Proteins – Plant Based vs Animal based

Manav Bajaj, Sport Nutritionist

While it is now common understanding that protein helps muscle building/growth which is essential for athletic performance. However, in the current world of protein supplements there is a large variety of options available ranging from dairy and animal based proteins (whey, casein, milk, beef) and vegetarian friendly options such as plant based proteins (soy, pea, quinoa, wheat).  

However, there is still one question that is unanswered to an extent – Do different proteins from different sources differ in their capacity to promote muscle growth? And if so, then which is the best source of protein?

To understand the difference between protein sources, a good understanding of what constitutes a complete protein source is needed. A complete protein source consists of 20 amino acids, of which 11 are termed as essential amino acids (EAA) meaning they cannot be synthesized in the body and one must consume these from their diet and 9 are termed non-essential amino acids (NEAA) and these can be synthesized within the body. There are three amino acids that differ slightly in their peptide bonds and are termed Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) which contain the amino acids – Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. Leucine is considered to be the amino acid that triggers muscle protein synthesis (MPS) which is the process of rebuilding muscle fibers (Atherton et al. 2017). The major difference between plant-based proteins and dairy and animal-based proteins is their EAA content, more specifically Leucine content. Plant-based proteins generally have a leucine content of 6-8% while dairy and animal-based proteins have a leucine content of 8-13% (Van Vliet et al. 2015). Another difference between plant-based and dairy and animal-based proteins is the digestibility via the small intestine. Plant based proteins are also generally deficient or have very low levels of at least 1 EAA – generally lysine and methionine. Supplement companies are now starting to fortify plant-based proteins with lysine and methionine but this impacts the digestibility. In fact, dairy and animal-based proteins such as whey and casein are the only proteins that boast a higher EAA amino acid content that human muscle itself.

Here is a graph comparing the EAA and leucine content of animal-based proteins to plant-based proteins.

So, what is in it for the vegetarian athlete?

There are exceptions, however, such quinoa based protein which boasts a leucine content of 12% and an EAA content that is higher than most dairy and animal based proteins (Thanapornpoonpong et al. 2008). Therefore, consuming quinoa can be a good strategy to combine with a plant based protein to have a higher overall leucine content.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this article aimed to verify whether there are any differences between various types of protein and whether those differences in characteristics can affect the efficacy of said protein source. While current research suggests that dairy and animal based proteins are superior to plant-based proteins owing to their higher digestibility and EAA content. However, it does not mean that vegetarian athletes or athletes who prefer plant based protein sources are at a disadvantage because they can enhance the leucine content by following measures like incorporating high leucine foods like quinoa or opting for quinoa based proteins which have a high EAA content.

REFERENCES

Atherton, P., Kumar, V., Selby, A., Rankin, D., Hildebrandt, W., Phillips, B. and Smith, K. (2017) Enriching a protein drink with leucine augments muscle protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young and older men. Clinical Nutrition, 36 (3), 888-895.

Van Vliet, S., Burd, N. and Van Loon, L. (2015) The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant-versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption1. The Journal of nutrition, 145 (9), 1981-1991.  

Thanapornpoonpong, S., Vearasilp, S., Pawelzik, E. and Gorinstein, S. (2008) Influence of various nitrogen applications on protein and amino acid profiles of amaranth and quinoa. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 56 (23), 11464-11470.

5 thoughts on “Proteins – Plant Based vs Animal based

    1. Hi Amit,
      Thank you for your comment.
      Unfortunately, there aren’t many quinoa based protein brands available in India. However, it would be a good strategy to look for brands that are marked safe by organisations such as Informed Choice & Informed Sport and then try to source those brands in India through their authorized dealers to ensure the authenticity and safety of the product. Hope this helps.
      Regards,
      Manav

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  1. Very informative article Manav, thanks. My query is that since my daily diet is quinoa enriched, is the protein quotient similar in all of them? I don’t read the contents when I pick cause it’s like picking rice and whole wheat from grocery store. How can I educate myself to pick the right one? Thanks

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    1. Thank you for your feedback, Ma’am. The protein quotient can vary depending on factors like temperature and where those quinoa seeds were grown. Research suggests that protein content can vary by upto 10-13% depending on where the seed was grown.
      The highest protein content is generally shown in quinoa sourced from South America (Peru and Bolivia). However, quinoa that is sourced from northern Europe is also shown to boast a high protein content.
      Unfortunately, it is difficult to know where the seeds were grown when buying from a grocery store but you could look at various online sources to order Quinoa and it would mention where it was grown. Some research papers also suggest that the colour of the seed may also indicate quality with Red quinoa being more flavorful in taste and more nutritious (contains higher Linoleic acid). Hope this helps.

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