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plant based protein vs animal protein

Plant Protein vs Animal Protein: Benefits and Key Differences

When it comes to serious exercise and nutrition, we all know that our protein intake is the make or break of our progress, but how do we choose between plant vs animal protein sources to ensure optimal results?

Protein is arguably one of, if not the most, important part of building and developing muscle. Every cell in our body contains thousands of different types of proteins, and each of these proteins is built from the protein we eat. For this reason, it is essential that we consume enough of it to function efficiently and remain healthy.

Now, there are a lot of factors when it comes to deciding between plant and animal proteins, but OriGym’s comprehensive look at both sides of the argument aims to present an unbiased and thorough investigation into the debate of plant protein vs animal protein sources. 

We’ll explore the benefits of each option (which is vital when we’re comparing plant protein vs animal protein), what that means for your diet and nutrition, and how you can make the most of your chosen source of protein.

Contents:

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What Is A Plant Based Diet?

plant based protein vs animal protein

A plant-based diet is, as you might expect, a diet or eating regime that revolves solely around plants - fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, etc. - with no products that are sourced from an animal. A common example of this is veganism, but there are variations such as a vegan keto or paleo diet. Our guide to the best keto drinks will help you stay hydrated if you’re following the diet.

In recent years, there has been an undeniable rise in the popularity of plant-based diets. This could be for a variety of reasons.

People are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of industries that produce animal products, whether that’s through personal research or learning from others. There has been an increasing social movement centred around ethical dieting (such as veganism or pescetarianism), and with the prevalence of social media, these ideals become a part of what we see on a day-to-day basis.

Studies from the BMJ have proven that plant-based diets have been directly associated with improved health, as well as a lower risk of all cause mortality (death by any cause). Whether an overall plant-based diet is superior for health in all instances is still to be determined, as there are countless variables to consider, plus omnivorous diets and specific dietary requirements. 

However, what does seem to ring true is that having a diet that includes a lot of plants is a better option for overall health and physique outcomes.

What Is Plant-Based Protein?

animal protein vs plant protein absorption

It may seem basic, but it’s important to first define what we mean by a plant-based protein. A protein, essentially, is one of the key components of our body’s tissue and cells. It’s best known for being the macronutrient that leads to muscle growth, regrowth and repair. 

A plant-based protein is just protein that’s found in a food that’s part of a plant-based diet, such as the protein found in nuts and soybeans. 

However, one of the main points of debate with adopting a plant-based diet is protein intake. Researchers state that protein intake in those who follow a plant-based diet meets recommendations, and there is only a small loss for those adopting the approach. OriGym’s comprehensive guide to vegan weight training goes into detail about how you can maximise your gains.

Conversely, current recommendations for protein intake have been scrutinized and may not meet the need for optimal health. It’s been stated that older people and those who exercise intensely may have much higher protein requirements due to muscle protein turnover, synthesis and preservation.

Additionally, the quality of plant proteins is considered generally lower than that of animal proteins. Essentially, animal proteins are regarded as high-quality, complete protein sources as they contain all of the essential amino acids, whereas vegetable sources lack one or more of the essential amino acids.

In this article we’re going to be comparing animal protein vs plant protein. We’ll also be discussing how you can make a plant-based diet approach work, as well as discussing how plant-based diets can succeed in muscle building. Our conclusions will discuss the best sources of both protein types and protein requirements.

What Is The Difference Between Animal and Plant-Based Proteins?

animal protein vs plant protein amino acids

As we’ve just highlighted, the protein “completeness” of these two sources is one of the key differences, with plant-based sources typically lacking or being lower in one or more essential amino acids.

However, this can simply be overcome by combining one or more plant-based protein sources. Be aware, though - it could be detrimental if you followed a plant-based diet and were unaware of this. 

Protein digestibility ratings involve measuring how the body can efficiently utilize dietary sources of protein. Typically, studies have shown that plant-based protein sources are rated lower in this regard as animal protein sources. Plant-based protein sources could also contain further antinutrients, which can actively slow down amino acid absorption, and so reduce the impact of protein.

It’s also important to be aware of the protein content per serving. Plant-based sources will typically be lower in total protein content than animal-based sources. Therefore, it may mean you need a larger portion size in order to meet protein requirements, which could have an impact beyond protein intake, especially for those who are counting calories. 

