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Protein: Plant vs. Animal

Updated: May 25, 2020

A look into the benefits and drawbacks of animal and plant protein.

So many of today’s trending diets focus on one macronutrient: protein. While fats and carbohydrates are regularly villainized, food scientists all agree that protein is a vital part of everyone’s diet. All of the protein in our body is made from only twenty kinds of amino acids, nine of which must be supplied by our diet. This makes protein essential for our health.

On average, a person needs about 7 grams of protein every day for every 20 pounds of body weight. For most of us, this is easy to do. The average American receives more than enough protein daily, partly because protein is found in so many foods including plant and animal products.

But is there one that is healthier than the rest? What are the benefits of a protein-based diet?

No matter your preference understanding the differences between plant and animal protein is crucial to a healthy diet.

All-In-One: Animal Protein

Animal-based proteins, which include red and white meat, fish, as well as dairy, and eggs, are considered “complete proteins” by the FDA. This means that they contain all nine essential amino acids. They also contain vital micronutrients such as vitamins D and B12. Because of their complete protein status, animal-based proteins are often the first type to come to mind. Eating them is the easiest way to get all of your essentials all in one meal.

Some evidence shows that animal proteins may have further benefits those who are working to repair and grow muscle. The essential proteins in animal-based products are more easily absorbed by our bodies, and also have a higher level of leucine, an amino acid that is thought to be the key to muscle protein synthesis.

Eating only animal-based protein does have some serious health implications. Since a good percentage of these proteins have a high saturated fat content, they increase your risk of developing heart disease, cancer, neurological diseases, and other chronic illnesses. Not to mention that animal farming is extremely detrimental to the environment.

Red meat, in particular, is better in small doses. For example, a four-ounce broiled sirloin steak has 33 grams of protein but also contains 5 grams of saturated fat. A four-ounce ham steak has 22 grams of protein, 1.6 grams of saturated fat, and 1500 milligrams of sodium. Animal proteins like salmon, on the other hand, contain only 1 gram of saturated fat and are excellent sources of omega-3 fats.

In the case of animal-based proteins, you should work to eat more fish or dairy and less red meat. If red meat is something that you know you can't live without, lean sustainably-raised meats are the best option.

Nutrients, Vitamins, Minerals: An Argument for Plant Protein

Plant-based proteins are technically considered “incomplete” since many plant protein sources are missing one or two of the nine essential proteins. Because of this, you may not think it’s possible to get all the protein you need with a plant-based diet. You may have to work harder to get all nine essential proteins, but you benefit from it in the long run. Plant proteins provide a variety of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that are inherent in vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains.

If you eat a varied and balanced diet you are likely getting all your required proteins every day. Plant-based proteins also contain fiber, essential for healthy digestion, and phytochemicals, linked to protection from chronic diseases, heart disease, and cancer.

Lentils, for example, have 18 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber, with practically no fat or sodium. Getting a majority of your protein from plants is great if you are attempting to lose weight since they are lower in fat and calories.

Overall, plant-based protein is linked to better health for both you and the planet. The environmental impact of farming plants is much lower than that of meat. By choosing to eat vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains, you are also making more environmentally-friendly diet choices.

Your Choice

The health and fitness industry contains over 30 distinct diets. If you are like me, you’ve probably tried at least a couple of them during your life. While diets can supply a convenient starting point, our bodies all have unique dietary needs based on lifestyle choices, health, and physical activity.

Some of us will prefer plant protein over animal protein based on their environmental impact. Others will need to limit one or the other depending on health issues.

For those who exercise heavily, a plant protein only diet is going to be tough to maintain. Why not add some healing bone broth into your diet for stronger bones and healthier joints if you choose a strict plant-based regimen?

To choose the healthiest combination for your body, you need to understand the basic functions of the three macronutrients- fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. A successful diet is wholly-based on how well you create balance within your new limitations.

The trick to a healthy diet is finding balance. A few rules that I follow in my diet are:

  1. Start every meal with plants

  2. Limit red meat to lean, grass-fed meat, or sustainable, humanely-raised wild meats such as bison, venison and elk

  3. Listen to your body so you know what foods make you feel energized and satisfied

Eating a healthy diet can seem daunting when faced with so many alternatives. I find that it’s easier to start simple and build. Take the time to learn about the proteins in your current diet. Then see what combinations of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins make you feel like your healthiest, best self.

As always, if you need guidance I am here for you!

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