On this installment of Ask An Expert, a question about how meat-eaters and vegetarians can get the right kinds and right amounts of protein in their diet.
For the answer, GLT called on the faculty and staff at Illinois State University’s Redbird Scholar magazine. Each issue features an “Ask A Redbird Scholar” section, where ISU faculty answer challenging questions from the public.
One of the questions in March’s issue came from ISU senior Deja Whitt from Calumet Park. The answer came from Jennifer Barnes, assistant professor in ISU’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences and its food nutrition and dietetics sequence.
Q: I've heard that there is way more protein in a plant-based diet than the traditional carnivorous diet. Are there any health benefits associated with eating meat?
Barnes: The first thing that struck me about this question is that it was framed in a slightly different way than I’m used to hearing it. Usually, I hear people who are concerned about not getting enough protein on a plant-based diet. But the fact is, you can get enough protein whether you consume an animal-based diet, a plant-based diet, or certainly a mix of the two, which is the most common.
Proteins are made up of smaller units, called amino acids. Some of which our body can make, called nonessential amino acids. Others that are bodies can’t make, called essential amino acids. In addition to getting enough total protein, the other concern is that we get all of those essential amino acids and in the correct balance. Since our body can’t make them, we need to supply them.
It would make sense that the composition of an animal-based protein is going to similarly match the composition of our own body, as far as the essential amino acid profile goes.
Plant-based proteins don’t have quite the same quality of essential amino acids that they’re composed of. So what that means if we choose a plant-based diet, we need to make sure we mix and match those protein sources from those plants to make sure we’re getting all of those amino acids. That’s called complementing your proteins. It’s a very common practice among people who choose a plant-based diet and are pretty well educated about how to do it right.
You can live a very healthy lifestyle whether you choose to get your protein from plant and/or animal-based sources. There are advantages and disadvantages to whichever way you choose.
Animal-based proteins are a little bit more expensive. But they’re also that complete protein with all the essential amino acids. They also have micronutrients that we need, such as iron and vitamin B12. Those are much more enriched in animal-based sources.
Another caveat to the animal-based sources is that they tend to be higher in saturated fat. And we know that we want to limit saturated fat in our diet to promote overall heart health.
Plant-based has some advantages and disadvantages too. Plants are cheaper for sure. They’re also good sources of folate, potassium, dietary fiber, and they’re also easier on the environment. It’s easier for us, and more economical, to produce plant-based sources of protein than it is animal-based sources.
So really you can do either one well. The overall trend in the nutrition community is to encourage people to increase their plant-based sources of protein. They’re seeing correlations with lower risk of chronic diseases when people focus more on plant-based proteins rather than animal-based proteins.
That being said, either in moderation should be fine.
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