Introduction: It is well accepted in the realm of sports and fitness that proper nutrition plays a vital role in achieving peak performance. The same is true with life and health in general. While animal-based proteins have traditionally been synonymous with muscle growth and recovery, the power of plant protein is increasingly gaining recognition. This article aims to explore the benefits of plant protein for athletes and fitness enthusiasts, as well as for everyone else; it will highlight its ability to support muscle development, enhance recovery, and provide sustainable nutrition. Let’s delve into the world of plant protein and unlock its potential for optimal performance. There is more to the distinction between animal-based vs. plant-based protein than most people realize.
Something to ponder as you read this article is that we are mostly composed of proteins. Health, and to a very large extent, all disease and aging itself, can be looked at as a function of our ability to make proteins from the foods we eat. Think about it.
Each protein source must be examined on its own merits rather than simply by category; however, some generalizations can be made. As with anything, there are significant variations from one plant-based protein to another. In this review, we will focus on some of the overall pros and cons of plant-based protein sources vs animal-based.
- Muscle Development and Repair: Contrary to popular belief, plant proteins can provide all the essential amino acids needed for muscle growth and repair. Quality plant protein sources such as pumpkin seeds (my top choice), and several other plant-based protein sources, do offer complete amino acid profiles that can be comparable to animal-based proteins. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2017 found no significant differences in muscle strength or size between individuals consuming plant-based protein and those consuming animal-based protein. Of course, animal-based proteins tend to be more ‘complete’ than some plant-based proteins, thereby providing all of the essential amino acids in good amounts; that makes them, as a general category, superior to many plant-based proteins, but not all. When relying on plant-based proteins, it is important to understand the protein efficiency rating and completeness of the amino acids contained. A thorough analysis of these factors is what led me to the adoption of pumpkin seed protein as the main one I use and recommend.
- Digestibility and Absorption: Plant proteins are often rich in dietary fiber, as well as additional vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, all of which can enhance digestion, promote gut health and overall health. Additionally, plant proteins are generally well-tolerated and can be easily absorbed by the body. For instance, some plant proteins have been shown to have excellent digestibility and absorption rates comparable to whey protein. This makes plant protein an ideal option for athletes with sensitive digestive systems or lactose intolerance or other issues associated with whey & milk proteins; many people have negative side effects when consuming milk-based proteins. As with anything, there are exceptions to this, and some people simply don’t digest or absorb plant-based proteins as well as animal-based proteins. Much of this may involve other substances in a given plant such as oxalates, nightshades, sphingomyelin, lectins, etc. Additionally, if someone has low hydrochloric acid production in the stomach, they will not be able to properly digest and absorb ANY protein well, regardless of its source. MANY people, especially as they get older, have this problem without realizing it. This is the case in just about everyone that complains of acid reflux and consumes antacid medications. It is the exact opposite of what they and their doctors think. Low stomach acid leads to an inadequate release of alkaline buffering in the duodenum which leads to acid symptoms. Although such people do experience ‘acid’ related symptoms, it is actually due to too little acid production in the stomach that thereby fails to stimulate appropriate alkaline buffering. If the initial acid is insufficient, protein cannot be properly digested. Numerous minerals will also not be well absorbed.
- Anti-Inflammatory and Antioxidant Properties: Plant-based proteins are often accompanied by essential nutrients, phytochemicals, and antioxidants that can aid in reducing exercise-induced inflammation and oxidative stress. These properties can support faster recovery, reduce muscle soreness, and optimize overall performance. Research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2020 highlighted the anti-inflammatory effects of plant-based proteins, showcasing their potential in mitigating exercise-induced inflammation. Note that ‘properly raised and pastured’ meat proteins will also have a decent amount of additional essential nutrients and phytochemicals, however, that only accounts for a very small amount of meat proteins consumed.
- Sustainability and Environmental Considerations: Choosing plant protein sources aligns with more sustainable and environmentally conscious practices according to most studies; carnivore diet proponents have a completely different perspective on this, however. Plant-based proteins have a significantly lower carbon and water footprint compared to animal-based proteins. This makes them an eco-friendlier choice for athletes and fitness enthusiasts who are mindful of their impact on the environment. Almost any way you look at it, raising animals for protein is far less efficient or environmentally friendly than growing plants.
- Ethical and Humane Considerations: Many people that choose plant proteins over meat proteins do so based on ethical and humanitarian factors. This sentiment can be traced back to ancient civilizations that had overcome the basic food supply issues needed for survival. This is my primary reason for avoiding meat, pork, and poultry. It would be one thing if they were needed for our survival (or even for peak performance) however they are not. Indigenous people who hunt for survival have no such moral dilemma to deal with, it is only the rest of us (99+% of humans) who have the luxury of considering this issue. Animals are sentient, they think and feel, maybe not on the same level as humans, but does that give us the right to murder them by the billions? My answer is NO. Now, if it were a matter of survival, that would be a different matter, BUT it is not. There is ZERO compelling evidence to support that humans need animal protein to survive or thrive. There is likewise no compelling evidence to support that a properly nourished athlete that eats animal-based proteins is any better than a properly nourished athlete that eats plant-based protein. I absolutely acknowledge that it takes more knowledge and effort to obtain all vital nutrients required for optimum performance on a plant-based protein diet. Current estimates state that as of 2021, approximately 83 Billion animals are slaughtered worldwide each year to satisfy the dietary preferences of those choosing to eat animal protein.
