When it comes to our health, hard-core bodybuilders and vegans alike would probably agree that incorporating lots of plants and greens into our diet is good for us. Where the debate arises tends to be around that essential little thing called protein. How do vegetarians and vegans get enough protein? Which is better for us – animal protein or plant protein? The best way to answer this question seems to be by looking at the whole “protein package.”
The Nutrition Source at the Harvard School of Public Health explains this quite well in this article. In terms of health, animal and plant-based proteins probably have the same effect on the body. The difference lies in the package: what else are you getting from that source of protein?
Firstly, although a porterhouse steak will give your body a ton of protein in one sitting, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Evidence shows that our bodies can only absorb about 15-30g of protein in the hour and a half it takes to move through the part of our gut that does the absorption. Along with the 40g or more of protein you’ll get from that steak you’ll also get a whole lot of saturated fat and not a lot of vitamins or minerals that your body needs.
Plant-based sources of proteins (e.g. beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains), although they contain less protein in general than meat sources, deliver a whack of fibre, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in addition to protein.
Secondly, animal-based foods are acid-forming in the body, meaning they cause inflammation due to a fatty acid called Arachidonic Acid. So after a big workout when your muscles need support and repair, anti-inflammatory foods are really what your body needs: fruits, greens, and nuts/seeds that contain high levels of omega 3s (which help to soothe and repair muscle) and antioxidant vitamins that facilitate the healing process.
Meat and dairy can be especially harmful and toxic to the body when you consider the amount of antibiotics and hormones found in most animal products.
The Bottom Line
Eat a variety of plant-based foods. All proteins are not alike: most animal proteins contain all the amino acids needed by the body, making them “complete” proteins, while plant-based proteins are often “incomplete” (with the exception of a few complete plant proteins such as quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, soybeans, hemp seeds, chia seeds, and spirulina). All this means is that vegetarians get their protein needs by consuming a variety of plant protein sources in order to fill in the gaps. And it’s not necessary to consume such a wide variety in one meal, just within 24 hours.
Choose fish and poultry (if you must eat meat). Red meat has been linked to increased risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Limit your intake of red meat, and when you do eat it, opt for grass-fed, organic cuts. Or try ostrich!
Move towards a whole food plant-based diet. The more we move towards eating a plant-based diet, the better for our bodies and the planet. That doesn’t mean you have to be a full-on vegan. Just reduce your intake of meat.
The New York Times on vegan athletes.
A vegan athlete reveals his top 7 sources of plant-based protein.
5 reasons why one should eat plant-based proteins.