When you hear people talk about protein, it’s always with the understanding that “protein” in general is critical for your health. But what you might not realize is that not all proteins are equal. Protein that comes from plant sources is quite different from protein that comes from animal sources. If you want the best quality of protein it’s important that you understand the differences between the two. Below, you’ll find everything you need to know about plant versus animal protein…
Animal Protein: Where’s it From?
Animal protein comes from three places: 1) eggs, which are produced by chicken and other birds; 2) the milk of cows, goats, and other cattle, including any products produced from that milk: cheese, butter, cream, etc.; and 3) the flesh of the animals themselves. Eggs are, by far, the most balanced in terms of nutrition, but it’s the animal meat that provides the best sources of animal proteins. Beef, in particular, is rich in B vitamins that raise your metabolism and encourage better muscle growth. Chicken is leaner and contains less fat, and it can be an excellent source of animal protein.
Plant Protein: Where’s it From?
Plant protein is a bit harder to find! Many vegetables, grains, and plants contain protein—from brown rice to legumes to peas to hemp. Chia seeds are the only plants that contain complete proteins. Or, put another way, the only plant that contains the protein necessary to build muscle. All of the other plant-based proteins are “incomplete”, so they don’t have enough amino acids for muscle-building. It’s only when paired with other plant-based proteins or amino acid-rich grains that they provide what your body needs to build muscle.
Is there a Nutritional Difference?
When talking plant versus animal protein, you’ll find that both proteins are pretty great in terms of nutritional value. Plants tend to contain more vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber alongside the protein, and they will be lower in calories. However, don’t write off animal proteins just yet! All animal proteins contain a hefty dose of critical nutrients, such as iron, and many of them are also rich in Omega-3 fatty acids that are crucial for your brain health and overall wellbeing. Both are loaded with important nutrients, and thus are equally valuable in terms of “other nutrients” aside from protein.
Bioavailability refers to the protein’s ability to be digested, absorbed, and utilized by your body. Pound for pound, you’ll find that animal protein does tend to be more bioavailable than plant protein. Whey protein and egg protein are the two best protein sources, as they are very easy for your body to digest. The protein found in meat can also be easily digested, but it takes your body a bit of effort to break down the fats and other nutrients in meat in order to get at the protein. In terms of plant protein, it does tend to be very bioavailable, but the higher fiber content may have a more visible impact on your digestive system and gut bacteria than animal protein.
Which Builds Muscle Better?
As we’ve already established, animal proteins are “complete”, which means they contain the nine amino acids essential for building muscle. With every bite of beef, pork, chicken, fish, or eggs, you’re getting those vital amino acids and giving your body the building blocks for muscle. Plant-based proteins, on the other hand, aren’t usually complete. The “incomplete” proteins will give your body some of the required amino acids, but unless you get the rest from another source—such as another plant-based protein or a protein-rich grain—your body won’t be able to convert it into muscle. Thus, the amino acids are eliminated and wasted.