We all know protein is important – especially when it comes to exercise. However, when you read about the recommended amount of protein for your diet, there is usually no differentiation between animal-based and plant-based proteins. The two types do differ, and they each have their own unique set of pros and cons. So the question comes down to whether you should be going full omnivore, or sticking to the veggies.
A Quick Note About Amino Acids
Amino acids can be found in all types of protein, and there’s 20 of them. They come in two types, essential and non-essential. Your body can make non-essential amino acids by itself (being the powerhouse that it is), but you need to get all your essential amino acids from food. These essential amino acids are what your body needs to function at its best!
We’ll start with the proteins you can find in meats or animal-based products. The main benefit of animal proteins is that pretty much all of them contain a great mixture of all your essential amino acids. Because of this, they’re often referred to as ‘complete’ proteins. Here are the main amino acids that you’ll find in animal proteins, that are more difficult to find in plant proteins:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- DHA (this is found in fatty fish products, and is extremely difficult to find in plant-based foods)
- Heme-iron (you can also find iron in plant foods, but Heme-iron is more readily absorbed by your body, and is mainly found in red meat)
- Zinc (can also be found in plant-based sources, but the stuff found in animal-based foods is more easily used by your body)
The big con of animal-based proteins (mainly meat products) is their effect on general health. Studies have shown that people with a high level of animal-based protein have a slightly increased risk of cardiovascular disease. This is likely due to the fact that some animal-based proteins (like red meat) are higher in saturated fats and dietary cholesterol. Consumed in excess, both of these things can up your chances of heart problems.
Plant protein sources – like beans and lentils – are often called ‘non-complete’ proteins. This is because they don’t contain all the essential amino acids that your body needs. Most plant proteins are lacking in amino acids like tryptophan. If your diet is plant-based, the key to getting all the right amino acids is to eat a wide variety of different plant-based products. Lentils, pulses, grains and soy are all very important in a vegan’s diet, for example. Soy is the most ‘complete’ plant-based protein you can eat. It is still very low in some amino acids however, so it’s still technically ‘incomplete’, like most plant-based proteins. Something to keep in mind – if your pregnant, you should abstain from eating too much soy protein.
In the opposite way to animal proteins, plant proteins are low in saturated fats and dietary cholesterol. This makes them great additions to healthy diets and lifestyles!
In conclusion, no one kind of protein is better than the other. Unless you’re vegan, a mixture of both proteins is best for a fully-rounded diet. Try to keep your animal-based protein levels to less than 10% of your overall diet. If you’re vegan, no sweat! Eat a variety of plant proteins from various sources, and add some soy into the mix and you should be good! If you think you might still be lacking, try speaking to your doctor.