Animal Protein Vs. Plant Protein – What Is Healthier? [Ultimate 2023 Guide]

Protein is an essential nutrient that plays a vital role in the growth and repair of the body’s tissues, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. [1]

Protein is found in a variety of food sources, including both animal and plant-based options.

However, there is a ongoing, borderline vicious debate on which type of protein is healthier: Animal protein, or is it the plant-based one?

In this article, we will explore the differences between animal and plant-based proteins, and investigate which type is healthier for the body.

Find a full video of this topic by the author of this article, and award-winning personal trainer and published author ‘Florian Wüest’, here: Is Plant-Based Protein Better Than Whey?

Protein Intake: The Basics

Protein is a nutrient that is essential for the growth and repair of our body’s tissues.

It is made up of small building blocks called amino acids. These amino acids are used by the body to create muscles, skin, hair, and other important tissues.

You can imagine proteins as the lego blocks of the body, and well, amino acids as the mini-lego blocks that make up the lego blocks.

protein are the lego blocks of our body

Some of these mini-lego blocks our body can produce on its own. The other mini-lego blocks our body has to get from it’s diet.

The amino acids (the mini-lego blocks) our body can’t get from it’s diets are called essential amino acids. Because they are essential. If we don’t get them, we don’t perform at our best.

The others are non-essential amino acids, because our body can produce them on it’s own. So they are non-essential, because if we don’t get them – meh, it doesn’t matter.

For the nerds here…

… the 9 essential amino acids are:

  1. Phenylalanine.
  2. Valine: Part of the BCAA family.
  3. Threonine.
  4. Tryptophan.
  5. Methionine.
  6. Leucine: Part of the BCAA family. One of the most interesting essential amino acids we’ll outline later on in this article.
  7. Isoleucine: Part of the BCAA family.
  8. Lysine.
  9. Histidine.

What is animal protein?

Animal protein refers to protein derived from animals. This means meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs.

These foods are considered complete proteins, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids that the body needs but cannot produce on its own.

Why do they contain all the essential amino acids?

Because the animal tissue that we consume are largely skeletal muscle tissue. And skeletal muscle tissue among animals is quite similar.

So we’re basically consuming tissue that is very similar to our own. Therefore it’s complete, aka containing all the essential amino acids.

soy bean, vegan, healthy

What is plant protein?

Plant-based protein refers to the protein derived from plant sources. This typically means grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

These foods do not come from animal sources and are considered a good alternative for people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Plant-based protein sources are typically lower in certain essential amino acids compared to animal protein.

However, it’s possible to consume a balanced variety of plant-based protein sources to get all the essential amino acids.

what should you eat?

The Key Differences Between Animal And Plant Protein

Animal and plants are both good sources of protein, but they differ on a variety of different factors (Also see this article for additional resources:

  1. The amount of protein per serving
  2. Bioavailability
  3. Anabolic or muscle-building benefits
  4. Sustainability
  5. And lastly: Ethical concerns

In this section we’ll talk about the key differences

1. The amount of protein per food weight

While animal protein sources typically contains a higher amount of protein per serving, on a per-calorie basis some foods stack up incredibly well.

Chicken, the typical bodybuilding food, contains 27g of protein per 100g of food. While most plant sources do not stack up to that degree, some do:

  1. Seitan contains 25g per 100g of food weight
  2. Lentils (raw) contain 26g per 100g of food weight
  3. Lupin beans contain 36g per 100g of food weight
  4. Nutritional yeast contains 53g per 100g of food weight (twice the amount of chicken!)
  5. Chlorella contains 54g per 100g of food weight
  6. Spirulina contains 57g per 100g of food weight

This is why vegans, on average, get a similar amount of protein than meat eaters do. According to the largest study on protein intake ever created, vegans get a daily protein intake of 72.3g and omnivores get a daily protein intake of 75.8g. [2]

The total percentage of protein intake of total caloric intake is 17.5% for meat eaters and 13% for vegans. [3] Which again, is very similar.

Takeaway: The total quantity of protein intake is similar.

2. Bioavailability and protein quality

Considering that the total amount of protein intake (including the amino acids) between animal and plant protein is quite similar, the next question is:

“How much protein is actually absorbed?”

