Protein can be considered today’s darling of the macronutrient world. Over the decades, trendy diets have vilified one macronutrient or the other: Years ago, people shunned fat, leading to the proliferation of low-fat products that turned out to have lots of added sugar. In recent years, people have been cutting back on carbs and loading up on protein instead.

 

 

High-protein diets may lead to weight loss in the short term, but the jury’s still out on what their long-term effects on health may be. If you’re considering adding more protein to your diet, it’s not just about having a big, juicy steak every day. You also need to think about the source of your protein. Read on to learn more about the difference between plant protein and animal protein and what they do for your body.

 

Protein Basics

Protein is made up of amino acids, and it performs a number of functions in the body, from repairing tissue to making enzymes and hormones to building muscle. How much protein you need depends on factors like your age, lifestyle, and level of physical activity.

Athletes tend to need more protein than those who are more sedentary, to help muscles recover from the wear and tear of training; for those looking to bulk up, additional protein is needed to gain muscle mass. (Read more about how much protein you need here.)

For the body to use protein, they need to be broken down into amino acids. There are 20 known amino acids that our bodies need for growth and metabolism. Out of these 20, 12 are nonessential, meaning our bodies can produce them; the rest are deemed essential and need to be consumed. Not consuming these essential amino acids means some bodily functions will be inhibited, such as tissue growth.

 

Protein Sources

Protein is mainly available through animal and plant sources. Where does animal protein come from? Meat and animal products like eggs and milk are all generally considered to be animal proteins and contain all the essential amino acids. But keep in mind that food isn’t made up of just one component—along with the good stuff comes not-so-good-stuff.

For example, a steak is a protein powerhouse but it also comes with saturated fat. A slice of ham has all the essential amino acids, but it may also come with an unhealthy amount of sodium.

While the complete amino acids are good for you, the other components may have negative effects on health—a study at the Harvard School of Public Health linked consuming red meat, especially processed meat (hotdogs, sausages, lunch meats) to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Other studies have linked the consumption of red meat to type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Plant sources are generally healthier in the sense that they don’t have the saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium that comes with animal proteins. However, they’re usually missing at least one of the essential amino acids. If you were to rely completely on plant sources for protein, you would need to eat a mix of vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes to make sure you meet all your essential amino acid requirements.

The best sources of protein are fatty fish, like salmon, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and poultry (remove the skin to cut down on saturated fat). Beans are likewise rich in protein; the USDA Nutrient Database for Standard Reference indicates that lentils have 18 grams of protein, 15 grams of fiber, and almost no saturated fat or sodium. Nuts and whole grains are also excellent sources of protein.

If you’re cutting back on your animal proteins (or are vegetarian) and plant proteins aren’t enough to help you meet your protein requirements, you can consider adding a protein supplement like whey.

The U.S. National Strength and Conditioning Association considers whey one of the highest-quality protein supplements for athletes. The rapidly digested protein is best consumed right after a workout to jumpstart muscle repair. If you’re allergic or intolerant to dairy, you can try a pea protein supplement instead.

When it comes to animal protein vs. plant protein for building muscle, the recommendation is the same: Choose the best combination of sources that works for your diet, that supplies you with the recommended amount of protein for your activity level, that gives you all the essential amino acids, and that is low in components that may be detrimental to your health, like saturated fat and sodium.

 

Sources:

https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/

https://www.healthline.com/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/

https://www.livestrong.com/

https://www.nsca.com/

 

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