You've probably noticed a surge of plant-based products in grocery stores and on restaurant menus. While only 5% of Americans describe themselves as vegetarian, plant-based diets have risen dramatically in popularity. When comparing plant vs. meat protein, which is the healthier choice? For most people, choosing to eat plant protein instead of meat is the better option.
The benefits of plant protein
Your protein intake should fall between 10% to 35% of your total daily calorie consumption. The recommended daily allowance is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Using this rule of thumb, a 150-pound adult should consume 54 grams of protein per day.
With some simple planning, you can easily achieve your daily protein needs with plant protein alone. Plant protein refers to a protein that doesn't come from an animal source. Plant protein might come from beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, quinoa, leafy green vegetables, or whole grains.
By choosing plant proteins rather than meat proteins, you can expect many health benefits.
- Increase your dietary fiber. Plant protein tends to be higher in fiber than meat, and more fiber is good for your digestive health.
- Lower your cholesterol. In addition to being high in fiber, most plants contain very little saturated fat. People who eat plant-based proteins tend to have lower cholesterol levels than meat-eaters.
- Manage your weight. Vegetarians, on average, have lower BMIs than non-vegetarians. Plant proteins have fewer calories than animal proteins which helps vegetarians maintain a healthy weight.
- Lower your risk of cancer. Replacing red meat with a plant-based protein lowers the risk of cancer-related death.
- Keep your blood pressure low. People following vegetarian or vegan diets have a lower risk of hypertension.
- Lower your risk of diabetes. People who eat plant-based diets are less likely to develop type II diabetes.
In addition to the health benefits, plant-based diets are also good for the environment. Producing plant proteins generally requires less land and water than needed to make the same amount of animal protein. Many people also choose plant-based proteins due to animal welfare concerns.
The risks of plant protein
Vegans, who avoid all animal products, including meat, eggs, and dairy, are at an increased risk for developing a vitamin B12 deficiency. If you choose to follow a vegan diet, be sure to eat foods fortified with B12, such as nutritional yeast, or take a supplement. The recommended daily intake of 2.4 micrograms (mcg) is easily met with a bowl of fortified cereal for breakfast.
Soy products, such as soy protein isolate found in nutrition bars and supplements, contain estrogen-like chemicals. While soy has many health benefits, eating too much has the potential for adverse side effects.
Keep in mind: One can be a vegetarian or a vegan and still not eat a healthy diet. Just because a food is made without animal products doesn't make it a healthy choice. Sodas and candies are often vegan, for example, but they are clearly not healthy foods. If you choose to eat plant protein rather than meat protein, be sure your diet is balanced and includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
How to get more plant protein in your diet
Eating a plant-focused diet isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. While a completely vegan diet is a great option, replacing any meat on your plate with plant protein is beneficial. One major study showed that replacing just 3% of animal protein with plant protein was associated with a significant decrease in the risk of early death.
There are several ways you can gradually replace the meat protein in your diet with plant protein.
- Begin by removing all processed meat or red meat from your diet.
- Plan for one meal a day to be vegan or vegetarian.
- Choose one day a week to go meat-free, like the popular practice of “meatless Mondays.”
- Take a vegetarian cooking class if you enjoy cooking or commit to trying a new meatless recipe every week.
- Replace meat with “meat analogs,” such as eating a veggie burger instead of a hamburger.
Remember that you don’t have to go totally meat-free to reap the benefits of plant proteins. Healthy eating is a lifestyle and not a temporary fix, so look for fun and sustainable ways you can include more plant protein into your diet.
Nutrition and Healthy Eating Resources
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Ace Fitness: “Benefits and Advantages of Going Vegetarian.”
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Introduction to Protein Summit 2.0: continued exploration of the impact of high-quality protein on optimal health.”
Cedars Sinai: “Are Animal Proteins Better for you Than Plant Proteins?”
European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Serum concentrations of cholesterol, apolipoprotein A-I and apolipoprotein B in a total of 1694 meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans.”
Gallup: “What Percentage of Americans are Vegetarian?”
Harvard Health Blog: “Eat more plants, fewer animals.”
Harvard Health Publishing: "The A list for vitamin B sources," "Confused about eating soy?"
JAMA Internal Medicine: “Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake with All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality,” “Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake with All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality in a Japanese Cohort,” “Association Between Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.”
National Institutes of Health: “Vitamin B-12 Fact Sheet for Health Professionals.”
Nutrients: “Plant-based Diets: Considerations or Environmental Impact, Protein Quality, and Exercise Performance.”