- Quantity: How much protein do we ‘need’ every day? Well, that depends on several factors. What is your body weight? What is your ideal body weight? How active are you? Do you have any particular health challenges? How good is your digestion? All of those factors are relevant to how much protein you need to ingest for ‘optimum health & function.’ Some of the top experts recommend anywhere between ½ to 1 gram of protein per pound of ideal weight per day for optimum protein intake. Very few people, including athletes, get even the lower amount consistently. That is why a protein supplement is often recommended and needed. Protein foods are among the most expensive foods. Trying to get a gram of protein per pound of ideal weight each day is both challenging and expensive. Most of us simply don’t burn enough calories to compensate for eating that much food so when we try to get it from food alone, we tend to consume way too many calories which leads to unwanted fat weight gain.
- Peak Performance: Is there anything about animal protein that makes it superior to plant protein from a performance perspective? NO, not unless we are specifically discussing certain types of animal proteins. Red meat, for example, does contain a number of very specific nutritive substances that enhance overall physical performance. Those 11 substances do not occur at all, or in significant quantities, in poultry, pork, milk, whey, eggs, fish, or the plant kingdom. That is why we put them in our Peak Performance Pumpkin Seed Protein product. By doing this, we make a plant-based protein powder that is more balanced and complete meat (due to the high amounts of other nutrients and phytonutrients). Are animal-based proteins superior to plant-based proteins from a performance perspective? Possibly, depending on which animal-based proteins and which plant-based proteins you are comparing. Overall, animal-based proteins do have an advantage as they are primarily composed of the muscle tissue from the slaughtered animal which means that the amino acids needed to build muscle will certainly be there. With plant-based proteins you will have to check the amino acid profile to be certain that a specific plant-based protein contains adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids. In general, seed proteins do whereas grain proteins do not.
- Additional factors:
- A. Phytonutrients: Some of the top plant-based proteins contain many additional nutrients and phytonutrients that are simply not found in most animal proteins. Plants are the ultimate source of most vitamins and minerals provided the soil they are grown in is ‘healthy.’ Animal-based proteins simply do not contain most of these vitamins and minerals unless the animal grazed on grass that was nutrient dense or fed plants grown on mineral rich soils. That leaves out 95+% of all animal-based meats. The same can be said for phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are the newest and largest category of important nutritional substances found in foods; they occur primarily in plants although some meats may contain some of them if the animal consumed enough plants containing them. Pumpkin seed protein is perhaps the most nutritionally diverse protein source there is; it provides one of the widest ranges of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients of any protein source.
- Anti-nutrients, allergens, and more. Plants produce a wide range of chemical substances, some of which are there to protect the plant from predators. When consumed in large amounts, these chemical substances can cause various types of irritation and negative reactions that vary greatly from one person to another. Some are also mildly toxic in higher amounts. Here are a few major examples: allergens, oxalates, gluten, histamine elevating, lectins, goitrogens, nightshades, and sphingolipids. It is virtually impossible to avoid all of these things, and fortunately, it isn’t necessary. Most people can tolerate small amounts of many of these things and only have problems if too many are consumed. This is one of the reasons to follow a diversified diet. Pumpkin seed protein is one of the cleanest, least reactive plant-based proteins, just one more reason we love it.
Conclusion: One of the primary things that our bodies have to do to survive and repair themselves is to produce proteins from the raw materials we consume. As we age we become less efficient at producing proteins, part of that involves inadequate consumption of both proteins and all of the necessary co-factors. One of the most important things we can do to help support our overall health is to support our body’s ability to make proteins efficiently. That means providing optimum amounts of quality protein and other nutrients to our body DAILY. The power of plant protein for peak performance is evident through its ability to support muscle development, enhance recovery, and provide sustainable nutrition. Many, but not all, plant proteins offer complete amino acid profiles, excellent digestibility, and absorption rates comparable to animal-based proteins. Moreover, their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties contribute to faster recovery and reduced muscle soreness. By choosing plant protein, athletes and fitness enthusiasts can fuel their bodies while minimizing their environmental impact and avoiding the moral dilemma associated with being responsible for the killing of billions of animals annually.
Remember that all plant-based proteins are not created equally. There is also a huge variation in how much processing is used to prepare it. For example, pea protein goes through 14 MAJOR processing steps thereby making it a HIGHLY-PROCESSED food. By the way, Whey Protein goes through 12 major processing steps. Pumpkin seed protein requires just TWO processing steps; the seeds are pressed to reduce the oil content and the remaining seed press cake is ground up into a powder. It is the only Real Food protein powder.
Finally, when you choose Body Symphony’s Peak Performance Plant Protein you get all of the benefits of eating red meat with no guilt. Available at MyBodySymphony.com.
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- Gorissen SHM, et al. Protein content and amino acid composition of commercially available plant-based protein isolates. Amino Acids. 2018;50(12):1685-1695.
- van Vliet S, et al. Consumption of plant-based proteins and amino acids for muscle hypertrophy: a narrative review. Sports Med. 2021;51(3):579-595.
- Babault N, et al. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. whey protein. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015;12:3.
- Phillips SM, et al. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to metabolic advantage. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016;41(8):837-847.