Plant Protein Versus Animal Protein

Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles | May 22, 2018

High protein this, high protein that. We have all been told that we should increase our intake of protein. Grocery store shelves are filled with an array of high protein products, from high protein pancakes to high protein tortillas to high protein bagels! Including ample protein helps with everything, from boosting energy levels and regulating blood sugar to aiding in muscle recovery and controlling appetite. Could there be any downside to eating more protein?

A new study says yes.

Everything comes down to the type of protein that you consume. The study suggests that plant-based protein offers all of the positive benefits while animal-based protein does the opposite. In fact, they warn against consuming animal protein due to the higher risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) associated with animal protein intake.

This particular study, titled "Patterns of plant and animal protein intake are strongly associated with cardiovascular mortality”, was published by the International Journal of Epidemiology on April 3, 2018. It heightens our awareness that it’s not just about protein, but also the type of protein we should and shouldn’t be increasing in our diets.

Researchers studied 81,000 individuals and found a sharp increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease, by 60 percent, due to the intake of animal protein in the form of red meat. On the other hand, they saw a 40 percent decrease in CVD with plant-based protein consumption from nuts and seeds.

They acknowledged dietary fats as being part of the reason that CVD risk was so high in the animal protein eaters. However, they will need to further investigate the other components independent of fat that are responsible for the cardio-protective benefits of nuts and seeds.

The study goes on to explain that we can no longer simply define the difference as animal and vegetable protein. We now have to fine-tune our understanding of specific amino acid content in both animal and plant proteins as they relate to human blood lipid profiles, blood pressure reading and body composition results. All of these factors are considered CVD risk factors in humans.

As always, more studies are needed to support these findings. I personally would like to see results of a similar study looking at other animal proteins that are lower in fat, such as chicken, turkey and fish, to control for the high fat content.

Still, this recent study is valuable because it looked at a large number of individuals and created a strong momentum for continued investigation. As more findings in this topic emerge, we hope to better understand the benefits of plant-based protein and how to best incorporate them into our lifestyles.

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Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles

Jenn Giles, R.D., C.S.S.D. is all about health and wellness. She has over 15 years’ experience, including a dual master’s degree in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology from Columbia University. She is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She supplements all of this with her spin instructor certification and USATriathlon Level I Coach Certification.

Jennifer is passionate about (actually, obsessed with) the sport of triathlon. She has been personally participating in triathlons since 2000 and running road races since 1992. She is a two-time Ironman finisher and has completed countless numerous marathons. She has been a member of Power Bar Team Elite since 2006 and competed as a member of the 2006 Aquaphor/ Sponsored Athlete Team. She was ranked as USAT All American Honorable mention in 2006 and 2011. Jennifer does all of this along side of her husband, Patrick, who is an equally accomplished triathlete and runner. They try as hard as they can to do all of their training and racing together.

She will tell you, however, that her most important, most rewarding and most challenging job is as a mother of four. She knows first hand the challenges of maintaining optimal fitness, overall good health and achieving goals while raising a family - of which good nutrition is the cornerstone.

Most importantly, she knows how to motivate, inspire and challenge athletes based on their own abilities, strengths and everyday lifestyles. She believes there is an athlete in everyone - no matter what their abilities are – and if those abilities are manifold, then there is an even better athlete in there!

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