Plant-Based Proteins - Just the Basics

Ever wondered what the difference is between plant and animal proteins? Are they the same nutritionally? You are in the right place, read on to find out...

Dietary proteins can be divided into two general categories, one being from animal sources and the other from plants. Animal proteins are those from meat, fish, eggs and dairy while plant proteins are found in nuts, grains, seeds and legumes. 

Proteins: Complete vs. Incomplete

All proteins (that’s both animal and plant proteins, as well as the proteins in our body) can be broken down into smaller units called amino acids. These amino acids are what link together, in various combinations, to make different proteins. There are 20 unique amino acids that are utilized by humans, 11 of which can be made by our body and 9 of which cannot. Those 9 amino acids that cannot be made by the body are considered "essential". These essential amino acids must be obtained through diet.  

For those following a strict vegan diet (i.e. those consuming no animal products whatsoever), a little effort must be taken to ensure all essential amino acids are obtained. The good news is that plant proteins are not completely devoid of essential amino acids, they just may be low or lacking in specific ones. Even better news is that while some are low in certain essential amino acids, others are not. You can get all the amino acids you need by eating a variety of plant-based proteins throughout the day. That means choosing a diet that includes nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains, along with a balance of fruits and veggies. This should be enough to provide the body with a complete amino acid pool from which to make proteins.

There was once a notion that plant proteins needed to be eaten in certain combinations at the same time, in order to ensure the body gets all the amino acids it needs but this has been debunked. We now know that as long as the body receives the amino acids it requires within a short period of time ( a 24 hour period) that it can make the proteins it needs. It seems as though our body has the ability to bank amino acids, at least for a little while, and draw upon what it needs to continue building proteins as required.


Nutritional Differences: Plant vs. animal proteins

Plant and animal-based proteins also have a few other important nutritional differences. In general, animal proteins are thought to be superior in terms of their iron (they contain heme iron, which is easier for our body to absorb than plant-sourced iron), zinc, B12 and vitamin D (in eggs and fatty fish). Plant proteins are known to be rich in various B vitamins, minerals (i.e. potassium, magnesium, calcium) and fiber. The fiber in plant-based proteins has been shown to benefit our cardiovascular system, keep bowels regular, stabilize blood sugars and keep us feeling satiated for longer. Unlike animal proteins, plant-based proteins lack saturated fats, which are associated with the development of heart disease


Conclusion: Choose plant-based proteins on a regular basis

Whether you decided to stick to a 100% plant-based diet or one in which includes both plant and animal-based proteins, it’s up to you. It is clear, though, that protein-rich plant foods such as lentils, legumes, nuts and seeds provide an abundance of nutrition and health promoting components, and should make up at least a part of your regular diet. So, go on - choose plant-based proteins, at least some of the time.

Want to know more about protein? Read more on Nutrition 101: Protein