In regards to the anabolic (tissue building) potential of the two sources, plant-based protein sources generally have a lower leucine content than animal-based protein sources 

Leucine is an essential amino acid which is used as a secondary part in tissue repair / building, as well as initiating the muscle protein synthesis (where muscles are repaired using proteins after intense exercise) process. Being considerate of leucine content in your chosen protein source is, of course, hugely important, but as we’ll explore a little later in this article, there are different ways to address this!

When comparing the overall nutritional density of whole food sources, it could be suggested that plant-based sources are superior. They will contain unique nutritional components such as fibre, antioxidants, and a range of vitamins and minerals. Vitamins are vital for keeping us alert and ready - OriGym have put together a selection of the best vitamins to combat tiredness & fatigue so you can stay on top of your game.

What Are The Benefits Of Animal Protein vs Plant Protein?

Let’s first look at the carnivorous side of the debate between animal protein vs plant protein.

#1 - A Complete Source of Protein

animal vs plant protein

Animal protein sources are complete proteins, providing all of the essential amino acids, which isn’t true of the vast majority of plant-based proteins. They also tend to be richer than plant-based sources in the amino acid leucine, which acts as the catalyst for starting muscle protein synthesis (a necessary part of muscle tissue repair following strenuous exercise). 

Couple these comprehensive proteins with a pick from our selection of the best pre workout supplements, and you’ll really start to see progress!

Animal proteins may offer a higher percentage of total protein content per source making them arguably more efficient, especially when considering energy intake and food volume wise. 

They are also more bioavailable sources of nutrients comparative to plant-based protein sources, meaning these amino acids can be more reliably absorbed into the bloodstream. By having a more easily-processed method of delivery for these amino acids, the effects of protein can begin more efficiently and effectively.

#2 - Effective at Building Muscle

plant vs animal protein

Building muscle requires several key components; enough stimulation (from training or exercise), proper nutritional building blocks, and recovery time (either through sleep or rest).

These nutritional building blocks come in the form of protein, utilized in tissue repair and development, and energy (via nutrients). Particularly in terms of muscle mass, animal protein has been found to be more effective than plant protein in building muscle. 

A study from the National Library of Medicine found that the best indicator of muscle mass was the consumption of animal protein, and as such, concluded that a diet that includes some form of animal protein was conducive to muscle growth and development.

All in all, plant-based protein sources have shown to have lower anabolic potential than animal-based protein sources, which is the key component in building muscle.

#3 - Greater Vitamin Content

plant protein vs animal protein

It’s also important to consider the nutritional benefits of animal protein beyond just the protein content - animal protein sources are also higher in key vitamins and minerals.

There are a whole host of vitamins, including:

  • Vitamin B12 - this vitamin helps to keep your blood and nerve cells health and functioning properly. It’s normally found in oiler meats, such as fish.
  • Calcium - this is traditionally associated with stronger bones and teeth, but it’s also part of the functions of the muscles, heart and nervous system. 
  • Iron - this produces and strengthens the red blood cells, and is often found in liver (this is an excellent source) and other red meats (such as beef).

This vast array of vitamins and minerals, coupled with the complete selection of essential amino acids, means that animal proteins form a complete package. We’ve already touched upon how these vitamins are an integral part of animal protein, but if you want to boost your vitamin intake, OriGym’s overview of the best vitamins for energy will have you energised in no time!

What Are The Benefits Of Plant Protein vs Animal Protein?

When considering the benefits of plant protein vs animal protein, it’s important to first be aware that, while plant proteins are lacking in some essential amino acids, this is easily remedied by adding two different types of plant protein to a dish (for instance, lentils and chickpeas).

With this combination of amino acids in mind, let’s consider what exactly the benefits of plant proteins are.

#1 - Less Trans and Saturated Fats 

animal protein vs plant protein

As a general rule, plant based proteins are less likely to contain larger amounts of saturated and trans fats that may be found in animal meat, which have been linked towards an increase in cardiovascular risk

This improvement of cardiovascular health is a result of the higher fibre content found in plant-based proteins. Fibre is also associated with better digestive health, prompting the formulation and growth of good bacteria in the gut. The use of superfoods, too, can drastically improve your digestive health - OriGym’s guide to the best superfoods to add to your diet will give you all the information you need!

When we consider the benefits of the increased fibre in our diets, the advantages go beyond just improved digestive health. People who regularly consume fibre as part of their diet are at less of a risk of developing other health problems, such as Type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer. 

#2 - Helps With Weight Management

plant and animal protein

Plant-based proteins have also been found to be helpful in managing and maintaining weight. By replacing certain meals with plant-based protein alternatives (such as tofu or beans), it’s an effective way to lose weight, and build healthier habits.

