When people hear “protein”, the first thing that often comes to mind is meat. After all, it’s how many humans got much of their protein for the last few decades. What many people don’t know, however, is that there is growing evidence that ancient humans (i.e. thousands of years ago) survived almost entirely on plant-based proteins. This begs the question: which, if either, is actually the healthier option?
Both animal-based protein and plant-based protein have some advantages and disadvantages. That being said, there are ways to mitigate the drawbacks of certain types of protein.
What’s The Big Deal?
You may be thinking to yourself, “protein is protein, why does it matter where it comes from?”. Well the answer lies in science. True, protein is protein. However, when our bodies digest protein, they break it down into its amino acids. Depending on where the protein comes from, it will break down into different amino acids.
A complete supply of all 20 amino acids is needed to maintain a healthy body. Amino acids perform a number of functions and are crucial to growth and development of our bodies by building and repairing the body’s various cells and tissues (including your organs, bone, skin, and muscles). Without all of the necessary amino acids, our cells and tissues would recover much slower--or not at all.
Luckily, half of these amino acids are produced by our bodies and so you won’t need to get those from your diet. These are called “non-essential” amino acids. The other half, which our bodies cannot produce, are called “essential” amino acids. These are the ones that you’ll need to get from your diet. On top of that, our bodies do not store protein, so you’ll need to get them on a daily basis.
It is important to note that if you eat a balanced diet with animal-based or plant-based proteins, you’ll be getting all the amino acids you need. The differences here don’t lie in the protein itself; there are many complete (i.e. contains all essential amino acids) protein sources from both plants and animals. The real differences between plant-based and animal-based proteins come from the other molecules found in that food.
Comparing the Two: Animal vs Plant-Based Protein
When you hear people talking about one source of protein being better than another, it is often because of the differences not in the protein itself, but in the other parts of that source of protein. So let’s examine these differences and what they mean for your health.
One claim with animal-based proteins is that the majority of them are complete supplies of amino acids. This means that you don’t need to consume multiple protein sources to get all the amino acids you need.
Many animal-based proteins also contain some other vitamins or minerals rarely found in plant-based proteins, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, and zinc.
Lighter meats, such as fish and poultry, are much healthier than red meat and may have their own benefits. Some studies show that some fish may lower one’s risk of heart attack. Other studies show that both poultry and fish may mean lower risk of heart disease.
Perhaps the best source of animal-based protein is whey. Whey is isolated from dairy products and is known to be quickly absorbed by the body--it is also a complete source of protein.
Unfortunately for animal-based proteins, this is about where the benefits end and the drawbacks begin. Even though that big, juicy steak will be high in protein, as well as a complete source of amino acids, it may also lead to a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, or early death.
This link is strongest with processed meats, which tend to have much more salt and saturated fats. Unprocessed meats are much healthier than their processed counterparts, although some studies still show an increased risk of stroke.
The most commonly cited reason why plant-based proteins are inferior to animal-based proteins is that there are few that are complete sources of amino acids. However, this drawback is easily solved by simply consuming different plant-based proteins. Quinoa or buckwheat are also complete amino acid sources.
Most plant proteins that aren’t complete protein sources themselves are complementary to one another, meaning that what one source lacks can be found easily in most other sources. For example, grains lack the amino acid lysine, while nuts lack the amino acid methionine. Make a PB&J on wheat bread and boom, problem solved; you now have a complete source of amino acids.
Here are some complete plant-based sources of protein:
- Soy Products
- Hemp Seeds
- Chia Seeds
As long as you vary the types of plant you consume, you will have no problem getting all the amino acids you need. On top of that, they don’t need to be consumed at the same time. As long as you get the amino acids you need at some point in the day, you will be fine.
Once you’re over this hump, apart from the rarity of vitamin B12 and vitamin D in plants (Vitamin D can be produced simply by exposure to sunlight and Vitamins B12 and D can be found in fortified cereals or most soy products), there are no other drawbacks to plant-based proteins--and there are a variety of benefits.
Studies show that a vegetarian or vegan diet likely leads to weight loss when used over a medium/long period of time. Other studies show that vegetarian and vegan diets have a lower risk for type-2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease--as well as lower cholesterol.
Plants are also the only source of fiber, an important nutrient for digestion and maintaining a healthy stool. Fiber also improves the efficiency of your gut, which means that you’ll be able to extract more nutrients from the food you eat. This will mean more vitamins and nutrients, and less of a need to eat more food.
There is also a body of evidence indicating that a plant-heavy diet reduces the risk of cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's, and dementia.
Finally, plant-based foods are high in antioxidants and “phytochemicals”, which help support your immune system. These molecules also work to neutralize toxins from pollution, processed foods, and disease.
All of these benefits essentially roll into one major benefit: living longer. The longer you have a diet low in or free of meat, the more time these benefits will have to help improve your health.
Animal-Based Protein: The Environment and Animal Abuse
Livestock Domestication and The Environment
Now that we’ve gotten all of the individual health benefits out of the way, we thought it would only be right to bring up the two other major issues when it comes to plant vs. animal based foods: the environment and animal abuse.
The negative effects of mass animal domestication are well documented. Without getting too much into it (there’s a lot to talk about), we’ll just give you the basics.
First, the domestication of livestock contributes more greenhouse gasses (yes, it's mainly from their farts) than all of the world’s transportation systems combined.
Next, while the estimates vary, a safe middle estimate is that it takes around 3,600,000 gallons of water to produce one ton of beef. In contrast, soy only uses 1/8th of the water as beef, and corn only about 1/16th.
The use of land for livestock is also tremendously inefficient. It takes 20 times more land to produce enough food to feed someone with meat than it does with plants.
This tends to be an issue that is overlooked. The fact is that most animals domesticated as livestock are treated extremely poorly. They often live their entire lives in a pen or cage with little or no room to move. Many cattle farms put their cows in a box the same size as their body. By preventing any movement (apart from when they are led to the slaughterhouse), the cows cannot build any muscle--making the meat more tender.
You can find companies that do allow their animals some freedom, such as with free range chickens, but they will always be more expensive.
First and foremost, we believe people should consume the products that they trust and work best for them, whether this means they are plant-based or animal-based proteins. However, for the multitude of reasons mentioned above we also believe that if you are not that passionate about animal proteins the plant-based option is definitely the better way to go. Plant-based foods are almost universally healthier than animal-based foods and there are massive environmental benefits in reducing animal farming and meat production.
Here at ATAQ, our proprietary plant-based protein blend is a complete source of amino acids designed specifically to mimic whey protein. By using 6 different sources of plant protein, our completely vegan protein blend maximizes muscle growth and recovery without the potential side effects of animal-based protein. Choose our plant-based protein blend and #kickbuttnaturally.