The claim that certain plant foods are “missing” specific amino acids is demonstrably false. All plant foods contain all 20 amino acids, including the 9 essential amino acids. [4]

The more precise data collected so far in humans, assessing real (specific) oro-ileal nitrogen digestibility (in plain English, this means: how much protein is absorbed), has shown that the differences in the digestibility between plant and animal protein sources are only a few percent. [5]

The absorption rates are as follows:

  • Soy protein isolate, pea protein flour or isolate, wheat flour and lupine flour: 89–92%
  • Egg: 91%
  • Meat: 90–94%
  • Milk protein: 95%

It’s important to note that the plant food data came from raw foods – which are known to decrease absorption rates. So the actual absorption rate of plant foods is likely even higher.

Takeaway: Both the total quantity, and the total quality of the protein is similar.

3. Anabolic or muscle-building benefits of animal and plant proteins

While the total quality of the protein is similar, the amino acid distribution profile is less optimal in plant foods than in animal foods.

For muscle growth, not only is the total quantity important, but also the intake of specific amino acids – specifically ‘Leucine’.

For optimal, muscle growth purposes this is required: [6]

  • Total daily intake of 1.6 – 2.2g per kg of body weight.
  • Per-meal intake of 20g-25g, so ideally, you have 4 meals with 20-25g+ of protein.
  • Per meal intake of 1.8g of Leucine to hit the Leucine threshold (You can imagine ‘Leucine’ as the CEO of the amino acids. If there’s no CEO, there ain’t no proper work getting done.)

As long as these factors are similar in plant and animal proteins, the muscle building response is similar as well.

Takeaway: While the muscle building effect is similar between animal and plant proteins, it’s a bit more complex to hit the Leucine target and the higher protein target on a purely vegan diet.

4. Ethical aspect of plant protein

According to the USDA, 10 billion animals are slaughtered in the United States alone. [7]

Extrapolated to a single person (considering a population of 300,000,000), these are about 33 animal deaths per year (considering no imports). Aquatic animals not included.

Given the fact that the slaughtered animals are considered conscious, based on 2012 panel of scientists that included Stephen Hawking, there are valid ethical concerns in that practice. [8]

“But, what about the death toll of vegans?”

While some people claim that non-animal consumers create a good animal death toll as well, it’s nowhere close as the death toll omnivores stack up.

Yes, some bees and insects are inevitably killed during the production of plant crops. So the death toll of plant protein production is due to land use. If you plant stuff, you’ll inevitably kill some stuff – right?

Well, given that animals need plant foods as well (for food) – the total land usage of animal protein production is much higher (60% of the planet’s agricultural land is used for beef production). [9]

Takeaway: By choosing not to consume animal products, individuals can reduce the net amount of suffering that they contribute to sentient beings.

5. Sustainability aspects of plant protein

Animals, similar to humans, breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.

The fact that 10 billion animals are slaughtered per year in the US (a fact which we eluded to before) – indicates that 10 billion animals lived per year in the US.

So, not only did 10 billion animals breathe out carbon dioxide – which is a greenhouse gas…

… some animals (ruminants, think ‘cows’) create methane. Which is a more potent greenhouse gas, and therefore a bigger problem for global warming. [10]

Takeaway: According to a very recent study, a ‘rapid global phaseout’ of animal agriculture has the potential to ‘stabilize greenhouse gas emissions for 30 years and offset 68% of CO2 emissions this century.

The authors conclude that ‘The magnitude and rapidity of these potential effects should place the reduction or elimination of animal agriculture at the forefront of strategies for averting disastrous climate change.’.

For sustainability purposes, plant protein clearly takes the lead.

plant based proteins benefits

Conclusion – Plant Based Proteins Benefits

In this article, we’ve seen that plant proteins is superior to animal proteins in regards to:

  • Sustainability
  • And ethical concerns

It’s inferior to animal proteins on:

  • Muscle building benefits (because it takes more effort to get it right)

And it’s equal to animal protein on:

  • Protein quality (health benefits)
  • And bioavailibility (health benefits)


[1] Harvard School of Public Health: ‘Protein’:

[2] Nutrient profiles of vegetarian and nonvegetarian dietary patterns:

[3] Comparison of Sociodemographic and Nutritional Characteristics between Self-Reported Vegetarians, Vegans, and Meat-Eaters from the NutriNet-Santé Study:

[4] Maximizing the intersection of human health and the health of the environment with regard to the amount and type of protein produced and consumed in the United States:

[5] Dietary Protein and Amino Acids in Vegetarian Diets—A Review:

[6] How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution:

[7] USDA – Animals Slaughtered per Year:

[8] Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness:

[9] Agricultural Land Statistics:

[10] Dietary manipulation: a sustainable way to mitigate methane emissions from ruminants: