Is Plant Protein Better for You Than Animal Protein?
We all need protein, but meat isn’t the only place to find it. People who switch from animal to plant protein often end up on a healthier diet, but there are a few things you need to know before assuming that plant-based protein is always healthier.
The word “protein” means two different things.
Protein is a macronutrient, a family of molecules made up of amino acids. In this sense, protein is found in many different foods. There are tons of it in the meat. Legumes, like beans, are. There are few grains and leafy vegetables.
But colloquially, we also use the word “protein” to refer to foods that were previously called the “meat group.” When I order tacos at my favorite restaurant, the waiter asks what protein I would like in them; I can choose from options like steak, fish and tofu.
These are very different foods, even if you do not take into account the origin of their amino acids. A 100 gram serving of steak contains 21 grams of protein, 19 grams of fat (most of which is saturated), and contains no carbohydrates. Tofu contains eight grams of protein, five grams of fat, and two carbohydrates (including some fiber). Each of them contains different vitamins and minerals.
In addition to tofu, vegetable proteins can include vegetable burgers and soy-based hot dogs; seitan, which is mostly pure wheat gluten; as well as any legumes, grains, or high protein vegetables such as chickpeas, lentils, and nuts.
Proteins of plant or animal origin (or both) can take place in a healthy diet, if you remember that this is not a smooth exchange. If you choose tofu, you need to make sure you get enough protein elsewhere in your diet. If you choose steak, you might want to watch your fat intake. The differences in these foods go beyond what protein they contain.
“Animal protein” often contains more fat and more real protein.
A few things that hold true for many protein-rich animal foods:
- They can be higher in saturated fatty acids (especially in beef and dairy products – this is probably a bad thing).
- They may have more omega-3 fatty acids (especially fish, which is probably a good thing).
- They are free of fiber and carbohydrates.
- They are usually very high in protein.
If you need a lot of protein in your diet, meat is a great way to get a lot of it very easily. But it also has disadvantages, including the fat content of beef and some dairy products. Fish contains healthier fats, but has environmental and mercury concerns.
Red meat and processed meat have also been linked to some types of cancer, but the link is a little tricky to understand. Bottom Line: If you have a serious bacon habit, it might make sense to cut back on it.
“Plant protein” contains less protein, but often contains fiber.
Plant-based protein sources also have their pros and cons. The biggest problem is that they just don’t have that much protein. You can still get enough protein from a vegetarian or vegan diet if the diet is well balanced, but you may need supplements such as protein powders if you are aiming for a high protein diet to support athletic training or specific weight loss. … strategy.
Something else that is true of many plant-based protein sources:
- They often contain fiber (especially legumes and whole grains).
- If they contain fat, they are often rich in “good” fats (such as the omega-3s in nuts).
- They’re also high in starch, so it’s nearly impossible to follow a low-carb diet if that’s your priority.
Regardless of which protein source your diet is based on, getting all the vitamins and minerals isn’t that difficult if your diet is sensible and comprehensive. The only exception is vitamin B12, which is a must for strict vegans .
What really matters is your overall diet.
If your favorite meat is a cheeseburger and you always pair it with fries and cola, this is a shitty diet and you know it. You can substitute the Impossible Burger for the beef patty and it will still be bad food, even if you are currently eating “vegetable protein”.
Instead, look at all of the food you eat and how that affects everything else you eat. I’m omnivorous, but I often look at vegetarian menus and cookbooks because these foods give me more vegetables and more variety. Bottom line: Your protein source isn’t as important as the sum of what you put into your body.