We all grew up hearing these three dreaded words: “Eat your vegetables!”
Then, when we grow up and tell our parents we’re cutting back on meat, they’re shocked. “But where will you get your protein?!”
It’s as if they’ve forgotten that plant-based protein sources exist. You know—beans, tofu, etc.
There are a few concerns when it comes to vegan protein, however. Can plant protein even compete with animal protein in terms of quality? Can you get enough protein on a meatless diet? Do plant protein sources have a healthy balance of amino acids?
Meat lovers and vegans have rallied back and forth about which protein source is superior. It’s time to settle the plant protein vs. animal protein debate once and for all.
Amino Acids in Plant Protein vs. Animal Protein
We need protein to survive. That’s a given. But most people jump to the conclusion that we need protein from meat to survive, forgetting that plant protein sources are all around us.
Most people don’t even know what protein is and why we need it. Basically, protein is needed in almost every biological function. We don’t store protein, so we need to get it every day from our diet.
Protein is made of amino acids, which are commonly referred to as the “building blocks” of protein. When talking about how much protein you need, we’re really talking about the amino acids that your body requires. There are nine essential amino acids that we have to get from food since our bodies don’t create them.
Complete Vegan Protein Sources
A common misconception about a vegan diet is that plant proteins don’t contain all of the essential amino acids, making them incomplete.
Many people have dubbed vegan protein as secondary to animal protein because meat and other animal products are complete proteins. That’s one leg up that animal protein has on plant protein. You don’t have to think about it—all animal proteins are complete proteins.
Some plant proteins are thought to be lower quality sources of protein because they contain some of the essential amino acids but not all of them. This means they would need to be combined in order to create complete proteins.
Fear not, though. Vegan complete proteins do exist, and they’re just as high-quality as animal proteins. Some examples include soy, hemp and quinoa.
Not all vegan protein sources are complete, but a carefully planned vegan diet can have just as many grams of protein (and essential amino acids) as a carnivorous diet.
Are Plant Proteins Enough?
As a society, it’s ingrained in us that protein is the ultimate nutrient. We’re reminded to eat plenty of protein sources at breakfast, lunch and dinner. If that isn’t enough, we have thousands of protein bars and protein powders to supplement with.
Even if plants have protein, is it enough? Another myth about plant proteins is that even if they provide SOME protein, they don’t provide ENOUGH. However, this is false.
First, our actual protein requirements are much lower than what we’re led to believe. The USDA protein recommendation for adults is between 46-56g per day.
Secondly, plants are full of protein. Vegans and vegetarians can easily get enough protein on a meatless diet. In fact, it’s easy to get enough protein from plants.
Debunking Myths About Vegan Protein
So far, we’ve debunked the following myths about plant proteins:
- Plants don’t contain protein
- There aren’t any complete vegan protein sources
- It’s difficult to get enough protein from plants alone
- Plant proteins are lower quality than animal proteins
Next, let’s get into the plant proteins vs. animal proteins debate from a health perspective.
Where Animal Protein Falls Short
There’s no denying that animal products are high in protein and they’re made of complete proteins. On top of that, they taste good. Why wouldn’t you want to get your protein from meat? A few reasons actually.
Meat has long been touted as the key to good health. It’s supposed to make kids grow big and strong, allow bodybuilders get ripped and even help people lose weight.
However, it’s the first thing to get cut when someone gets high cholesterol, heart disease and other health conditions. It’s not a coincidence that patients with certain diseases are told to cut back on meat or eliminate it altogether.
While meat is undeniably high in protein and we all need protein to live, here’s why it shouldn’t be your go-to protein source.
Plant Protein is Healthier
Unlike meat, your doctor will likely never advise you to cut back on vegetables. Veggies and plant proteins like legumes, grains, nuts, seeds and vegan meat substitutes are considered healthier than animal proteins. Here’s why.
Heart health and cholesterol levels
One core reason is because plant proteins are naturally cholesterol-free. Our bodies create all the cholesterol we need, so consuming dietary cholesterol is a recipe for cardiovascular problems.
Haven’t you ever wondered why carnivores like lions don’t get high cholesterol? Their bodies are designed to quickly digest dietary cholesterol. Human bodies are not. Dietary cholesterol builds up in humans.
Diets high in cholesterol from animal protein, such as the keto diet, can lead to poor heart health: heart attacks, heart disease, heart damage, etc.
In a time where heart disease is the #1 killer, expert health advice is shifting from recommending “lean animal proteins” to plant proteins.
Decreased risk of disease
T. Colin Campbell, PhD is known not only for the China Study, but also for the famous statement, “People aren’t living longer, they are dying longer.” No one wants to get heart disease or cancer, but these are some of the most common diseases in America…and research suggests that they may be related to the Standard American Diet.
Animal proteins, especially processed meats, are associated with increased risks of various cancers, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and several of the other major killers. Compared to non-vegetarian diets, vegans and vegetarians have lower risks of certain cancers, heart disease and more.
I’m not a doctor, but Michael Gregor, M.D. is. His best-selling book “How Not to Die” contains a powerful (and science-backed) explanation of how animal products contribute to almost all of the 15 leading causes of death while plant-based foods contribute to the prevention or reversal of those same diseases.
Plant Protein vs. Animal Protein Sustainability
Putting aside the ego complex that meat has over plant proteins, there’s one place where vegan proteins are undeniably superior: sustainability.
It requires far fewer resources (i.e. water, food, land, waste, etc.) to cultivate crops than raise livestock for food.
Environmentally speaking, animal protein is responsible for:
- Approximately 51% of greenhouse gas emissions
- Up to 90% of U.S. water consumption
- Utilizing 45% of Earth’s total land
- An estimated 91% of Amazon rainforest destruction
The environmental toll of a beef burger, especially compared to a vegan burger, is shocking. The amount of water, land, grain, waste and destruction that’s required for one serving of animal protein is unsustainable.
Is plant protein more sustainable?
The 2014 documentary Cowspiracy blew meat lovers’ minds with facts and studies that compare vegan vs. non-vegan diets in terms of sustainability. (Pro tip: You can watch the documentary on Netflix.)
According to Cowspiracy’s library of resources, “Each day, a person who eats a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 sq ft of forested land, 20 lbs CO2 equivalent, and one animal’s life.”
For many, plant proteins are convincing enough that by choosing tofu or beans over meat they save animal lives.
The Final Verdict on Plant Protein
Both sides of the plant protein vs. animal protein debate have some valid points. But there’s a clear winner.
Meat is tasty, it’s high in protein and all the essential amino acids check out. However, it’s unhealthy and unsustainable.
Fortunately, the stigma around vegan protein is starting to dwindle. It’s common knowledge that plants have protein—many plant proteins are complete, too. Plus, they’re known to have many health benefits while requiring far fewer resources than animal agriculture.
You need protein. You just don’t need protein from animal products specifically.