The Truth About Protein: Animal vs. Vegetable

All proteins are not created equal — and that's not a bad thing. Elena Elisseeva/Shutterstock

Let’s talk about protein, shall we? With the growing popularity of vegetarianism and veganism, there’s been a lot of debate in recent years about whether protein from vegetable sources such beans, nuts and soy is as beneficial as protein from animal sources, such as beef or poultry. People who swear off animal food completely have notoriously gotten a lot of flak for not having a "balanced enough" diet. But meat eaters who pound the steaks and hamburgers are not exactly doing themselves a favor either. The debate centers mostly around protein, and its different sources, be they animal or plant.

There definitely are pros and cons to both.

First, let's talk a little about protein. Protein contains amino acids. Our body breaks down protein into its component amino acids and then builds new proteins, which it uses to basically do — well — everything. Proteins build and maintain all the cells and tissues in our body. Most muscles and organs are made up mostly of protein. In fact, proteins are responsible for almost all of the body’s processes.

So what’s the practical difference between animal and plant protein? Isn’t protein — protein? Turns out not all protein is created equal.

Animal protein is considered to be a more "complete" protein. What do I mean by that? Protein from things such as chicken or beef contain all the necessary amino acids our body needs to make new protein since animal proteins are most similar to the ones found in our body. Proteins from plant sources such as soy or vegetables generally do not contain all of the essential amino acids that our body needs.

There is a flip side, though. As many of us know, animal protein can be extremely high in cholesterol and fat, particularly saturated fat, which can a serious risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Protein from plants and other vegetables tend to be much lower in saturated fat and cholesterol. Case in point? An 8-ounce ribeye steak contains 64 grams of protein, but also contains a whopping 34 grams of fat, 13 of them saturated. And let’s not forget the cholesterol — 260 milligrams, more than 80 percent of the daily recommended value. Yikes. A cup of cooked lentils packs 18 grams of protein but less than 1 gram of fat.

Bottom line? If you’re a vegetarian, make sure that you mix up your proteins (eat a variety of nuts, legumes, whole grains, and of course fruits and veggies) to ensure that you’re getting a variety of amino acids, all of which your body needs.

If you’re not a vegetarian, the best animal protein sources are fish and poultry, such as chicken or turkey. These foods contain lots of protein but don’t have the same high fat content as beef. And remember that if you’re choosing fish, stay away from fish with lots of mercury.