It is a word that's used heavily for anything health-related or dietary: protein. As in, are you getting enough protein? Are you getting too much protein? What foods have protein? It's all well and good, but what precisely is protein? And where should you get it? Animal protein? Vegetable protein?
If you've ever found yourself asking these questions, then you'll want to continue reading as we go deep diving into everything protein, from what it is and meat vs. plant protein.
Why Does Protein Matter In Our Diets?
While we may be excellent in learning about calories, where they come from, how much sugar and salt we intake, how many vegetables and servings we eat—we may also forget to ensure we're getting enough protein in our diets.
Protein does not get stored in our bodies, although as an essential nutrient, it plays a vital role in creating and maintaining every cell and fueling the cells as well. This means that we need to ensure we are constantly consuming protein every day to keep cells in good shape and maintain health.
Proteins are made up of amino acids. Our body requires a balance of all 22 types of amino acids to function correctly, and nine of these cannot be produced by us. These nine amino acids we cannot make are called essential amino acids. A complete protein source refers to a type of food that contains all nine essential amino acids.
Ensuring that we have the right balance of amino acids is essential for building muscle and help recovery after exercise. Protein is also helpful for:
- Building of bones, muscles, cartilage, and skin. Our hair and nails are mostly protein as well.
- Red blood cells contain a protein compound that carries oxygen through the body, helping supply the body with the nutrients it needs.
- Half the dietary protein that is consumed each day goes into making enzymes, which aids in the digesting of food, creating new cells and new body chemicals.
- Protein plays a crucial role in the regulation of hormones and cell development, especially during puberty.
So what is the difference between meat and plant protein? Which is the best source?
How Much Do We Need?
According to the IOM (Institute of Medicine), the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) of body weight per day. The RDA is the recommended minimum amount of protein per day, not the maximum.
However, the precise amount does entirely depend on the person's body size and how active they are. A 250 lbs man at 6-foot tall who strength-trains with weights five times a week will need to absorb and consume far more protein than a 5-foot male that does not exercise as much.
Endurance athletes may need between 1.0 to 1.6 per kg of body weight, while power athletes may need 1.6 up to 2.0 kg per body weight. The IOM also suggests trying for 10 to 35% of your daily calories to be sourced from protein each day. Most healthy Americans do not need to worry about severe protein deficiency.
What Happens if You Don't Get Enough Protein?
If we do not eat enough protein, some of the symptoms we may experience are:
- Lack of growth
- Loss of muscle mass
- Reduced immunity
- Weakening of the heart
- Respiratory issues
Prolonged protein deficiency can be fatal. In developing countries where food is scarce, many may develop kwashiorkor, a type of malnutrition that can commonly be seen in areas that experience famine. Signs include swelling in the legs, face, a rounder belly, fatigue, dry, brittle hair, and cracked nails.
Meat Vs. Plant Protein
Our bodies frequently need different amino acids at different times. Many dieticians believe that our diets should include a complete source of protein, which contains all nine essential amino acids.
One of the most significant differences between meat protein and plant protein involves their amino acid contents. Some animal products are complete sources of protein. Those complete sources are:
- Dairy products such as cheese, milk, and whey
- Red meat from cows, bison, and deer
- Poultry from chickens, turkeys, and quails
- Uncommon meat sources such as boars, hares, and horses.
When it comes to plant proteins, most of them are incomplete, meaning they are missing at least one of the essential amino acids we need. Some of the critical proteins such as methionine, tryptophan, lycine, and isoleucine are often missing or at deficient levels within plants.
There are a few plant-based foods, however, that do offer complete sources like quinoa and buckwheat. The issue with plant-based proteins that many vegans and vegetarians run into is that they must carefully mix their protein sources to get all essential amino acids. Plant protein generally takes longer for the body to digest and use.
Some Nutrients Are More Abundant In Meat Protein Sources
Of course, proteins generally also come with a wide variety of other vital nutrients. For instance, many unprocessed, lean cuts of meat contain:
- Vitamin B2, found in fish, meat, poultry, and dairy.
- Vitamin D, found in oily fish, eggs, and dairy. Some plants do have it, but the type found in animal foods is better used by your body.
- DAH or Docosahexaenoic acid is an essential omega-3 found in fatty fish. It's necessary for brain health and challenging to get enough from plant sources.
- Heme-iron, found abundantly in meat, especially red meat.
- Zinc, found in beef, pork, and lamb.
However, when it comes to nutrients other than protein, plants are often filled with nutrients that are lacking in meat.
Meat vs. Plant Protein Bottom Line
Protein in meat is more abundant and more accessible for your body to absorb. Plant proteins are possible but take longer to absorb, and most often, vegans and vegetarians must carefully plan their meals to ensure they get enough protein.
On the other hand, there are nutrients in plants that can't be found in meat alone. Therefore, the best advice is always to eat a balanced diet of meat and plants if possible. This is no doubt why many dieticians, nutritionists, medical specialists, and scientists always encourage you to add a wide variety of plant-based and animal-based foods to your diet. Eating the right balance of food will ensure you get both the protein you need and other essential nutrients.