Animal vs Plant Protein: What’s better for you?

Dietitian Belinda Neville explores the different types of protein (animal or plant) our bodies need, and how you can add it to your diet with ease. 

Protein is about much more than diet trends or muscle recovery, it’s also important for supporting bone health, making hormones and even helping to keep food cravings at bay.

The fact is 20 percent of the human body is made up of protein. It exists in everything from your muscles and organs, to your skin and hair, and it even helps with vital functions like carrying oxygen in your blood. These proteins are continually being repaired, so this means we must eat dietary protein to help keep up with our body’s demand.

Most Australians get enough protein in their diets. You should be aiming for around 46 grams a day for women (more if you are pregnant or breastfeeding) and 64g for men. As you get older, in your 70s, you need even more.

You can get protein from animal and plant foods, as well as the mind-boggling range of protein powders and products. Egg, pea, whey, hemp and soy, the choice of protein products is becoming increasingly confusing. But does it matter where you get your protein from? Let’s get back to basics and take a look at food sources.

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What’s the difference between animal and plant protein?

Protein can come from animal sources like fish, meat, chicken eggs, and dairy foods like milk, cheese, whey and yoghurt. It can also come from plant foods such as nuts and seed, beans and lentils, soy milk and soy foods like tofu and wholegrains, even wholegrain bread.

All protein is made up of amino acids, but the types of amino acids vary. Our bodies need nine essential amino acids (the ones we can’t make and need to get from the foods we eat) and most animal protein contains all of these. That’s why protein from animal products is often called a ‘complete protein’ because they contain all nine essential amino acids.

Does this matter? Not really. We don’t need to consume all nine essential amino acids at every meal, or from one food for that matter, we just need to consume them over the course of the day. If you eat a variety of plant foods throughout the day, you’ll still get all the essential amino acids you need.

Animal protein vs plant protein – what’s healthier?

When you look at the research over the past 20 years, evidence consistently shows eating more protein from plant sources is linked to better health. That doesn’t mean you need to cut out meat or animal products all together, it’s just healthier to load your plate with more plants.

Plant protein has been linked with improving cholesterol and heart health, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and even living longer. In particular, the protein from nuts and seeds has been linked with lowering the risk of dying from heart disease by 40-60 per cent.

Even making a small change towards eating more plant proteins is worth it. Research shows, simply swapping three per cent of energy per day from animal protein with plant protein could help you live longer.

And we’re still discovering more benefits. New US research, that tracked 102,000 older women, found regularly eating plant protein lowered their risk of heart disease and death from dementia. While those that swapped meat, eggs and dairy products for nuts, had a lower risk of death from all causes.

Why is plant protein so good for you?

Well, this could come down to the types of amino acids in plant proteins. There’s also the benefit of all the other nutrients found in plant foods. Nuts, for instance, offer healthy unsaturated fats, fibre for digestion, and vitamin E – an antioxidant that’s not only good for skin, but also for a healthy heart.

Here’s five ways to get more plant proteins:

  1. Just like Chris Hemsworth, load your smoothies with almonds, or any nut really, and consider using plant milks (be sure to look for those fortified with protein and calcium).
  2. Enjoy hummus and other chickpea or lentil based dips as a snack or a sandwich spread.
  3. Try healthy takeaways like vegetarian nachos loaded with beans. Tinned beans make this recipe by dietitian Rebecca Gawthorne quick and simple.
  4. Make a DIY trail mix to grab as a snack on-the-go. Just a handful of nuts can provide up to 6 grams of protein.
  5. Bowl food dinners are ideal to load up plant proteins, especially if you build them with edamame, brown rice or quinoa, beans and top with nuts or seeds. Michelle Bridges’ Buddha bowl is a great recipe to try.

Belinda Neville is an accredited practising dietitian and program manager at Nuts for Life, Australia’s independent authority on tree nuts and health. You can connect with her on Instagram @nuts_for_life.