In order to maintain a strong body, repair tissue, and build hormones and neurotransmitters, you need a daily supply of protein. But, does it matter where that protein comes from? After all, we routinely hear advice to reduce red meat and increase vegetables in our diet. By that logic you might assume that plant protein is healthier than animal protein.
A recent study published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), Japanese researchers found that people who ate more plant protein, had a lower rate of death during the study, spanning almost two decades.
Following almost 71,000 middle-aged Japanese adults from 1995-2016, the study found that participants who consumed the most plant protein were 13% less likely to die during the study, and 16% less likely to die of cardiovascular disease.
In particular, the most interesting results were seen when people replaced red meat or processed meat with a source of plant protein. When participants replaced 3% of their red meat consumption, they had 34% reduced risk of death, and 42% reduced deaths due to heart disease. By replacing 4% of processed meat with plant protein, participants saw a 46% lower death rate and 50% lower deaths due to cancer.
So, what do we know about plant protein vs. animal protein?
Animal Protein Vs. Plant Protein
All proteins are made up of amino acids. So, when you eat protein, your body breaks it down into its smaller amino acid components, and then those proteins get shipped around the body to wherever they’re needed. In total, there are about 20 different amino acids that your body uses, and they can be obtained from both plant and animal sources.
Essential Amino Acids vs. Non-essential Amino Acids
Amino acids can be categorized into two different buckets: essential and non-essential. Although your body uses non-essential amino acids, your body doesn’t need to obtain them from your diet, because you can actually synthesize them, and supply them yourself. However, essential amino acids must be obtained from your diet.
The essential amino acids include phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine. When a food source contains all 9 essential amino acids, it’s considered to be a complete protein.
The Benefits of Animal Protein
Animal sources of protein are often lauded as the best source of high quality protein, because there is a higher abundance of complete proteins among animal meat sources. Common protein sources like nuts, legumes, and beans are not complete proteins. However, there are a few plant derived complete proteins, including tofu, quinoa, and buckwheat. It should be noted though that they are often lower in certain amino acids. Tofu, for instance is low in methionine, and lysine.
In basic terms, animal protein is a good source of protein because the composition is similar to our own. There are more complete protein sources, and the ratios of amino acids are more similar to our own. That makes it fairly easy to get a balanced supply of proteins from animal sources.
Animal protein sources are also high in a variety of important nutrients, including Vitamin B12, D, and heme iron. There are few plant derived sources of these vitamins. In particular, vegans often need to supplement their diets with Vitamin B12.
There are also certain health benefits associated with some animal protein sources. Studies have shown that modest fish consumption is associated with a decreased risk for heart disease, and that moderate egg consumption may help to increase the good cholesterol, HDL.
The Benefits of Plant Protein
There may be fewer plant derived complete proteins, but you technically don’t need any complete proteins in your diet, as long as you are getting all 9 essential amino acids
So, with a plant based diet, you just need to combine several different food items, to get all 9 amino acids. And, you should be combining several different food items with each meal anyways. Just because chicken is a complete protein source, it doesn’t mean eating only chicken is a complete diet. You still need to get fiber, and other nutrients, which are high in plant based diets.
Fiber is only found in plant based foods, and is important for digestive health. Fiber supports digestion by providing food for the probiotics in your gut. In turn these “good” bacteria aid in digestion and the production of short chain fatty acids, which can help to treat digestive conditions like irritable bowel, and Crohn’s. Diets high in fiber have also been associated with reduced cholesterol, and lower spikes in blood sugar following meals.
Overall, diets high in plant protein have shown reduced risks for cardiovascular disease, reduced body weight, and lower blood pressure measurements.
Which is Healthier?
So, is plant protein or animal protein healthier. There really is no simple answer here. You can have a healthy diet that’s based on animal sources, or plant sources of protein. Correspondingly, you also can have an unhealthy diet that’s based on plant sources or animal sources. What’s most important when it comes to protein is that you’re getting enough, and that you’re getting all 9 essential amino acids. And, that can be done with both animal or plant sources of protein.
However, there is considerable research that shows numerous health benefits associated with eating more plant based foods. So, whether or not you eat meat, your diet should always include plant based foods in order to get a healthy supply of fiber, nutrients, and phytonutrients. And, if you do consume animal sources of meat, just focus on healthy sources. Minimize processed red meats, and include cold water fish that are high in omega-3s one to two times per week.
If you’re wondering how much protein you need, the general recommendation for adults is 0.8 - 1 g of protein per kg of body weight. So, if you weigh 140 lbs, you can easily convert that to kg by multiplying 140 x 0.454, and you get 63.5 kg. Then multiply that by 0.8-1 g/kg to get your recommended protein range of 50-65 g.
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