Both plant and animal proteins are associated with health benefits and drawbacks. But you may be wondering what the difference is between the two.
Proteins are made up of amino acids. The human body uses about 20 different amino acids to build proteins.
Your body can make some amino acids itself, but you have to get nine of them — known as essential amino acids — through your diet.
Protein sources can vary greatly in the types of amino acids they contain.
Generally, animal proteins are known as complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids.
While some plant proteins, including pea protein and soybeans, are also complete protein sources, many other plant foods are considered incomplete proteins (3Trusted Source).
This means plant foods such as beans, peanuts, and wheat are rich in total protein but lack one or more of the essential amino acids. Still, you can easily combine these incomplete plant protein sources to meet your body’s needs.
For instance, a peanut butter sandwich is a tasty example of a combination that results in a complete protein source. While wheat used to make bread is low in the amino acid lysine, peanuts are rich in it, resulting in a complete protein meal or snack (4Trusted Source).
It’s important that people eating a vegetarian or vegan diet enjoy a variety of plant protein sources to ensure they’re getting all the essential amino acids.
Plant protein sources
There are many sources of plant proteins, such as (8Trusted Source):
soybean products like tofu, tempeh, and edamame
Ezekiel bread, quinoa, buckwheat, spirulina, soybeans, nutritional yeast, chia seeds, and hemp seeds contain all nine essential amino acids, meaning they are complete protein sources.
Other plant protein sources, such as beans, nuts, legumes, wheat, and wild rice, are too low in or missing one or more essential amino acids.
However, because plant foods contain varying amounts of different amino acids, getting all the essential amino acids on an exclusively plant-based diet is still manageable — it may just take a little more effort.
Consuming a varied diet and combining complementary plant proteins, as in the peanut butter sandwich mentioned earlier, will ensure that you get all the essential amino acids in your diet.
Some other examples of complete protein combinations are hummus and pita bread, rice and beans, and pasta salad with kidney beans.
One study associated plant-based diets rich in nutritious plant foods like whole grains, vegetables, nuts, and seeds with a lower heart disease risk (12Trusted Source).
Meanwhile, plant-based diets rich in less nutritious options such as fried vegetables and refined grains were associated with a higher risk (12Trusted Source).
Plant-based diets may also benefit blood sugar management. Several observational studies have shown that these diets can be beneficial for both treatment and prevention of type 2 diabetes.
Diets rich in nutrient-dense plant foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and vegetable oils are particularly associated with a significantly decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes (14Trusted Source).
While these results are promising, they do not prove that these health benefits come from eliminating animal protein sources — the benefits may just as likely be a result of increased consumption of nutritious plant foods.
Healthline content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice. See a licensed medical professional for diagnosis and treatment recommendations. Opinions expressed in this video may not reflect those of Healthline Media.
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