Plant Protein or Animal Protein: Quality & Balance

Written by: Ashley Corr 

Many people wonder and debate about how best to get protein in their diet. Some often say that meat is the only way to fully get the protein you need, but others rely more on plants to give them protein. Is one really better than the other? What should we be eating to get our protein? 

Protein Function & Amino Acids

To find out which protein source is best, you have to know what protein actually does for the body. Protein is a key part of a well-balanced diet because it helps us grow and develop. When we eat protein, it is broken down into essential amino acids that our bodies can’t produce alone. These amino acids help build, maintain, and repair body cells and organs. They also help create hormones, brain neurotransmitters, antibodies and more.The different proteins you obtain from both plant and animal foods each have unique properties that have special amino acid patterns. Therefore, the true quality of a protein can be determined by the relative quantity of each essential amino acid that the protein carries. 

Quality & Variety

Most foods that we obtain from animals such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy, are excellent sources of protein. This is because the protein found in these animal products is similar to the protein found in your body. Animal proteins often have a better balance of the essential amino acids that our bodies need. They are considered “complete” sources of protein because eating one type of animal product contains all or most of the essential amino acids that help our bodies function properly. Another benefit of eating animal proteins is that they are commonly high in some nutrients that plant foods lack. This includes vitamin B-12, vitamin D, DHA, heme-iron, and zinc. Though, you also have to keep in mind that many animal foods are highly processed which means that most of its nutrition is lost (your average hot dog certainly isn’t going to do the trick!) 

Proteins that we obtain from plants, on the other hand, can provide a very similar balance of the amino acids we need. Plants such as beans, lentils, breads, grains, and nuts are rich sources of protein. Even vegetables like broccoli and asparagus have a good amount of protein. Variety is the major factor in protein intake through plants. Because eating one type of plant protein isn’t quite as holistic as eating one type of animal protein, that means that you must eat plenty of different kinds of plants. As long as a vegetarian diet consists of a rich mixture of plants, it will provide all of the amino acids necessary for a healthy diet. A deficiency of an amino acid in one kind of plant protein can easily be supplemented by amino acids from another. However, soy protein (such as tofu) is of high nutritional quality and is comparable to animal protein—it provides adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids so it does not have to be supplemented with any other plant protein. Consuming plant protein even provides additional bonuses. Healthy plant proteins contain other beneficial nutrients such as healthy fats, antioxidant vitamins, and minerals—all of which make up a well-balanced diet.

Bigger Impacts 

While most of us are concerned with the immediate impacts of our diet, we should push to understand how what we eat now affects us in the future. For example, filling your body with the plant proteins listed above can lower risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Overall, studies suggest that vegetarians tend to have a lower body weight, lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure levels. Conversely, consuming too much animal protein (which is typically high in saturated fat and cholesterol) can increase these risks—especially red meats. Without the proper balance of plant protein in your diet, there are much higher risks for you down the line. 

Another factor to consider, is how our diet can influence the environment. An excess of animal-based food production is harmful to the environment. Greenhouse gas emissions are much higher in the production of animal-based foods—especially dairy and red meat. Not to mention, overgrazing can cause soil erosion, and runoff from livestock farms can contaminate water supplies. While the production of plant-based food also has emissions, it is much lower and it also conserves land, water, and energy resources. If we don’t keep the environment in mind, we’re not truly considering our own health and wellness. 

True Balance

The real trick for managing protein is finding the perfect ratio. Having hardly any variety of plant protein will cause you to have deficiencies. Eating more animal protein, however, is more likely to make you exceed the daily recommended intake of protein which can lead to even more health problems. Neglecting the intake of plant protein has consequences on your overall health and on the environment. But remember, protein is only one element of a well-balanced diet. While protein is important, don’t fixate on it—we need a variety of vitamins, minerals, fats, and fibers in our meals as well!