Higher protein intakes (as a general rule) improve dietary outcomes in a number of ways. They promote satiety (feelings of fullness) after a meal, increase energy output and preserve lean mass. Protein has also been proven to suppress appetite, meaning you feel fuller for longer, and are therefore less likely to indulge in foods that are bad for you.

Observational studies, such as this research found in the International Journal of Obesity,   have found that plant-based diets are associated with a lower calorie intake. This may be due to the protein content of the diet, but also the higher fibre intakes (which does contribute towards feelings of fullness) , coupled with the fact that you are generally eating more of the protein source. 

#3 - More Ethically Responsible

animal and plant protein

It goes without saying that we are undoubtedly having an impact on our planet, and a part of this can be directly attributed to the animal product industry. 

As we outlined earlier in this article, this environmental impact is a prevalent reason in many people’s decision to turn to a plant-oriented diet, and therefore reduce their own effect on the world around them. 

Plant-based protein sources (such as chickpeas, beans and tofu) certainly appear to be more sustainable, and, particularly from an environmental standpoint, have a much less profound effect on issues such as climate change and deforestation.

Enjoying this article so far? We’ve collated 3 more we think you might find useful:

Which Type of Protein Is Better For Building Muscle?

benefits of plant protein

As we’ve just examined in our section on the benefits of animal protein, animal protein provides a complete complement of all the essential amino acids.

Tissue repair and development involves the use of amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Leucine is of particular importance due to its effect on muscle protein synthesis, and this is one that is predominantly found in animal proteins.

While it’s not completely impossible, animal proteins have been proven to be much more effective for building muscle than their plant-based counterparts for a number of reasons.

lant-based protein sources are described as incomplete proteins, meaning they lack one or more essential amino acids. They are also, on average, lower in the amino acid leucine. Plant-based proteins are also of lower biological value than whole food animal protein sources. 

There are ways to boost your plant protein intake, however - OriGym’s insight into the best vegan protein bars offers an array of options for snacking.

Is Plant Protein Enough For Someone To Build Muscle Effectively?

plant protein benefits

This is, unfortunately, an area where research lets us down a little.  More work needs to be done to directly compare plant protein vs animal protein, but in theory plant-based protein sources are more than enough to build muscle.

The only drawback to this is that you need to be aware of all the potential pitfalls and possible shortcomings of relying on plant-based protein sources. 

OriGym’s recommendation would be to find means of working around this so you receive similar effect to animal protein sources. We’ve outlined a few of these ideas below:

  • Increasing total protein intake (per serving and more generally)
    • This can be done by having more meals that utilise your plant protein source of choice, or a larger portion of your chosen plant protein in your meals. By doing so, any loss of protein is more than made up for, plus it’s easily adaptable for your dietary requirements or personal preferences!
  • Combining one or more protein sources per meal
    • Again, this is a simple idea to implement. Many of the choices for plant-based proteins pair well together (chickpeas and lentils, for instance), and can be easily combined into delicious but more importantly protein-rich dishes.
  • Fortifying with leucine supplements and other essential amino acids
    • This can be more difficult to implement, especially if you’re working out on a tight budget. Leucine tablets, plus other supplements that “fill in the gaps” for any missed amino acids are available, and can work really well in conjunction with a good source of protein. 

Particularly studies have found that vegan and vegetarian athletes should be made aware that plant proteins are incomplete and so need complemented (with amino acids or combined with another protein source). 

It’s also important to note that older individuals should be more conscious of the anabolic difference between plant and animal protein sources. The older generation experience age related loss of muscle mass (scientifically known as sarcopenia), and studies have indicated that protein requirements may be greater for those who are older.

What Are The Best Animal Protein Sources?

benefits of animal protein

Now that we’ve gone into great depth about what protein source is best for you, and how you can adapt this to better fit your own personal preferences, we’ll explore some more practical ideas. 

Let’s first look at animal sources of protein, and whereabouts is the best place to get as much protein as possible. As you might expect, one of the most concentrated forms of animal protein is found in whey protein powder

Whey protein powder is extracted from milk, and is arguably one of the most bioavailable forms of protein that you can find. OriGym’s comprehensive guide to whey protein’s benefits, risks and dosage delves into much greater detail on this.

Because of how concentrated it is as a form of animal protein, a great recommendation would be to use whey protein powder as a way of stimulating muscle growth both pre and post workout!

