Vegetable protein vs. animal: which one is better for you?

    Abdulaziz Sobh

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    With more people than ever talking about the benefits of plant-based diets and opting for animal-free alternatives to the traditional hamburger, vegetable protein is earning its place at the kitchen table alongside its animal-derived counterpart. What can you ask yourself: when it comes to planting and animal proteins, is one healthier than the other?
    Like so many questions in nutrition science, the answer here is more complicated (and more interesting!) Than one would expect. This is what you should know about vegetable protein versus animal protein.

    What protein is it really?
    Let's start by looking at proteins at the most basic level. This macronutrient is an integral part of every cell of the human body. (By the way, a macronutrient is one of the three nutrients the body needs in large quantities; carbohydrates and fats are the other two). Protein plays a crucial role in growth and development by building and repairing the various cells and tissues of the body (including muscles, bones, organs, and skin), as explained by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is also necessary for various bodily functions, from blood coagulation and hormone production to the immune system response. So yes, this is very important.

    At the molecular level, all dietary proteins are made up of small organic compounds called amino acids, hundreds of thousands of them bound together, explains the FDA. There are 20 different types. Each time we eat proteins, they break down into these unique amino acid building blocks, and then recombine (or come back together in different arrangements) as needed and are sent to perform those various jobs throughout the body previously.
    So, if, let's say, a chicken breast and a bowl of lentils can look (and taste) very different, the protein each provides is made of the exact same basic units. "At the chemical level, when you have eaten, absorbed and used one of those amino acids, it doesn't matter ... if it came from a plant or animal," Christopher Gardner, Ph.D., a research professor of medicine at the Research Center of Stanford Prevention.

    Dealing with complete proteins versus incomplete proteins
    The 20 different amino acids can be divided into two main groups: essential and non-essential. The nine essential amino acids are those that the body cannot produce on its own, so it is essential that we obtain them from the food we eat, explains the US National Library of Medicine. UU. The other 11, the non-essential ones, that our body can produce.
    When a protein source contains an adequate supply of the nine essential amino acids, it is called with the honorary title of complete protein. When it is low or lacks one or more, it is classified as incomplete, explains the FDA. (A little bit hard)
    This is where the composition of plant and animal proteins begins to look different. All animal proteins are complete proteins. This includes both the muscle tissue of the animals (beef, bacon and pork ham, chicken breasts, fish fillets, etc.) and the products derived from them (eggs and dairy products, such as milk and yogurt). Vegetable proteins, on the other hand, such as beans, legumes (lentils, peas), nuts, seeds, and whole grains, are almost all incomplete. Only a couple of lucky vegetable proteins are complete, such as soy products (for example, edamame, tofu, and soy milk) and quinoa.
    Therefore, "strictly in terms of nutritional adequacy, it is easier to ensure that you have consumed the essential amino acids when consuming animal proteins," Whitney Linsenmeyer, Ph.D., RD, nutrition and dietary instructor at the Doisy College of Health Sciences at the University of Saint Louis and spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, he tells SELF. Including adequate amounts of animal proteins in your diet ensures that none of the essential amino acids will be lost.
    However, this complete versus incomplete distinction is not as important as we used to think. In fact, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) comes to call the full versus incomplete distinction "misleading" in its 2016 position paper on vegetarian diets.
    First, most plant proteins lack one or two essential amino acids, says Gardner. And because "plant-based food groups tend to lack different amino acids," says Linsenmeyer, they are often complementary, which means that together they form a complete amino acid profile. A little cute, right? For example, grains are low in lysine, while beans and nuts are low in methionine, says the FDA. But a classic PB&J on whole-wheat toast provides you with the nine essential amino acids, we dare to say, in a heartbeat.
    We used to believe that it was important to consume these complementary proteins in pairs in a single meal, such as a plate of rice and beans, for example. But science has indicated that, after all, this is not necessary, according to the US National Library of Medicine. UU., And what really counts is your entire diet throughout the day. "The total amount of protein consumed and the variety of sources throughout the day is much more important than the timing of those foods," says Linsenmeyer. Therefore, it is not usually too complicated for people who depend on plants to obtain protein (i.e., vegans and vegetarians) get a good supply of all essential amino acids if they eat a reasonably diverse and balanced diet, says Gardner. (So ​​don't follow a diet of beans or anything).

    How much protein are you really getting and using?
    Until now, we have been comparing plant and animal proteins at a fairly microscopic level, only in terms of their amino acid profiles. But let's go back and see how much protein each type of source offers and how well our bodies use it.
    Animal proteins generally offer a higher concentration of proteins, but not always, Beth Kitchin, Ph.D., R.D.N., an assistant professor in the UAB Department of Nutrition Sciences. For example, take the average serving size of some different protein sources. A 100g serving of chicken breast meat (an average serving) has 20 grams of protein; a 100g serving of eggs (a little more than two eggs) has 13.6 grams; a 100 g (½ cup) serving of black beans has 22 grams; and a 100 g (½ cup) serving of lentils has nine grams of protein.
    Another thing to keep in mind is the amount of that protein that the body uses for growth. "The rate of synthesis of body proteins seems to be lower when consuming proteins of plant origin versus proteins of animal origin," says Linsenmeyer, which means that a smaller proportion of the amino acids in plants are digested, absorbed and used for things. like tissue building muscles.

