinoa are 3 plants that contain complete protein (all 9 essential amino acids, in the right amounts).

But if you’re only avoiding animal proteins because of stuff you’ve read on the internet, here are a couple of things to consider:

⇒ Much of the large population data on the negative effects of consuming animal protein is skewed because people who consume more animal protein also tend to have poor health habits. They’re more sedentary, are more likely to smoke, and consume more processed foods. 

⇒ People who consume more plant proteins are consuming more foods that are lower in calories and higher in nutritional value. They also tend to be more active, less likely to smoke, and consume fewer processed foods.

So if you’re looking to optimize your protein intake, should you be eating animal-based protein or plant-based protein?

The answer, of course, is both!

Unless you have moral or religious reasons to avoid animal-based protein, why not benefit from the complete amino acid profile they offer and the nutrient density of plant-based proteins? 

It doesn’t have to be one or the other.