Animal VS. Plant Protein: Which Is Better?

Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 7.26.08 PMSorry kids, it was a trick question. Neither is better. Everything is contextual. Animal protein is better for some people, and in some situations, and vegetable protein is better for some people and in some situations. And in other situations, it’s a wash.

Researchers at the University of Tampa compared the effects of either whey or rice protein on muscle recovery, body composition and strength increases in 24 men (matched for age, body mass, strength, and resistance training experience) over an 8 week resistance training protocol. Each subject consumed 48 grams of either rice or whey protein post workout (this is a large dose, which is relevant. I will explain below.). Their diets were matched for macronutrient ratio and appropriate calorie intake, and were supervised by a registered dietician.

The results showed no statistical difference in body composition, recovery, or strength improvement between the two groups at 8 weeks. From the study:

“Rice protein isolate consumption post resistance exercise decreases fat-mass and increases lean body mass, skeletal muscle hypertrophy, power and strength comparable to whey protein isolate.”

I mentioned above that the large dose was important and here’s why: previous research has shown that at lower doses, animal protein produces superior body composition and strength improvements to plant protein. It has been speculated that it might be due to levels of certain amino acids, specifically leucine, which are proportionally higher in animal protein. This study sought to answer the question ‘If the subject is getting an adequate dose of leucine, does the source of protein matter?’ The answer, according to this study, is no. As long as the subject is getting adequate leucine (2-3 grams), the source of the protein doesn’t matter for body composition and strength improvements. A 48 gram dose of rice protein post workout provides adequate leucine. It is only at smaller doses that source matters.

The take home message here is that if you are using plant protein to support your training, make sure you’re getting enough total protein to meet that 2-3 grams of leucine benchmark. On average it will take about 35-45 grams of plant protein to get 2-3 grams of leucine, with some variation depending on what specific plant source it’s from. In theory, you could also supplement with leucine, although I have never tried this. Don’t worry, the claim that the body can only assimilate 30 grams of protein at a time is a myth.

From personal experience, the more you rely on plant protein, the more you need to pay attention to making sure you’re getting an ample amount. This doesn’t make plant protein inferior, it just means you need a little more of it to meet all your needs. I get most of my protein from plants (I like plant foods better), and I haven’t had any trouble with recovery or building lean mass. I do pay attention to protein intake, and aim for about 150 grams a day (which works out to a bit less than 1 gram per pound of bodyweight) from a combination of whole food sources and a protein supplement (this is the one I use). I have never gone to the trouble of counting specific amino acids, I just aim for an adequate total protein  intake. I don’t think it’s necessary to get this granular unless you enjoy geeking out on your diet. Just get enough protein over the course of the day and you’ll do fine!

If you’re curious, this is the whey protein used in the study, and this is the rice protein.

Fitbit Aria

18 thoughts on “Animal VS. Plant Protein: Which Is Better?

  1. Re: supplementing just with leucine.

    I’ve asked the question elsewhere, but haven’t been able to get a good answer to the question “is supplementing with leucine sufficient, or is their a beneficial impact of consuming leucine with the other BCAAs/amino acids?”.

    Any idea?

  2. I am curious if the diet, outside of supplimentation for the rice protien group, was strictly vegetarian.

  3. It seems like many of the people who are pushing plant protein over animal are folks who have bought into vegan dietary cures for serious illness, or people who believe that cancer is a choice based on diet (Forks Over Knives, etc).

    • Yes, that’s true for some people who promote plant based protein.

      The point of this post is that either plant or animal protein is fine, and if someone chooses to go with plant protein, then they need to make sure to get enough of it to cover their needs.

  4. I think the real challenge of getting the nutrients you need from plant sources — which is totally possible — is the volume that you must consume.

    I’ve been doing a lot of research about raw foodism lately — mainly 80-10-10 and Hippocrates Institute. 80-10-10 is sugar based (80% calories from sugar) and Hippocrates is fat based (I am getting the book out of the library next week on inter-library loan so that I can understand what they are doing better).

    The main difficulty that I’m having calculating on 801010 (i’m not doing it, mind you, just calculating) — is as you say, there has to be enough protein.

    Basically, if 10% of your diet is protein, and you need 150g/day, then that’s 600 calories of protein. On 80-10-10, that would be a 6,000 cal/day diet. Which, btw, I don’t consider impossible considering the amount of fruit that you eat, and fruit that happen to be (you know, relatively) higher in protein like bananas, peaches, and figs. Seeds are included marginally, as are other veggies (like lettuces, celery, etc). And fat as well (usually avocados, coconut — but often they just have the water, not the meat — and the seeds).

    Under Hippocrates, I’m not sure what the process would be in terms of nutrients — but they seem to have a lot of seeds and sprouted beans and such.

    But I would also wager that these groups believe that we don’t need as much protein as the common thought (1 g per bodyweight/lean mass — depending upon whom you ask) and might stick closer to RDAs (46g for women over 19; 56 for men over 19).

    It’s interesting to study, though. 🙂

  5. I’ve been getting more of my protein (about 1/2 total) from plants for the past few months and my results have been fine, actually gained several pounds of muscle.

    For several years I had been getting it exclusively from meat a la Le Paleo.

    I suffer from terrible gas but I look great.

  6. I am slowly learning that my narrow perspective may have been misguided. i Had always thought that meat and dairy were superior for growth. To be honest i do still think they have more benefits (still learning 🙂 ), but i am learning that i need to expand my views and open my mind to the fact that people are achieving great results with many different methods.

    The more i learn on these topics the more i can help a greater spectrum of people achieve their health and fitness goals. Thank you for the information you share.

    • I think that for someone who can’t eat a large volume of food/protein, getting more animal protein is probably a good idea to ensure they’re getting the amino acids they need. I certainly don’t have that problem though, I eat like a mofo. 😛

  7. Do some people have higher protein needs relative to their body weight? If you don’t build muscle easily should you eat over your body weight in grams of protein?

    • Yes, I suppose people do have different protein needs. If a person is having trouble building muscle, the first thing I’d look at is actually calorie intake, though. If they’re not getting enough calories in general, the body will burn dietary protein for energy (by converting it to glycogen) rather than putting it toward lean mass gains.

  8. so then my question is: if a person is eating and sleeping adequately & is taming the weight room maybe 3 or 4 days a week but not getting enough protein then how does that effect muscle building? trying to connect the dots with the balance of adequate calories, protein and lifting weights.

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