However, if protein shakes aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other sources of protein, such as:

  • Chicken Breast (Up to 35 grams of protein in 100g of chicken)
  • Roast Beef (Up to 32 grams of protein in 100g of roast beef)
  • Turkey Breast (30 grams of protein in 100g of turkey breast)
  • Tuna (Up to 25 grams of protein in 100g of tuna)
  • Salmon (20 grams of protein in 100g of salmon)
  • Prawns (Up to 18 grams of protein in 100g of prawns)
  • 0% Fat Greek Yoghurt (Up to 11 grams of protein in 100g of greek yoghurt)
  • Semi-Skimmed Milk (7 grams of protein of in 200ml semi skimmed milk)

However, with all the products that we’ve listed on our selection of animal protein sources, it’s hugely important to be aware of all the other macronutrients (such as fats and carbohydrates). 

This is especially important if you’re buying pre-cooked products as these may contain preservatives that will alter the amount of fats and carbs you could consume. All manufacturers will put this information on their packaging, 

What Are The Best Plant Protein Sources?

animal or plant protein

As you may expect, plant protein sources are on average lower than their animal protein counterparts. 

However! You may be surprised to see certain options for plant-based protein sources that have more protein than many popular options for animal protein sources. 

By far and away the best source of plant protein is spirulina, with up to 70 grams of protein in 100g of spirulina. 

Spirulina is a type of edible bacteria that presents a fantastic solution for those looking for a plant protein that is almost as effective as any animal protein. It’s recommended that you mix it into a smoothie, however, as it has a distinctly fishy taste!

Chlorella, too, is a great source of plant protein. It’s a form of edible algae that contains up to 60 grams of protein in 100g of chlorella. Again, this is something we’d recommend taking as a supplement, or as part of a smoothie (this also ensures you can combine this with another source of plant protein to get all the necessary amino acids!).

We’ve listed a few more good sources of plant protein below which can easily be incorporated into dishes or eaten as snacks:

  • Nutritional Yeast (Up to 55 grams of protein per 100g)
  • Peanuts (Up to 38 grams of protein per 100g)
  • Cashews (Up to 24 grams of protein per 100g)
  • Almonds (Up to 24 grams of protein per 100g)
  • Oats (Up to 18 grams of protein per 100g)
  • Tofu (Up to 8 grams of protein per 100g)
  • Lentils (cooked) (Up to 8 grams of protein per 100g)
  • Chickpeas (cooked) (Up to 8 grams of protein per 100g)
  • Brown Rice (cooked) (Up to 7 grams of protein per 100g)

Our list of the best high protein vegan snacks goes into greater depth on what you can have to keep you going throughout the day!

However, it does bear reiterating that it’s important (especially on a plant-based diet) to mix up your protein sources to ensure you’re taking in all the essential nutrients and amino acids that come with animal sources of protein. 

What Are The Risks Of Animal Protein Sources?

plant or animal protein

We’ve already looked at the benefits of animal proteins, but it’s equally important to consider their shortcomings, too. Fitness is all about finding what works best for you, and it’s crucial to understand everything about your chosen protein source.

Animal proteins, while providing a complete amino acid package, do carry inherent risks. Some studies have established links between meats and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, meaning that eating too much meat could put pressure on your heart. 

Animal protein sources also often contain a higher level of bad cholesterol than their plant counterparts, which has been linked to a multitude of health issues, including certain types of cancers. OriGym’s report on the different types of body fat explores the issue of cholesterol (amongst others) in detail.

Furthermore, animal sources of protein lack the fibre content of many plant-based protein sources, and so don’t contribute towards overall digestive health.

Finally, it’s always important to consider the impact that the animal product industry has on the environment. Transitioning to a diet that is more centred around plants (even one that doesn’t entirely forgo animal protein) would not only bring about other benefits that an meat-centric diet doesn’t but it would also have a significant positive impact on the environment.


What Are The Risks Of Plant Protein Sources?

animal protein and plant protein

Of course, as with our section on the risks of animal protein sources, it’s crucial to consider the downsides of plant proteins too. 

Naturally, the main risk of using plant protein sources is the “incompleteness” of their amino acids profile. Animal proteins offer a more comprehensive package in terms of the necessary amino acids (particularly leucine, which is vital for muscle growth and development), but plant proteins need to be combined with others in order to achieve the same effect.

The lack of leucine could also be a deciding factor, in that leucine is crucial for building muscle. While studies have shown that it is possible for vegan and vegetarian athletes to achieve significant muscle mass, they need to be conscious of combining their protein sources to ensure that they receive all the necessary amino acids.

