- Both plants and meat can be sources of protein.
- Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
- You may want to adjust your protein intake according to your health goals.
In the United States, meat has been such a staple and staple in the traditional diet that we’ve coined the phrase “meat and potatoes” to represent anything staple.
But in recent decades, that collective mentality has begun to shift.
Meat-free diets have existed since time immemorial, but there is now a new and unprecedented focus on reducing or eliminating meat consumption for health and environmental reasons.
But how exactly does this affect the human body? And how do you know which protein sources are right for your health goals? lets take alook.
There are three macronutrients that provide your body with the energy and raw materials to keep going: carbohydrates, fats, and protein.
Carbohydrates (carbohydrates) include fiber, sugar, and starch and perform many functions in your body.
Likewise, there are several types of fats, from omega-3 fatty acids to triglycerides, that have a number of effects on your body, both good and bad.
The third type of macronutrient — protein — is no different in that it’s essential to your body. Proteins are responsible for many things such as growing new tissues and acting as messengers called hormones.
Proteins are made up of chains of molecules called amino acids. Amino acids are like letters of the alphabet, and proteins are like words. Your body can string them together into complex sentences that say things like “make new cells” and “destroy this virus.”
There are hundreds of amino acids found in nature, but you only need about 20 of them to make all the different types of protein in your body.
When you consume protein, whether from plants or meat, you are really consuming amino acids that your body can rearrange into the proteins it needs at that time.
So how do the different sources of protein compare to each other?
Garrett Swisher, a registered dietitian at IU Health in Indianapolis, IN, told Healthline, “Animal protein is considered complete, which means it contains all 20 amino acids, while plant proteins do not always contain all the amino acids needed for protein synthesis.”
But this does not mean that you should eat meat.
While no single plant source contains all 20 amino acids (For the most part), all 20 amino acids can be found in plants. You just have to consume more than one type of plant to get them all.
“Typically, plant foods are less protein-dense than animal foods, which means that individuals need to eat more plant foods than animal protein,” Swisher said.
Of course, whether you eat meat or plants, you’re eating more than just protein. Each can contain different amounts of fats and carbohydrates which also affects their overall health profile.
“Animal protein is a very efficient delivery system and is more easily digested and absorbed than plant protein and often packs fewer calories, plus it’s the best source of omega-3 fats, vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D,” said Kate Cohen.
Cohen is a registered dietitian at the Ellison Clinic in St. John’s, which is part of the Ellison Institute for Transformational Medicine and Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
“On the negative side, red meat and processed meat are often higher in saturated fat and may also increase the risk of many types of cancer, including colorectal cancer,” Cohen added.
It’s easy to overgeneralize, too. There are different types of plants and meat. Each has its own unique traits and makeup.
“For example, most Americans consume overly processed meat (high in saturated fat and sodium) and reduce their consumption of seafood (a good source of omega-3 fatty acids), nuts/seeds, and legumes (high in fiber),” Swisher said.
Protein is often associated with exercise, sports, and muscle gain, and not without reason.
Your muscle fibers are made up of smaller components called myofibrils. Myofibrils are long, tube-like structures that can contract to make your muscles taut. Having more myofibrils makes your muscles physically stronger and bigger.
Myofibrils are made of protein chains.
So if your goal is to increase your muscle mass, would one type of protein be more beneficial?
Animal protein is probably better for building muscle due to its complete amino acid profile and easier digestion. Cohen said animal protein is higher in the amino acid leucine, which helps stimulate new muscle growth and muscle recovery after exercise.
“Plant protein is generally packaged in a fiber package which means you don’t absorb as much because your body doesn’t break down the fiber as easily,” said Cohen.
This does not mean that consuming vegetable proteins will not allow you to gain muscle.
A 2023 study compared muscle growth in young adults on a vegetarian or vegan (mixed plant and animal) diet, and a 2020 study reviewed similar parameters in older adults.
Both studies found that vegan diets lead to equal muscle gains as omnivorous diets. It should be noted, however, that both studies were small (57 participants between them). Both studies also examined resistance training, and all participants specifically consumed diets high in protein.
You may also be wondering how protein powders fit into the mix. These powders can be made from plants or meat, though whey is more commonly used.
“Protein powders do not replace a balanced diet and should be considered a supplement, not a replacement. However, protein powders can be very beneficial for those who need a higher level of protein,” Swisher said.
He explained that this includes not only people trying to gain muscle but people with cancer or those who have had bariatric surgery.
“Protein powders are a processed food, so it’s always best to get your protein from a whole food source because it’s never a good idea to overdo it with chemically made food,” agreed Cohen.
However, higher quality protein powders can be included as part of a healthy diet to fill in the gaps. Look for products with the fewest number of ingredients possible and cut down on added sugar or chemicals,” Cohen said.
If your goal is not to gain muscle but to lose weight instead, you may take a different approach to your protein consumption.
“Relying on plant-based (i.e., carbohydrate-based) sources of protein makes it difficult for vegans to lose weight,” said Cohen.
This is because you need to eat more carbohydrate-rich plants to get the same amount of protein as meat, and those carbohydrates contain calories.
“People who switch to this diet are often surprised when they start to gain weight,” Cohen said.
But some plant proteins will help you achieve your weight loss goals better than others.
“If weight loss is your goal, consider serving sizes for high-starchy or high-calorie plant-based proteins such as beans, nuts, and seeds,” Cohen said.
“Lentils have the highest amount of protein compared to other legumes, so it’s a very effective protein source in a reasonable serving size, as is edamame, and you get plenty of fiber to boot,” she advised.
It’s also best to consume whole food for your protein needs rather than processed foods to avoid ingredients that don’t align with your goals.
Animal and plant proteins are healthy and can be incorporated into a healthy diet. “The diet as a whole is much more important than individual foods,” Swisher said.
He added, “It is advisable to change the types of protein (especially when choosing vegetable proteins) to ensure the adequacy of nutrients and to take into account other nutrients consumed with protein foods.”
Aim to include less frequently processed types of protein such as sausage, bacon, deli meats, and processed plant-based meat alternatives. Eat more fresh seafood proteins and avoid frying and breading. Eat more nuts, seeds, and beans/legumes,” Swisher recommended.
“Eating plants is objectively healthier than eating animals, but research shows that the Mediterranean diet — which builds plants as its foundation and also includes lean protein sources and seafood — is best,” Cohen said, adding: “Variety is the best.”
The Mediterranean diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and includes a moderate amount of seafood while limiting dairy products and red meat.
There are also other benefits to shifting some of your protein intake from processed foods or meats to plants.
“Increasing plants in the diet improves the diversity of your microbiome which has a lot of benefits that we already know about, including improving your immune system and maintaining your digestive system,” said Cohen.
“Environmentally speaking, animal protein is also responsible for twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as plant-based foods, not to mention the questionable quality of the meat that comes from commercial feed lots,” Cohen added.
At the end of the day, proteins are all the same. They are made up of amino acids, and your body can’t make them on its own, so you have to consume something to get them.
You can get all the amino acids you need from plants or meat. The main differentiating factor is what is included in those foods besides proteins.
Meat will contain all the amino acids you need, but it is more likely to contain unhealthy fats, and not contain any fiber.
Eating a variety of plants will get you all 20 amino acids, but you would have to consume more plants per pound to get the same amount of protein. This could include eating more carbohydrates.
In general, eating a variety of foods — especially whole, unprocessed foods — seems to strike the healthiest balance.