Plant Protein vs Meat

A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that eating plant or fish protein instead of red and processed meat is linked to an overall lower risk of death as well as cardiovascular-related death.

As with all studies, it’s important to realize that you can’t necessarily draw a cause and effect relationship from these observations, since there may be other factors at play in your lifestyle.  There is a growing mountain of evidence, however, of the many benefits of a plant-based diet, so it’s worthwhile to consider the difference between protein that comes from plants vs meat sources.

Protein is one of the three macronutrients that your body needs in large quantities, along with fats and carbs.  Protein is an important part of every cell in your body and is used to build bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood.  It’s used to build and repair tissues as well as to make enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals.  Your hair and nails are mostly protein.  It’s also critical for functions like blood clotting and immune system response.  Needless to say, it’s important.

Proteins are made of amino acids, of which there are 20.  Of the 20, nine are considered essential amino acids because your body can’t make them, so you have to get them from the food you eat.  The other 11 are  called nonessential because your body can produce them.  If a protein provides all 9 essential amino acids, it’s considered a complete protein, otherwise it’s called incomplete.  All animal proteins, including meat, eggs and dairy products like milk and yogurt, are complete proteins.  Plant proteins, for the most part, are incomplete except for soy products like edamame and tofu and also quinoa.

Your first reaction might be to think that you’re way better off eating animal proteins since they’re complete.  That’s not the whole story, however.  First of all, many of the plant proteins that are incomplete are only lacking one or two of the essential amino acids.  This can be easily overcome by combining complementary proteins that, together, become complete — like rice and beans.  The three main sets of complementary proteins are:

1.  Legumes (peas, beans and lentils) + Grains (rice, corn, wheat, barley, etc.)

2.  Grains + Dairy

3.  Seeds (sesame, sunflower, etc.) + Legumes

It’s not even necessary to eat the complementary proteins at the same time, as long as you get them some time during the day  Your body will combine them for you.

Another great benefit of eating plant protein is the fiber, which can only be gotten from plants.  Your gut health is directly affected by how much fiber you consume, with healthy gut bacteria being a necessity for proper immune function.  Fiber also helps you lose weight as well as reducing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke, colon cancer and digestive problems.

Plants are also rich in antioxidants which protect against cell damage that can lead to heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases.

It’s important to make sure you’re getting enough protein every day, with the average sedentary man needing about 56 grams/day and the average sedentary woman 46 grams.  While there is nutritional value in both meat and plant-based sources, plant proteins can offer some extra benefits that may help you live longer.

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