Furthermore, some plant proteins lack some of the vitamins and nutrients found in animal sources (such as calcium, which is often found in milk). These can be found in other sources that are compatible with a plant-based diet, such as calcium in broccoli or cabbage, but as with the amino acids, these vitamin sources would need to be combined.

How Much Protein Do I Need?

plant protein and animal protein

The current international Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 g per kg of body weight, regardless of age or activity level. In the UK, this is adjusted slightly to 0.75 g/kg. 

These recommendations are a minimum amount to maintain nitrogen balance, and keep the body healthy. Unfortunately,  they don’t make considerations for physical activity levels or changes in dietary requirement with age.

Plus, it’s important to consider public health issues, and in particular obesity. These recommendations for protein intake wouldn’t be enough to promote weight loss and a healthy lifestyle. In fact, studies have estimated the ideal amount of protein to consume is 1.2g of protein per kilo of body weight. 

This is especially important for weight loss, as it provides the ideal amount of the essential amino acids found in protein, but still allows you to eat within a caloric deficit. And if you are aiming to eat under your calories but still crave a snack, our guide to the best healthy cereal bars means you still can!

Similar recommendations have been made for older adults to reduce the decline in muscle and lean body mass that accompanies age. People who exercise regularly may also require intakes of greater than 1.6g per kg of bodyweight, depending on the intensity of training and goal.

However, it’s important to understand what reasons there might be for not increasing this protein recommendation. 

One reason why these recommendations may not have been updated is the myth that higher protein diets may be potentially harmful. As we’ve just discussed, this idea has been disproven by thorough research, and higher protein intakes are even attached to a lower risk of death by any cause!

Our recommendation would be a protein intake of greater than 1.2 – 1.6g per kg of bodyweight. This is not only beneficial for weight loss and improving your overall health,  but having a higher amount of protein in your diet will help to build muscle mass, and continue to progress towards your fitness goals. 

Before You Go!

It’s crucial to recognise that plant and animal-based proteins have unique benefits. Whilst plant-based dieters may have additional considerations to make around dietary intake, such as taking additional supplements, muscle growth can still be achieved!

For a balanced diet, it’s vital to understand how each form of protein can play a role in what you want to achieve, and how they can be used in harmony with each other. 

So, we hope our guide has covered any question you may have had about animal vs plant protein sources, and that you now have all the information you need to make an informed decision that could revolutionise how you grow muscle.

And if you’re already familiar with nutrition and what your body needs, then your next step could be one of our REPS and CIMSPA certified personal training courses, where you’ll be able to take your fitness passion to the next level.

Or download our FREE comprehensive prospectus, and learn about the courses we offer, and how they could be exactly what you’re looking for.

References

  1. Aubertin-Leheudre M, Adlercreutz H. Relationship between animal protein intake and muscle mass index in healthy women. Br J Nutr. 2009 Dec;102(12):1803-10. doi: 10.1017/S0007114509991310. PMID: 19678968.
  2. Bernstein AM, Sun Q, Hu FB, Stampfer MJ, Manson JE, Willett WC. Major dietary protein sources and risk of coronary heart disease in women. Circulation. 2010 Aug 31;122(9):876-83. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.915165. Epub 2010 Aug 16. PMID: 20713902; PMCID: PMC2946797.
  3. Berrazaga I, Micard V, Gueugneau M, Walrand S. The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review. Nutrients. 2019;11(8):1825. Published 2019 Aug 7. doi:10.3390/nu11081825
  4. Fields H, Ruddy B, Wallace MR, Shah A, Millstine D, Marks L. How to Monitor and Advise Vegans to Ensure Adequate Nutrient Intake. J Am Osteopath Assoc 2016;116(2):96–99. doi: https://doi.org/10.7556/jaoa.2016.022.
  5. Hoffman JR, Falvo MJ. Protein - Which is Best?. J Sports Sci Med. 2004;3(3):118-130. Published 2004 Sep 1.
  6. Iqbal MP. Trans fatty acids - A risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Pak J Med Sci. 2014;30(1):194-197. doi:10.12669/pjms.301.4525

Written by Chris Allsobrook

Editor

Chris is a former English teacher, turned content editor. He holds a first-class honours degree in English Language and Creative Writing from the University of Central Lancashire, before going on to complete his teacher training, and obtain a PGCE at Liverpool John Moore’s.

Chris is a keen runner and is currently undertaking both his fitness instructing and personal training qualifications here at OriGym. 

Outside of fitness, you’ll often find him gaming, watching the football, cooking, or spending time with his family.

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