The battle of meat protein versus vegetable protein is one that has raged for some time. A few meat eaters feel vegetarians can't possibly get enough protein or have full, balanced diets if they eat only plant-based foods, but many vegetarians and vegans seem to be doing just fine without meat. Do vegetarians need supplements to get alternate proteins? What are the facts?
Meat Protein Versus Vegetable Protein
The bottom line in the meat protein versus vegetable protein debate is that both sources have good effects on health, and most vegetarians will not have trouble getting enough protein. Protein is composed of amino acids, some of which are "essential," meaning they can't be manufactured by the human body and so need to come from diet.
Meat, fish, eggs, cheese, and some other dairy products contain all essential amino acids and are considered "complete" proteins. Plant sources such as buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth also contain nearly every essential amino acid. Though complete proteins provide all essential amino acids in a single food, they're not necessary for good health. In general, the variety of amino acids every human needs can be provided by eating a balanced, varied diet that includes a variety of sources of protein.
The measure BV, for biological value, is a gauge for how efficient a protein source is at building muscle and promoting tissue growth in the body. BV is measured on a scale from 1 to 100, with meat proteins scoring the highest. However, soy protein and other plant-based proteins, such as corn and wheat, also posted notable BV scores of more than 50.
In considering BV scores and the efficiency of protein in promoting growth, it's also important to realize most people who need protein for significant growth and development rather than to maintain health are serious athletes. People who exercise moderately and eat a varied diet do not generally need to be concerned about the BV values of protein sources they eat.
Pros and Cons
Meat proteins and vegetable proteins each have notable pros and cons.
Meat Protein: Pros
- Most sources of animal protein are complete proteins, so they provide the body with all essential amino acids.
- You need to eat only a small serving of meat to take in a large amount of protein.
- Meat protein is widely available, economical, and more commonly eaten.
- Vitamin B-12 is almost exclusively available in animal-based proteins.
Meat Protein: Cons
- Many sources of animal protein are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which can increase an individual's risk of developing high blood pressure and other serious diseases.
- Animal proteins tend to be significantly higher in calories than vegetable proteins.
- Besides high protein contents, many animal proteins have weaker nutritional profiles than plant-based proteins.
Vegetable Protein: Pros
- Many plant-based proteins, such as soy, are easier for the body to digest than meat proteins.
- Vegetable proteins are lower overall in fat, cholesterol, and calories.
- Plant-based proteins generally have more vitamins, minerals, and nutrients than animal proteins do.
Vegetable Protein: Cons
- Some vegetable proteins are more expensive and harder to find than meat proteins.
- Most vegetable proteins don't offer as many protein grams per ounce as meat proteins.
- It can be difficult to get enough vitamin B-12, especially for vegans, from solely plant-based proteins.
Vitamin B-12 is the only vitamin not present in the vast majority of plant-based proteins. Vegetarians can still get proper doses of vitamin B-12 by eating eggs, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products, but vegans need to find other sources. Some B-12 is found in nutritional yeast, and several varieties of soy milk and cereal are fortified with vitamin B-12. Vegans can also get the vitamin through supplements. It's especially important for children and pregnant women to get the recommended daily allowance of vitamin B-12 in their diets.