Protein is so important for the body. It is a vital component of every cell, from the hair to nails. Protein is used to build and repair tissues, bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and even blood. It also helps to create important chemicals in the body, such as hormones and enzymes.
Protein is a macronutrient, which means that the body needs a lot of it; however, the body doesn’t store it, which means that it doesn’t have its own reserve to draw from when it needs it. For this reason, protein is such an important part of a well-balanced diet. If you aren’t getting the right amount of protein, your overall health will suffer.
Where do you get protein?
Protein is readily available in several foods, but plants and animals are two of the biggest sources. A lot of people claim that it doesn’t matter whether you get protein from plants or animals, both are valuable source. Other people claim that plants are a better source of protein.
Is there really a difference? Are plants a better source of protein than animals, or vice versa? Read on to find out.
Amino Acids Vary Between Animal and Plant Proteins
When protein is consumed, the body breaks it down into amino acids. Both protein and amino acids are used for virtually every metabolic process that occurs in the body; but, the proteins that animals and plants provide differ, which also means that the amino acids they contain differ.
Animal proteins usually offer a proper balance of the vital amino acids that we need; however, some plant proteins have low levels of vital amino acids. For instance, some of the key plant proteins have low levels of the amino acids methionine, tryptophan, isoleucine and lycine.
Animals are Complete Sources of Protein, Plants are Not
The human body uses about 20 different amino acids in order to build proteins. These amino acids are broken down into two groups: essential and non-essential. The body is able to produce non-essential amino acids, but it does not produce essential amino acids, which means you need to get them from the food you eat. In order to retain optimal health, you need to have all of the essential amino acids, and you need to have them in the proper ratios.
Sources of animal protein, including fish, red meat, eggs, poultry and dairy, are much like the protein that is found in the body. They contain all of the essential amino acids that the body needs for optimal health, which means that animal proteins are considered complete sources of protein.
The most common sources of plant protein, including nuts, beans and lentils, do not contain all of the amino acids that your body needs for optimal health. As such, they are considered incomplete sources or protein. While there is some research that suggests soy is complete, as it contains all of the essential amino acids the body needs, two of the essential amino acids are only available in small mounts. This means that soy is not as valuable a source of protein as animal protein is.
To summarize: Animal food sources offer the highest quality protein, as they offer the right ratio of essential amino acids, and plant food sources are missing one or more essential amino acids.
Some Animal Protein Offers More Nutrients Than Plants
Food sources that offer protein offer more than just this valuable building block; they are usually accompanied by other important nutrients. Animal protein tend to be higher in vital nutrients than plant proteins.
Here’s a breakdown of the vital nutrients that are accompanied (or lacking) in both plant and animal sources of protein:
- Vitamin B12: This essential nutrient is highest in animal proteins. People who do not consume animal proteins are often deficient in this vitamin.
- Vitamin D: Eggs, dairy and oily fish offer the highest level of Vitamin D. Though some plants do contain it, the body uses the kind of Vitamin D in animal proteins better.
- DHA: This essential omega-3 fatty acid is vital for brain health. It is highest in fatty fish and is difficult to obtain from plant proteins.
- Heme-iron: This vital nutrient is primarily found in meat, particularly red meat.
- Zinc: This nutrient is mainly found in beef, lamb, pork and other types of animal proteins. Additionally, the zinc offered by animal proteins are better absorbed by the body.
It should be noted that there are a lot of nutrients in plants that are lacking in animal food sources. For this reason, it is so important to eat a well balanced diet that offers both plants and animals, as this is the most effective way to ensure that your body gets all of the vital nutrients that it needs for optimal health.
Animal Proteins Could Cause Disease
Though red meat is considered a complete source of protein, it does have a downside: it has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and premature death. More in-depth research has found that red meat isn’t the actual cause of these issues, but rather processed red meat is.
In an extensive observational study that examined 448,568 participants, processed meat was found to increase the risk of death, while non-processed red meat had no effect on health. Another study that examined 34,000 women found that processed red meat was linked to heart failure.
To summarize: Processed red meats are linked to disease, while non-processed red meats are generally considered healthy.
High Plant Protein Diets Offer Many Benefits
A diet that is rich in plant proteins offers a lot of benefits. Some of the most notable benefits include:
- Reduced risk of heart disease
- Lower risk of Type 2 diabetes
- Reduced weight gain
So remember balance is key...
In order to achieve optimal health, research has determined that a diet that is low in processed meats, high in plant proteins and contains a healthy balance of animal proteins is ideal.