Plant vs. animal protein: Which one should you go for?
Protein was “discovered” in 1839. Since that time, people (especially those in the Western world) have put a ridiculous amount of energy into preparing and consuming this nutrient. But while protein is a crucial component of a healthy diet, the average person gets way more than necessary. Really, it’s the quality of protein that matters. So, what is the difference between getting your dietary protein from plants or getting it from animal sources?
How much protein you need depends on your body weight and your activity level. And depending on where you look, the answer will vary. Most reputable sources state anywhere between 8 and 15 percent of your caloric intake should be from protein. If you are considered anywhere near “average” when it comes to the Westernized diet, you are likely getting much more than this already. In other words, getting enough protein isn’t really a concern for most people in the United States.
Animals vs. Plants: Protein amount
Food that is derived from animals has more protein than those from plants. Harvard School of Public Health says that a 6-ounce porterhouse steak has about 40 grams of protein. A 6-ounce salmon steak has about 34 grams of protein, and a cup of lentils has about 18 grams. All three of these foods are good sources of protein. But the animal protein sources carry additional “things” as well.
hat porterhouse has 14 grams of saturated fat out of 38 total fat grams. The salmon is better with 4 grams of saturated fat and 18 total grams. The lentils have less than a single gram of fat. Fat is another crucial nutrient, but not all fats are created equal. Saturated fats in particular are known for increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity.
A common misconception is that plants don’t contain enough protein. But that simply isn’t true. The following list shows the percentage of calories some non-animal food items derive from protein:
- Lentils: 24.3%
- Chick Peas: 19.4%
- Soybeans: 39.4%
- Tofu: 61.2%
- Asparagus: 30.1%
- Broccoli: 28.4%
- Spinach: 25.66%
It may come as a surprise to many that in some cases, the vegetable or plant might have more protein than the animal source. Per calorie, spinach has more protein than ground beef, for example.
But, this isn’t the whole story. Plant-based proteins are missing some crucial elements.
Plant proteins: What’s missing?
Animal proteins are referred to as “complete proteins.” This means they have more amino acids present. Plant proteins are often missing a few of these crucial elements. Specifically, people who consume their proteins solely from plants, are often deficient in methionine and lysine, according to The Slovak Medical University. Vitamin B12 is another nutrient most often found in animal-based foods, and therefore at risk of deficiency in people who only get protein from plant sources.
But, despite this, vegans and vegetarians can get everything they need from a plant-based diet. It simply takes a conscientious eater to make it work. Methionine can be found in egg whites, sesame seeds, brazil nuts, soy, chick peas, and almonds. Lysine is found in beans, peas and lentils. B12, though not a protein, can be found in some fortified cereals. (It is recommended that vegetarians take a B12 supplement because plant food sources of this nutrient are nearly nonexistent).
Animal proteins and general health
A diet with no animal sources runs the risk of being deficient in those nutrients discussed above. But a diet rich in animal protein and deficient in plants has its own risks. It’s no surprise that diets high in fat and cholesterol can lead to heart disease, the leading cause of death among Hispanic Americans.
We’ve been hearing it for years now. Animal proteins are the highest in saturated fats and cholesterol. When you eat an alarming amount of animal protein each day, as many Americans do, you increase your risk of heart disease dramatically.
But, heart disease isn’t the only health risk associated with animal proteins. There is growing evidence that a diet rich in red meat in particular increases your risk of death from cancer.
A study that was published this spring found that each increase of 3 ounces of red meat consumption was linked to a 12 percent greater risk of death, with a 16 percent increase of death from cardiovascular disease and a 10 percent increased risk of cancer.
A diet rich in plant-based proteins has been shown to decrease your risk of heart disease, cancer, and degenerative illnesses later in life. In addition, those who eat a healthy, plant-based diet are less likely to be obese and overweight.
The key to realizing these health benefits with a plant-based diet is to do it with a focused dedication and attention to detail. By making up for the missing amino acids and the potential lack of B12, you can stay healthy with a plant-based diet. This is true whether you are 8 or 80 years old.
Because most people aren’t ready to take the plunge into vegetarianism, reducing the amount of animal-based proteins you consume and including more plant-based proteins is a good place to start. Be aware of the saturated fat content of your meats and strive to use meat as more of a side dish than a main course. One animal-protein per day is more than enough when you include several plant sources as well.