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Is Animal Protein Better Than Plant Protein?

Updated: Jan 9

Protein supplements are a huge business, but with so many available how can you choose the best protein supplement for you and is it true animal protein is better than plant protein?


Firstly, I suggest thinking about what matters most to you. Is it muscle gain or more non-carb calories you want to achieve? Do you want a more environmentally friendly supplement ? Do you want it to be plant based? Do you want to gain muscle, but also improve gut health? Through this blog I hope to impart some knowledge so you can make an informed decision that meets your goals.


bowl of plant proteins

Plant vs Animal

There are a few reasons plant based products may be picked over animal based products. Plants can be more environmentally sustainable than animal products due to the space and resources needed to grow them. Next there are ethical arguments around animal products which may influence choice. Finally, some people may choose plant based products for health reasons.


The argument of sustainability may not be true if the plants require lots of resources to grow them outside of native environments (poly tunnels, heat lamps, ultra violet lights, pesticides) and if they are transported a long way.


The argument for animal derived protein is due to the way our body digests them. Animal and plant proteins do not have equal effects on our bodies. See the summary from my Instagram below.


pros and cons of animal protein
table showing pros and cons of plant protein

Animal Protein Builds More Muscle

When you eat food it is either used as energy or used to build a structure in the body, in this case a protein for muscles. Plants are more likely to be used for energy; this means less of the protein eaten in plants will go toward building muscle. This is fine if your goal is not building muscle and you want some more calories in your diet which are not carbohydrate or fat. Animal proteins, on the other hand, are more likely to have an anabolic fate (growing and building). This is for a few reasons. Firstly, they contain all the amino acids needed to build muscle, next they can produce a bigger insulin response than plants; signalling more strongly to your body to grow. Finally, the amino acids in the animal protein are charged correctly meaning it is easier for your body to assemble them into a protein.


Amino Acids Explained

Every protein is made from amino acids. There are 20 used by our bodies, but countless exist in nature. Of these 20, our body can only make 11. This means 9 must come from our diet. Plants do not need the same amino acids as us and often lack some of the 9 essential amino acids. This means all amino acids can be sourced from plants, but a variety of plants is required.


In contrast, animal products contain all 9 essential amino acids. This means everything needed to build a muscle cells is included. I'm going to use a Lego analogy to explain amino acids further: you can buy a purpose made Lego kit with all the pieces needed to make a model perfectly or you could buy a many random boxes and build the same model. If you're using the many box method you probably need to buy lots and a big variety of boxes. Even after buying many boxes of Lego you may still be lacking the occasional piece needed to finish your model. In this analogy the Lego kit is an animal protein and the variety of boxes is the plant protein. You need to eat a lot of plants to get all the pieces you need to build your protein and you may lack one amino acid to build your muscle protein.


To continue this analogy, a purpose built Lego kit has all the pieces needed in the right amounts. Whereas if you have a variety of boxes you may lack one small piece which prevents you from finishing your build and would stop you from making multiple models despite having lots of pieces. This is the same with proteins. If you lack one amino acid you cannot build the protein. Animal sources have the amino acids in the correct amounts to build muscle proteins. The most important amino acid for muscle growth is leucine. Plants have less leucine than animals and this can prevent muscles being built from plant proteins, even if you eat a lot of protein! If the protein is not used to make muscle the remaining amino acids are used for fuel.


Amino acids can develop a chemical charge depending on the last protein they were used in and depending on the environment they've been in. Charge can act a bit like a memory and means the amino acid is more likely to reform the same protein it originally came from. This has been seen in trials comparing plant protein against animal proteins which contain the same amino acids. It could be explained as Lego blocks being used frequently to build the same model. With each use they become easier to assemble in that model because the blocks wear into shape allowing the assembly to be easier. This means a plant amino acid is easier to make into a plant protein and your body may be unable to use it to make muscle in your body. If this is the case it will be used as energy instead.


Gut Health and Protein Powder

Your large intestine (the bit furthest from your stomach and closest to you bum) contains a colony of bacteria which can have effects on your body function. These bacteria live off the bits of your food you do not absorb. This means what you eat influences the bacteria in your intestine. Plants have more indigestible parts and as a result can grow healthier bacteria. This means a plant based products could contribute to a healthier gut. I say 'could' because if the product is heavily processed the indigestible bits good for gut health may have been removed. Also, if pesticides have been used when growing the plants, and haven't been removed, these can kill off bacteria in your gut.


How To use Protein Supplements

After you have performed exercise your body repairs the muscles you have used. The more protein it has the better it can do this. However, your gut can only absorb a certain amount of protein in one go. Therefore you need to drip feed protein in through the day to provide protein to the repairing muscle. You should definitely have a protein intake after a work out and maybe before if doing resistance training. Then you may also need supplementation to achieve protein goals through the day.


Summary

Hopefully this has made choosing your protein supplement easier. Here is the post summarised in a few point.

  • Animal protein builds more muscle due to amino acids

  • Whey protein is a waste product from the dairy industry

  • Plants protein are more likely to used as an energy, reducing muscle building

  • Plant protein may be more sustainable

  • Plant proteins may be healthier for your gut


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