Protein consumption is on the rise as researchers and the general population alike gain a better understanding of its myriad of benefits. We now know they extend way beyond muscle-maintenance and building – they’re an important component of every cell in the body.
Your body uses protein as a building block of bones, muscle, cartilage, skin, and blood. Your finger nails, for example, are essentially nothing but protein.
People are also incorporating more protein into their diet as a result of an explosion of protein-rich and protein-enriched products available for purchase.
Plant-based protein products are just one example.
Maybe you’re considering a transition to a more plant-based diet. It could be for health reasons (people who eat more plant-based protein tend to weigh less and have a lower risk of diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease), it could be out of a concern for animal welfare, or it could be for religious reasons.
Whatever the case may be, it’s important to understand the differences between plant-based proteins and animal-based proteins to ensure you don’t leave your body lacking something important.
This article will take you through the differences between plant- and animal-based proteins in terms of their amino acid profile and their protein quality. Then, we’ll finish off with some dietary guidelines to optimize performance and health on a plant-based protein diet.
Plant- versus animal-based proteins: the amino acid profile
Amino acids are organic compounds serving as the building blocks of proteins. In fulfilling the needs of the human body, amino acids can be broadly placed into three categories: essential, nonessential, and conditional.
Essential amino acids are those which the body cannot produce itself. So, they must be taken in from the food that you eat. There are nine essential amino acids.
The body can produce nonessential amino acids itself. These don’t have to be acquired from the diet.
Conditional amino acids are nonessential but become essential under certain conditions. During times of extreme stress or disease, for example.
I mention amino acids and their different types because plant- and animal-based proteins differ in the amino acids they contain. More specifically, they differ in the amount of essential amino acids they contain.
Animal-based proteins are considered complete. A complete protein is one which contains all nine essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts.
Plant-based proteins are considered incomplete – meaning they don’t contain all nine essential amino acids.
Plant- versus animal-based proteins: protein quality
Protein quality is measure in three different ways: PDCAAS, which stands for protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score; biological value; and protein efficiency ratio.
PDCAAS is the primary measure of protein quality and is used by the Food and Drug Administration; it is a method of evaluating the quality of a protein based on amino acid requirements of humans and their ability to digest it.
Biological value is an indicator of the proportion of protein taken into the body from the diet that is incorporated into proteins in the body. In other words, how much protein turns from food into an actual part of you.
Finally, the protein efficiency ratio, which measures the amount of weight gain relative to the amount of protein ingested in rats.
As a general rule, plant-based proteins tend to have lower scores in measures of protein quality.
What does it all mean?
Just because plant-based proteins are typically incomplete and score lower in protein quality indexes doesn’t mean they’re not good for you.
It simply means a few things have to be taken into consideration.
First, consume a variety of plant-based protein sources to make a complete protein.
This means you’ll have to pay attention to what types of plant-based protein sources you’re consuming and get a little creative in constructing combinations of foods that will provide you with all the essential amino acids.
The essential amino acid makeup of a protein is a good predictor of how well a protein will be able to stimulate skeletal muscle anabolism (i.e. muscle growth). So, combo-ing your protein sources to get all of them is vital to avoid performance and health deficits.
Second, you may need to up your protein intake to ensure you are getting enough into your system.
As mentioned, plant-based protein tends to be of lower quality – meaning it’s less digestible and less of it is incorporated into the body than animal-based protein.
General protein guidelines for athletes suggest a protein intake of 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of weight per day.
Using 1.7 grams as a guideline, a 70 kg person would aim for about 120 grams of protein per day.
Given what we know about plant-based protein quality versus animal-based protein quality, we know that 120 grams of animal-based protein is different from 120 grams of plant-based protein.
120 grams of animal-based protein is going to be digested easier and more of it will be incorporated into your body.
To account for this deficit, you’ll have to overshoot your protein intake if most of it is coming from plant-based sources.
Good sources of plant-based protein
Plant-based proteins include: lentils, white beans, edamame beans, tofu, tempeh, chia seeds, quinoa, and pistachios, among others.
Edamame, tofu, and tempeh are particularly good because they some of the plant-based protein sources that are complete.
When you’re incorporating the other ones mentioned, do a quick google search and find combinations that will provide you with good amounts of all the essential amino acids.
The same principle applies to plant-based protein products like protein powders, bars, and snacks. Have a look at the label and make sure they have the essential amino acids.
Plant-based protein options are a good alternative to animal-based proteins. To avoid deficits in performance and health, however, there are important considerations to take into account – covering your essential amino acids and the amount you need, for example.
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