Proteins are the building blocks of every cell in your body. They make up blood, bones, organs, muscles, and skin. They also play a part in the production of enzymes and hormones. But how do we acquire proteins? Our main source of protein to supply all these body cells and processes come from our diet. This makes it crucial that we eat the proper food to sustain our bodies and all the demands.
A misconception of protein consumption is the belief that meat (animal-based protein) is the primary food source to get the recommended protein intake. This misconception has begun to unravel over the past few years – our knowledge of protein is evolving, and many people are incorporating plant-based protein into their diet to supplement animal-based protein.
Now, I know some of you reading are probably skeptical of plant protein and whether they can satisfy you AND fulfill requirements. Don’t worry, I’ll clear that up.
As I mentioned, there is a lingering misconception that plant protein can’t be sufficient enough to be a substitute for animal protein. They’re known to be an incomplete protein and slower to digest. There may be some truth there, however it’s not the full story. Plant protein may be a bit slower to respond but don’t count it out just yet. Time to get to the “root” of the debate.
We Need Evidence!
Research has demonstrated that plant-based protein alternatives have been shown to be the optimal protein choice for cardio-protective capabilities. This means that plant protein can serve to protect the functioning of your heart and maintain its optimal level of function. Put simply, plant protein is HEART HEALTHY! Alternatives such as seeds and nuts have been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol (this is the BAD cholesterol) which, when elevated, can adhere to arterial walls. This decreases blood moving through the vessel and increases the resistance of flow (hypertension or high blood pressure). The higher the levels, the higher the risk of an arterial blockage. Plant protein also has properties consisting of fat binding fibers that are not absorbed within the digestive tract. This can help the body with the excretion of fat. So, if you are looking to “lean out and build muscle” plant-based protein is definitely a good start.
Some other health benefits of plant-based protein include:
- Decreased risk of acquiring type II diabetes (Nuts and seeds promote favorable blood glucose levels.)
- Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease (Nuts are rich in arginine and glutamic acid, which aid in the production of nitric oxide)
- Improved vascular function
- Reduced oxidative stress
- Decreased risk of colorectal cancer
- Reduced risk of early health complications
Some great plant protein sources include:
- Soy Beans
- Faba Beans
- Oil hemp
What About Animal Protein?
Animal-based protein is well-known for its positive benefits on muscle recovery and hypertrophy. Since it is a complete protein, it is full of the 9 Essential Amino Acids which are used as building blocks for muscle growth and repair. Animal protein is jam-packed with vitamins A, D, and B series which are easily accessible to the body for use. They are also abundant with essential minerals including zinc and iron. Specific animal proteins, like chicken or turkey, have a lower concentration of cholesterol, sodium, and saturated fat when compared to red meats. Seems like the perfect slice of shepherd’s pie, but there is a downside.
Even with the benefits animal protein provide us, it does come at a bit of a cost. Research demonstrates that consuming high amounts of animal protein has been linked to an increased risk of specific cancers (colon, breast, and prostate). Possible reasons could be due to hormones, carcinogenic compounds, and fats found in meat. Beef and pork have been shown to be higher in saturated fat and cholesterol. Consuming too much red meat has also been linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease.
One could argue that plant-based protein doesn’t have as much iron or zinc when compared to animal protein. Although true, acquiring these essential minerals have been shown to be as just as effective through alternative supplementation. It’s a trade-off worth considering if you find yourself concerned over your heart health.
The evaluation of protein quality is completed through the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS). When a protein meets the requirement, it gets a score of 1.0 or greater. If it does not, a score below 1 is provided. For a protein to be classified as complete, it must have all 9 essential amino acids, otherwise the protein is considered incomplete.
Hemp protein powder contains most of the 20 amino acids within the protein, but is deficient in lysine. Recent research has shown the amount of leucine within hemp protein powder would be enough to trigger protein synthesis. Since the amino acid profile is sufficient, it can maximize the protein synthesis rates. This means that it can be used effectively as an immediate post-exercise supplement in addition to a proper diet.
A second option for recovery is soy protein powder. Soy protein is a great source of vitamins and minerals. B-vitamins, iron, zinc and an array of antioxidants. Soy protein does contain more leucine per gram than hemp protein but has a limiting factor involved. Soy protein has an inhibiting enzyme that is said to reduce it’s overall nutritional value. The enzyme’s function causes the inability to properly initiate the reaction to break down the amino acids. However, even with that inhibiting enzyme, research has shown us time and time again that soy protein can be consumed as a post-exercise supplement as the primary source to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
Whey protein is the most common animal protein used for post-exercise recovery. Being a complete protein, whey is the leading candidate in research and fitness. It is extremely easy to digest making it faster for the body to absorb. Whey protein is generally chosen over plant protein because of it’s high content of branch chain amino acids (BCAA). Whey protein also has a higher concentration of leucine when compared to soy and hemp protein. Valine and isoleucine have been shown to enhance the rate of muscle protein synthesis. Since whey has a higher concentration of these BCAA’s, it’s easy to understand why it is so widely used among the general public.
The good news is that muscle protein synthesis has a window of opportunity to optimize muscle growth and repair. There is a 48-hour window where the creation of muscle proteins can be optimally stimulated post-exercise. The process is dependent on the availability of branch chain amino acids (BCAA) within the body and the rate at which they become available. Simply put, you have approximately 2 days to get your protein demands met after your workout to maximize growth (regardless of which source you choose). Keep in mind that sooner is typically better as your body is consistently regenerating after physical stress.
For you “science” folks, here’s a chart outlining different amino acids:
In closing, plant-based protein research demonstrates that it can be an effective post-exercise supplement due to its capability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. These effects just require a slightly longer duration before they can take effect. Although slow, they are still able to match the acute response that animal protein creates. The numerous amount of health benefits that are associated with consuming plant proteins can be a great alternative to those looking to improve their current well-being and overall longevity. Implementing plant-based protein into your diet can allow for more flexibility with meals by adding a healthy and fun twist.
*We are not saying that you must become a vegan or vegetarian. We are presenting information that has been emerging from research to show how it can benefit you in improving your own well-being*
PS: We always deliver the best fitness content and we want you to get it exclusively! Our Iron Association subscribers are the best fitness enthusiasts on the internet. Join our community to get access to our exclusive Facebook group where you can ask questions and collaborate with coaches or other members! If that wasn’t enough, you get a special treat every week on Monday (because who really loves Mondays). Click below to join absolutely free!
Ryan specializes in general fitness training and active lifestyle performance. He coaches the everyday hero looking to get in the best shape possible. Ryan specializes in balance and gait training for older individuals.