The Difference Between Animal Protein and Plant Protein

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 15, 2021
3 min read

Animal proteins are complete proteins. That means they contain all the essential amino acids that you need in your diet. Plant proteins are often, but not always, incomplete sources of protein, There are benefits and concerns with both types of protein. But diets that rely mostly on plants for protein have been linked to a lower risk of stroke, heart disease, and early death. 

What you actually need from protein are the amino acids. You need 20 different ones. Your body makes some of them, but you  must get nine from your diet. These are called essential amino acids.

Complete proteins provide all nine essential amino acids. Sources of complete protein include: 

  • Dairy products
  • Poultry
  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Eggs
  • Quinoa
  • Whole sources of soy such as tofu, edamame, and tempeh 

Most plant sources of protein are incomplete. However, you can get all the essential amino acids you need from plant foods, as long as you eat a variety of them. Sources of plant protein are:  

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils
  • Vegetables

The type of protein you eat may be more important than the amount. Plant-based protein provides plenty of nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants that can improve your overall health. The benefits of plant-based diet may include:

Protection against heart disease. A review of eight studies found that people who followed a vegan or vegetarian diet were 30% less likely to die from ischemic heart disease than people who ate meat. Plant-based diets are lower in saturated fats, iron, and hormones. 

Protection against cancer. Eating a diet rich in plant foods decreases your risk of cancer. Phytochemicals are substances found in plants that may help prevent cancer. Diets high in fiber can also help you control your weight and protect your gut health. Obesity is a risk factor for many diseases. 

Protection against stroke. A healthy plant-based diet may decrease your risk of having a stroke by 10%. A healthy diet consists of lots of leafy greens, whole grains, and beans, and few refined grains and added sugars

Protection against type 2 diabetes. People who follow plant-based diets have lower levels of type 2 diabetes than people who eat animal protein. People on plant-based diets are also less likely to be overweight. But the reduced risk of type 2 diabetes held up even among people of the same weight. 

Animal protein also has some health benefits. People who ate low-fat sources of animal protein such as poultry and fish instead of red meat had a: 

A study of over 100,000 people has shown that eating unprocessed and processed red meat has been linked to a shorter lifespan. Eating one additional serving of unprocessed red meat each day increases your risk of death by 13%. Eating one additional serving of processed red meat increases your risk of death by 20%. 

To get the benefits of a plant-based diet, you need to eat a wide variety of healthy plant foods. A plant-based diet that includes a lot of processed foods and added sugars won't provide the nutrition you need. On a plant-based diet, you need to make sure you get enough zinc, vitamin B12, protein, calcium, and vitamin D

To get the nutrition you need on a plant-based diet: 

  • Eat a variety of plant-based foods high in protein. 
  • Drink plant milks that contain added calcium and vitamin D.
  • Eat fortified cereals, whole grains, and beans for zinc and iron. 
  • Try nutritional yeast, an excellent source of vitamin B12.
  • Eat lots of dark leafy greens for calcium.