Protein is protein right? Does it really matter where it comes from? Or is it more important that your overall requirements are met? Well, not all protein is created equal after all – there are actually many differences between animal and plant-based proteins. Knowing which to include more of in your diet can promote health and prevent deficiency. Let’s talk animal vs plant protein!
The Pros of Protein
It’s hard to be even remotely interested in health and fitness without hearing the hype about protein. It’s high protein this and added protein that, but is protein the wonder-nutrient it’s made out to be? Well yeah, it is!
Protein is a macronutrient, macro meaning we need it in high amounts, just like fat and carbs. Here’s just a few reasons why we all need lots of protein from our diet:
· Source of Energy – Provides 4 calories for every 1g consumed, that’s the same amount of kcals/g as carbs!
· Essential Nutrient – We must get it from our food because we can’t make it in the body
· Provides structure – Protein is the building block for almost every cell in the body – including hair, skin, nail, bone, muscle, cartilage and blood cells
· Creates Biochemical Reactions – That produce hormones and enzymes needed for digestion, blood clotting and muscle contraction
· Supports Growth and Maintenance – Repairs damage to cells caused by injury and illness, as well as replenishing protein stores post-workout
So, there’s much more to protein than just gains bro! Whether you’re a Greek god (or Goddess) or a couch potato, meeting your protein requirements is vital. Lucky for us, there’s a whole host of foods to choose from when it comes to boosting protein intake.
But does it matter whether these foods are animal or plant-based? In short, yes it does. Let’s explore further.
Not all Proteins are Created Equal!
Proteins are made up of individual amino acids, which join together in a sort of biochemical daisy chain! The order and length of these chains varies from food to food. When protein from food is consumed, it is broken back down into separate amino acids. These are then absorbed and utilised to remake whole proteins which the body can use – and so the circle of life continues!
A protein can be complete or incomplete depending on which amino acids it contains in the chain. There are nine essential amino acids (EAAs), which can’t be made in the body and so must come from food. If a food contains all nine EAAs, it is classed as complete – and is a better match for the human body. Most complete proteins are derived from animal sources.
Animal vs. Plant-Based Protein
There are pro’s and cons to both animal- and plant-based diets. But when it comes to protein as a standalone nutrient, you’d be hard pushed to back team plant over team animal.
There are very few complete proteins that are entirely plant-based. This means that the majority of plant proteins are lacking one or more of the essential amino acids needed to build cells.
With modern lifestyles, convenience foods and hectic schedules – balancing your veggies to gain a spectrum of amino acids is likely going to fall down your list of priorities pretty fast!
Whilst it’s possible to hit your EAA targets by including a variety of plant-based proteins, it’s likely easier and more reliable to consume a complete protein. What’s more, some ‘complete’ plant-proteins only contain tiny amounts of some amino acids, making it debatable as to just how complete they are.
Animal-Based: The Pinnacle of Proteins
Foods derived from an animal source almost always contain a favourable balance of amino acids. That doesn’t just mean meat – single-source complete proteins include fish, poultry, cheese, yoghurt, milk, eggs and meat.
So whether you’re veggie, pescatarian or meat-mad – there’s heaps of choice when it comes to meeting protein requirements. Including just one of these foods with every meal is usually enough to give your body the daily EAAs it needs.
What’s more, animal-based proteins tend to be rich sources of the following nutrients, often lacking in a plant-based diet:
· Vitamin B12 – Most people who follow a plant-based diet are deficient in Vit B12. That’s because the best sources are meat, fish, poultry and dairy. B12 is important for producing red blood cells and boosting energy levels.
· Haem Iron – Iron can be haem or non-haem – haem iron found predominantly in red meat is much more easily absorbed than non-haem iron you’d find in plants - which is why many veggies and vegans develop iron-deficiency anaemia.
· Zinc – Studies have shown that we absorb zinc from animal foods more so than from plant-based. Zinc is needed for wound-healing, fighting off infections and also for our senses of taste and smell.
· Vitamin D – The active form of Vit D – D3 – is found in fish, eggs and dairy produce and raises circulating levels of Vitamin D almost twice as high as that from plant sources.
· Omega-3 Fatty Acids – Found in abundance in oily fish, Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA have been shown to promote brain, eye and heart health as well as having mood-boosting properties.
Getting your protein from animal-based foods has the added bonus of avoiding refined grains that are commonly used as a protein source in plant-based diets. Grain-free diets have been shown to reduce inflammation, promote gut health and alleviate allergies.
For the best of both worlds, pair your animal-based protein with some fresh, seasonal and organic veggies for an overall protein, vitamin and antioxidant boost!
Meat-ing Your Requirements with Premium Animal Protein
As with all foods, there’s going to be cheaper, less healthful and poorer quality alternatives out there when it comes to animal produce.
Avoiding foods which are heavily processed and choosing those which are as natural and as close to their whole-food origins as possible will help to boost your intake of protein whilst supporting overall health.
Support your local butcher
Reduce food waste by choosing less-common cuts
Choose organic and free-range
Go grass-fed and look out for Pasture for Life certification