Do you want to be totally swole? Do you want to be absolutely jacked? Do you want to be utterly yoked out? If so, you have to consume a sufficient amount of protein (not too much, though). But before you start gnawing on steaks and snorting protein powder, consider this: You probably already know that protein can come from both animals (meat, fish, poultry) and plants (beans, lentils, nuts), but you might not know that these protein sources aren’t created equally. In fact, some are better for you than others.
“All proteins are composed of amino acids, the building blocks,” explains Dana Hunnes, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “There are nine essential amino acids, which we must get from food. We can synthesize the remaining amino acids within our own bodies.”
What does that have to do with animal and plant protein? Well, the primary differences between these protein sources is the number of essential amino acids they contain. Animal protein sources are considered to be complete sources of protein, because they contain all of the essential amino acids that our bodies need to function effectively. Plant protein sources, on the other hand, are considered to be incomplete, since they often lack one or more of these essential amino acids—some popular plant protein sources are low in methionine, for example (which prevents hair loss and strengthen nails), or tryptophan (which regulates our mood), lysine (which promote calcium absorption) or isoleucine (which provides energy).
But don’t swear off plant protein just yet. “Animal proteins typically come encased in animal fats, which are associated with heart disease and cancer,” Hunnes explains. “Whereas evidence points to plant proteins having a protective effect, likely due to them being encased with high fiber and healthy fats.”
Also according to Hunnes, you can acquire all of the above-mentioned essential amino acids even when only consuming plant-based proteins—you just have to eat various different types of plant proteins.
Numerous scientific studies corroborate Hunnes’ claims: A 2018 study of more than 81,000 people found that those who consumed large amounts of meat protein experienced a 60 percent increase in cardiovascular disease, whereas those who stuck to the squirrel diet—consuming more nuts and seeds (approximately a handful of mixed nuts and/or seeds per day)—decreased their risk of developing the same deadly heart problems by 40 percent. A 2017 study also found that plant and animal protein are equally capable of building muscle, meaning lentils are just as good a post-gym protein as chicken.
But more generally speaking, we can all afford to worry less about protein. “We need less protein than most people believe,” Hunnes says. “I always advocate whenever possible for the consumption of plant or nut protein over animal protein.”
All in all, you’ve heard it before (and you’ll probably hear it again): Eat more vegetables.