    This means that animal protein can have a slight advantage when it comes to muscle growth and repair. "When you look at the quality of the protein in terms of its digestibility, its ability to provide all the essential amino acids and how well it is absorbed in the muscle, we generally find that animal protein does those things a little better," Kitchin explains Animal proteins are also higher than plant proteins in a particular amino acid, leucine, which is believed to be key to the synthesis of muscle proteins.
    But, honestly, we still don't have enough research on plant protein synthesis to know how much better animal proteins can be for muscle development and why. And the research we have is mainly done using protein powders, not whole foods, and has yielded mixed results. While some studies find that animal-derived protein powders are better for building muscle than plant-based protein powders, others find no differences. But scientists are still investigating this complicated issue. “What types of proteins will be incorporated into muscle more efficiently? That is a really interesting research area right now, "says Kitchin.
    Here is the other thing. It is also unclear how much protein synthesis rate matters in general. According to the AND, people with vegetarian and vegan diets get enough or more than enough protein when they eat enough calories. (So, anyone who still asks these people: "But WHERE do you get your protein?!" Can simply, um, no). And even if animal protein is technically better used than vegetable protein, this probably does not make a big difference. Kitchin points out that for the average person who exercises regularly but is not an athlete or strength coach.
    Consider this article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2017 analyzing data on the dietary patterns and body composition of 2,986 men and women (aged 19 to 72, all non-Hispanic whites) over the course of three years. They put people in six groups based on whether they obtained most of their protein from one of several animal sources (fish, chicken, red meat, etc.) or plants (legumes, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and cereals and grains) They discovered that where people mainly get their protein there is no difference in their lean muscle mass or the strength of the quadriceps.
    So, if your only goal, desire or dietary requirement is to make sure you meet your protein needs in the most efficient way possible, animal proteins are probably the way to go. And for someone who grew up on a diet rich in hamburgers and chicken wings, like many of us here in the United States, getting your protein from plants requires a conscious effort. But for someone who is generally great with nominating plants, it's no big deal.

    What else do you get when you eat vegetable protein versus animal?
    We have compared plant and animal proteins in terms of their molecular composition and protein content. But let's get away again and look at the whole food packages in which these proteins are really coming. The question is: "What else do you get when you eat that protein?" Gardner says. And from this point of view, "plant and animal sources have advantages and disadvantages," says Linsenmeyer.

    Animal products, for example, are the richest natural sources of some vital micronutrients. One is vitamin D, which is found in eggs, cheese and oceanic fish such as salmon and tuna, according to the US National Library of Medicine. UU. (Dairy milk and plant-based foods such as cereals, orange juice, and soy milk are often fortified with vitamin D.) In the case of vitamin B12, animal proteins are their only natural source, according to the US National Library of Medicine UU. (Although commonly found in fortified cereals and nutritional yeast).
    But wait! Vegetable proteins also offer their own unique advantages. Perhaps the most important is fiber (which is only obtained from plants naturally), says Gardner. Vegetable foods such as beans and whole grains are a double blow in this regard, which offer large amounts of fiber and protein, so you can basically maximize your pecs and feces at once. Plants also contain a variety of phytochemicals: bioactive compounds that include flavonoids, carotenoids, and polyphenols that, as some studies suggest, may be related to a lower risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. (But these preventive effects are speculative and the possible mechanisms are not understood.)
    Another big difference? The rest of the things that typically constitute sources of plant and animal proteins. When it comes to carbohydrates, all vegetable proteins contain some, from a few grams in something like almonds (6 g in a standard 1 oz. Serving) to a greater amount in something like canned chickpeas (19 g in a standard ½ serving. Cup). With animal protein, meat, poultry, and fish contain virtually no carbohydrates, while dairy products contain some carbohydrates in the form of lactose or milk sugars.
    Then there is the fat, both the type and the amount. Almost all animal proteins contain saturated fats, although the amount varies widely, from none in nonfat dairy products to lower amounts in shellfish and higher amounts in deliciously fatty cuts of red meat.

    Now, there is nothing inherently good or bad in these nutritional differences between animal and vegetable proteins, because we all have different dietary needs and health profiles. For example, someone who is trying to eat fewer carbohydrates for any reason (for example, someone with type 2 diabetes who wants to control their blood sugar levels) may opt for animal protein, while someone tries to include more fiber or carbohydrates. complexes in your diet. You may prefer vegetable proteins. There are many reasons why someone could choose either option.

    Another reason why someone could turn to vegetable protein is if they are trying to eat a more plant-based diet in general. there is a decent amount of research that associates the consumption of red meat with a range of negative health outcomes. And although the research on this link has its limitations, several important medical organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association recommend limiting the consumption of red meat.

    The message to take home
    The truth is that, at the end of the day, you could get your protein from plants, animals or both and have a horrible or fantastic diet; They are neither mutually exclusive nor guaranteed. "There are many ways to have a healthy diet, and that can mean incorporating meat and animal products or eating a variety of plant-based foods, or both," says Kitchin. "There is a lot of flexibility with [where you get] your protein."
    In addition, in the real world, there are many more factors to consider than nutritional value, says Linsenmeyer. On the one hand, there is accessibility. In some areas and for some people, animal protein may be more available and accessible (from a "grams of complete protein per dollar" perspective) than, for example, tofu or quinoa. Another potential influence is the culinary traditions integrated into different cultures that could restrict animal proteins (or only certain), or imbue them with greater meaning or importance in their diet.
    There are also dietary options, preferences, and limitations to consider. For people who do not want to eat meat due to the treatment of the animal industry or the impact on the environment, for example, vegetable sources of protein are clearly the best option. But someone who is allergic to soy or who has celiac disease, or who simply detests the texture of beans and lentils, may find it easier to meet their protein needs through animal products.

    So, honestly, there is a lot to consider when it comes to animal and vegetable proteins, and it's not as black and white as one source is better than the other. And since the vast majority of people already get their protein from plant and animal sources, I could argue that the distinction is not so important. Just be sure to get lots of protein as part of a generally nutritious and complete diet, whether it comes from plants, animals or both.


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