by Geri Walton ~ February 16th, 2009
People often think animal protein is much more nutritious than plant protein. That is because animal protein contains ALL the necessary essential amino acids whereas it takes more effort to obtain it from plant sources, and essential amino acids must come from dietary sources because they cannot be produced by the body. However, according to the American Dietetic Association, if you eat a large variety of plant foods you can acquire all the necessary amino acids and proteins your body requires, as well as other great nutrients, such as antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals not available in meat.
Nutritionist Patrick Holford in his book, The New Optimum Nutrition Bible, notes plant-based foods contain more than 10 percent of their calories from protein, and protein is available in “virtually every lentil, bean, nut, seed, and grain and most vegetables and fruit.” To see the range of protein available in a variety of foods, examine the chart below:
Variance of Protein in Plant-Based Foods
|Food||Range of Protein|
|Beans||54 to 26 percent|
|Fruit||16 to 1 percent|
|Grains||16 to 4 percent|
|Nuts and Seeds||21 to 12 percent|
|Vegetables||49 to 11 percent|
Plant-based foods also seem to be superior to animal-based foods when it comes to vitamins and minerals. In The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health, written by Dr. T. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas M. Campbell, they compare plant-based nutrients (equal portions of lima beans, peas, potatoes, spinach, and tomatoes) against animal-based nutrients (equal portions of beef, chicken, pork, and whole milk). Per 500 calories of energy, here are the results:
Nutrient Comparison of Plant-Based Foods Versus Animal-Based Foods
|Nutrient||Plant-Based Food||Animal-Based Food|
|Vitamin E (mg)||11||0.5|
Another misconception about plant protein versus animal protein is that you need to carefully combine plant proteins to achieve “complete proteins.” The idea was first promoted by Frances Moore Lappe but over time it has proven unnecessary, particularly when a person eats a wide variety of plants. You can still boost the usable protein by combining foods within a 48-hour period from different food groups. So, as an example, you could combine rice and lentils or nuts and fresh vegetables.
You may think the best proteins are those highest in protein. This is not necessarily the case because you need to consider a food’s overall nutrient content. So, for example, if you compare a lamb chop against soy beans, you might believe the lamb chop is more nutritious. Holford explains that in this case the soy bean is much more nutritious. The lamb chop provides 21 percent protein and 75 percent fat (much of which is saturated) whereas the soy beans are over 50 percent protein, contain no saturated fat, and are primarily complex carbohydrates. To see a further comparison of some foods, see the chart below:
Protein Quality and Protein Quantity
|Food||Quantity (% of
Calories from Protein)
In case you didn’t know how much protein you need, you need only 1 calorie of protein to every 10 calories you consume. From the above chart you can see brown rice is a better quality protein than lamb chops. You can also see that the quantity of calories from protein is higher in spinach, broccoli, and wheat germ than hamburger or lamb chops. Quinoa is also an extremely high quality protein and is better than beef, chicken, cottage cheese, lamb chops, or hamburger. In fact, quinoa is considered the protein equivalent of milk when it comes to protein quality.
Plant-based foods also offer other health benefits. They are a great source of quality protein, and they contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other important nutrients. Additionally, plant-based foods usually contain little saturated fat in comparison to animal-based protein. Even if you don’t want to give up animal-based products, it seems you may gain alot by ensuring you get as many plant-based foods into your daily diet as possible, and because there are literally dozens of delicious vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and beans, eating a variety of plant-based foods should be easy.