Animal versus plant protein – what’s better for you?

With the rise of vegetarian and vegan diets, plant protein has also gained in popularity. So how does it compare to its animal-based counterpart? 

Protein is having a bit of a moment right now.

The essential macronutrient is the headline act on supermarket shelves and social media feeds around the world.

Our protein preoccupation makes solid nutritional sense, according to nutritionist, health scientist and naturopath Kristen Beck.

“Almost every cell in the body contains protein – muscles, skin, hair, hormones, immune system cells, enzymes, blood cells all contain protein,” she says.

“Protein is absolutely vital to our health and wellness.”

But are all proteins created equal?

What’s the difference between animal and plant protein?

The biggest difference between animal and plant protein is the amino acids they contain, The Nutrition Guy Joel Feren says.

The human body needs 20 amino acids to survive – 11 of them are produced in the body, but the other nine have to be consumed as food. 

“Eggs, meat, fish and dairy are the best sources of protein and are, as such, termed high biological value proteins – they contain the full range of essential amino acids,” Joel says.

“Many plant-based proteins contain only some of these amino acids, which are termed incomplete proteins.”  

However, that doesn’t mean plant proteins are inferior, Kristen says.

“You just need to be more mindful of what you eat, because most plant proteins will tend to be low in one or two of the essential amino acids,” she says.

“This is easily overcome by combining different types of plant proteins together.”

Plant protein: the pros and cons

Plant proteins are packed with vitamins and minerals such as essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium and calcium, as well as the fibre that’s lacking in most Australian diets.

Studies have linked increased plant protein intake with lower cholesterol, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and better heart health and longer life.

Plant protein is also better for the planet, holistic nutritionist Elly McLean says.

According to estimates by the United Nations, livestock is responsible for 14 per cent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Elly adds the food industry is also one of the top causes of inhumane treatment of animals.

However, because plants are not as protein dense as animals, you do need to eat larger portions to get the same bang for your buck.

“That can be hard to do for some people,” she says.

“Also, many people don’t find them as easy to prepare as animal proteins.”

Animal proteins: the pros and cons

Animal proteins are a richer source of some important nutrients such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, heme iron, zinc, omega-3 essential fatty acids and vitamin K2.

“They contain high biological value protein,” Joel says.

Research shows animal protein is better for building lean muscle mass – particularly in younger people.

However, Kristen says while animal proteins contain all nine essential amino acids we need for growth, health and wellness, they also contain problematic nutrients such as saturated fats, sodium and even some heavy metals.

“From a health and wellbeing standpoint, whether you are vegan, vegetarian or also eat animal products, including more plant proteins like legumes, beans, nuts and seeds is a win for everyone,” Kristen says.

Joel says there are also strong links between eating too much red and processed meat and heart disease and colorectal cancer

“So, it’s best to moderate your intake and include a variety of plant proteins to get the balance right to reduce your risk of any nasties.”

Written by Dimity Barber.