Although it is generally agreed that a high-protein diet is important for optimal health, there remains a heated debate regarding which of the many different sources of protein offer the greatest health benefits. In particular, the distinction between animal and plant proteins is a matter of great interest.
But first: a quick lesson in biochemistry. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and a person’s body needs 22 types of amino acids for proper functioning. Most of these amino acids are produced by the body itself, but there are 9 amino acids that the body cannot produce, and whose only source is a person’s diet. These nine amino acids are known as essential amino acids, and when one hears of a “complete” protein source, it refers to a food that contains all 9 essential amino acids. The body produces the other 13 amino acids from these 9.
The main difference between animal protein and plant protein involves their amino acid makeup. Animal products usually contain complete sources of protein. For example, fish, eggs, cheese, chicken, and red meat all contain the 9 essential amino acids that constitute a complete protein.
On the other hand, most plant proteins do not contain all 9 essential amino acids. And although there are some exceptions to this (for example, quinoa is a complete source of protein), the general rule is that most plant proteins are incomplete. However, if a person chooses a wide variety of plant proteins it is possible to ensure that they will consume all 9 essential amino acids.
The question is which is better for a person’s overall health: animal protein or plant protein? Animal products usually contain saturated fat and higher levels of cholesterol then plant products. Furthermore, the results of a large study, published by the Journal of the American Medical Association: Internal Medicine, suggests that eating more animal protein, especially red meat, increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Plant protein, on the other hand, usually contains phytonutrients and antioxidants which are not found in animal protein. Both phytonutrients and antioxidants are associated with numerous health benefits. Moreover, plant-based proteins contain fiber, which is fundamental to keeping a balanced digestive system; animal protein, by contrast, contains no fiber.
If a person chooses animal protein as their main source of protein, they would be wise to supplement their diet with vitamins that provide phytonutrients and antioxidants, as well as a good source of fiber. And if a person chooses plant proteins as their main source of protein, they would be wise to supplement their diet with specific vitamins, for example vitamin B12, which is mainly found in animal products.
Regarding the current state of our medical knowledge, and the fact that this debate has not been sufficiently decided from a scientific point of view, it would be healthy to remember the famous dictum of Aristotle’s: moderation in all things. Relying too much on one source of any nutrient is inadvisable; a healthy diet is a varied diet.
At Hamilton Grove Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, in Hamilton, NJ, our care programs are designed specifically to meet the unique needs and interests of seniors and long-term care patients. We emphasize restorative care, maximizing each patient’s potential to regain and maintain function and mobility. Part of our success is due to the care we take with our residents’ nutrition. Our world-class culinary team offers a tempting variety of meal selections that are produced under the supervision of a registered dietitian. The result: well-balanced, health-conscious meals that are sure to please even the most discerning palate. And, of course, special dietary needs are gladly accommodated.