Animal protein vs plant protein

Are Plant proteins as good as Animal proteins?

Our body needs protein daily!

We can get protein from both plant as well as animal based foods. But which one to choose? Or rather which is better? Plant protein vs Animal protein has now become a topic of great concern for us.

The importance of protein is way more than just maintaining and restoring our muscles. There are 21 types of amino acids; all of which are crucial for good health. ‘We need protein’ is synonymous to ‘we need the 21 amino acids’ which come together to form different kinds of protein. Some of them can be produced within the body ( known as Non Essential Amino acids) as well as they can be taken from food too. While 9 amino acids are such that they need to be replenished through our diet; as our body cannot synthesise them. So, they are known as ‘Essential Amino Acids’.

NOTE: This article talks about the quality of protein taken from food ie dietary protein.

To know about plant based and animal based protein supplements and which one could be good for you, you may read our article Types of Protein Powders: Which is best?


How to determine which is better: Plant protein vs Animal protein???

There certain parameters set by scientists to determine the quality and efficacy of proteins especially dietary protein. Some of those are:

  • PDCAAs
  • Net protein utilisation
  • Biological value
  • Chemical Score

Out of these, PDCAAs and Biological value hold more importance than others. Others being obsolete aren’t much used now.

About PDCAA:

PDCAA score OR Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score is one of the most recognised method to asses the quality of dietary Protein.The score is decided while taking into consideration the essential amino acid composition and the true digestibility of protein.

To completely meet the body’s  protein requirements the PDCAA score should not be less than 1 (or 100%). Casein, Whey , Milk and Egg protein exclusively have 1 or 100% as their PDCAA score.  Soy protein (plant protein) also has PDCAA score as 1.

All plant based proteins (including legumes, cereals etc) that have been tested till now are known to have PDCAAs lower than 100%.

Biological Value:

It determines the utilisation of protein (taken from dietary source) in our body. A food with a high BV means that it will provide a good amount of the essential amino acids. Biological value has been found to be higher in animal proteins like milk, eggs, meat etc as opposed to plant proteins. NCBI


How does Animal protein outweigh Plant protein???

1. Amino Acid Content:

The main difference in plant and animal proteins is on the basis of Amino Acid Content! It is true that most plant proteins are ‘incomplete’ proteins : ie they lack one or the other essential amino acid. While, animal proteins are ‘complete’ proteins containing all the essential amino acids. Both PDCAA and BV confirm this fact.

However; even if plant proteins are complete (having all essential A.As) the level of Amino acids may vary when compared to animal proteins. For example Lysine and Methionine are particularly low in plant based foods.

2. Muscle protein synthesis (anabolic response):

We must be aware of the fact that plant proteins are of less help for muscle synthesis when compared to animal proteins. There have been ample of studies which observed changes in skeletal muscles with the ingestion of plant and animal proteins.

  • Some studies indicate similar increase in muscles with the ingestion of plant protein (particularly soy) as opposed to whey and casein.
  • While most of them suggest that plant protein do not have similar impact on protein synthesis and muscle growth in the body; as the animal proteins.

3. Digestibility:

It has been observed that plant-based proteins less digestible than animal proteins. This could be due to the different structure of plant versus animal proteins. While isolated plant protein (plant protein supplements contain isolated protein)  may get digested more easily when compared to whole grains.

Based upon the rate of digestion of in the gastro intestinal tract, there are slow and fast proteins. Whey protein being highly soluble in the acidic environment of the stomach is a fast digesting protein; while casein on the other hand is a slow digesting protein. Soy protein lies in the middle; it gets digested faster than casein but slower than whey.

4. Quantity

You need to take more of plant protein as opposed to animal protein to get the same anabolic response as observed from animal proteins.

This means that by default, animal protein is utilised by the body more efficiently for the formation of muscle protein/ lean muscles in your body. While there lies a gap in this constructive role of plant protein when it is compared to its counterpart.

So, you would need to take large amount of lentils or cereals or both, to get the same benefit as eggs or meat.

If any person is facing age related muscle loss (sarcopenia), they must rely more on animal protein since a higher age is characterised with lower appetite.


What do I get if I take plant protein???

Protein of course! And apart from PROTEIN 😉 Plants brings in fiber as well as essential nutrients. Legumes and cereals are excellent sources of fibre as well as protein. Whole grains (cereals) contain fibre as well as minerals. Another source of plant protein are nuts and seeds (eg. sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, almonds, hemp seeds, chia seeds etc) which are good sources of healthy fats, vitamins and nutrients.

Also remember that you will get more of natural antioxidants while consuming plant based foods.

To depend upon plant based foods for protein, you need to do a  little hard work of choosing the right kind and variety of foods. Plan your meals well since it is essential to mix and match a variety of food  to create a diet plant that completes the amino acid profile.

People depending on plant based foods for protein also miss out on the ‘vitamin B12’ which is not manufactured in plants at all. So, Vegans need to supplement their diet with vitamin B12.


How can I get maximum benefits through plant protein ???

In order to make a plant protein diet more effective and fill the gap that is left due to to its lower digestibility and lesser anabolic capacity (w.r.t animal protein) these strategies could prove to be very useful:

  • First of all, the quantity of plant protein per meal should be generally more than an equivalent amount of animal protein.
  • Secondly, blending different kinds of plant proteins also makes way for a complete amino acid profile as well as higher anabolic effect on muscles.
  • Combinations of cereals with legumes; for example, lentil curry with rice or whole grain roti, peanut butter on whole wheat bread, beans and rice etc could be good combinations, and of course you can try out many more.

Various studies (1) , (2) testify to this mix and match phenomenon of plant based food:

Nuts and seeds, plant based milk, cereals, legumes, beans etc could be good choices to include in diet. They add variety and also help to strike a good balance of essential amino acids.


Animal protein downsides

Despite known for its effectiveness for having a complete Amino Acid profile. There are some cons of consuming it too. 

You get saturated/unhealthy fats and cholesterol along with animal protein like red meat, chicken, eggs, milk etc.

Consuming more of animal protein especially red meat can make one prone to cardiovascular diseases in the long run. It has been published in a study that certain foods have ill effect on cardiovascular health.

On the contrary, plant based protein, healthier fats and oils are always recommended for promoting good heart health.


The final take on ‘which protein source is best’ ???

In the quest of Animal protein vs Plant protein, none of them can be singled out! 🙂

  • Animal protein is a good quality and complete protein but poses some health risks. On the other hand plant protein in itself is incomplete and sometimes tough to digest but does not cause any major health concern in the long run.
  • A good diet for vegans could be made by including a variety of protein sources in a single meal to balance out the amino acid profile. While non vegetarians should be cautious of not consuming more than required to ward any major health risk.

However, the best strategy can be to include both plant and animal based foods in diet and not depend on any one food group solely.




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