The Weekly Thread: breaking down animal vs. plant protein, and why you shouldn’t concern yourself with what you cannot control.

A science-based approach to understanding the nuances of muscle protein synthesis. 

The debate between choosing the right protein sources and foods in general can be dizzying, and, at times, overwhelming. Unfortunately, with all the agendas nowadays from every angle, you often have to peel back the layers on the information you are receiving and consider the source, which just means more work for you, and who has the time for all that!?

I’ve made the time, in an effort to bring you a systematic breakdown. 

In this segment, I’m going to do my best to cut through the noise, and provide a front to back, objective, and science-based approach to helping you better understand protein sources, the role protein plays in the body, and what to all consider when choosing foods and supplements as protein sources. 

Muscle Protein Synthesis 

Muscle protein synthesis is the process through which cells in your body build new muscle proteins. It's a crucial mechanism for muscle growth, repair, and maintenance. When you engage in activities like exercise and consume sufficient protein, your body triggers muscle protein synthesis to create new proteins, which helps in building and maintaining muscle mass.

We all need and require muscle protein synthesis, as we all have muscle tissue that requires maintenance and repair on a daily basis. 

Growing research shows that everyone, even those who don’t train heavily with weights, should be aiming for 1g of protein per pound of body weight, and further research has shown that upwards of 1.2-1.4g is even more optimal, and has a positive effect on your metabolism. 

For many of you reading this, that’s probably quite a bit of protein, and if you made an effort to get more, high-quality protein in your diet, you’d feel the effects in better overall daily and exercise recovery, increased energy, enhanced mood (more on that in a bit), and in your metabolism. 

Furthermore, the scientific community has now come to the conclusion that your skeletal muscle is actually an organ that secretes anti-inflammatory hormones when stimulated through exercise (especially weight training) and is also the main disposal source for excess blood sugar, and we know that the more we are able to keep blood sugar level lower, over time, the lower our risk of pretty much all disease is, along with an increased ability to burn more body fat. 

In short, supporting your muscle tissue is far more important than just optimizing athletic performance, as it could be one of the most important factors in overall longevity and disease prevention. 

Again, achieving optimal and therapeutic protein consumption in a day can be difficult, so ideally you want the most “bang for your buck” with the protein you intake, which means the most optimal muscle protein synthesis. 

If you’d like an even deeper primer on the importance of protein intake, and the larger role muscle plays in longevity and disease prevention, check out my complete guide to muscle and protein.

Protein for Improved Brain Chemistry

Muscle protein synthesis is the main role protein plays in the body, however, the amino acids found in protein play a role in many other mechanisms inside the body, including your brain chemistry. 

Amino acids play a significant role in improving brain chemistry because they are the building blocks of neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that transmit signals in the brain. Different neurotransmitters influence various aspects of mood, cognition, and overall brain function. (Remember, I mentioned above that increased protein intake could enhance mood.)

1. Serotonin. Amino acid tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects mood, sleep, and appetite regulation. 

2. Dopamine. Amino acid tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine, which is associated with motivation, pleasure, and reward. Adequate tyrosine intake can support dopamine production.

3. GABA. Glutamine, an amino acid, is a precursor to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps calm the brain and reduces anxiety.

4. Norepinephrine and Epinephrine. Amino acid phenylalanine is a precursor to norepinephrine and epinephrine, neurotransmitters that play a role in alertness, focus, and stress response.

In short, consuming a balanced diet that is rich in a variety of protein sources can provide the necessary amino acids to support optimal brain chemistry and function. 

Let’s dive into the factors to consider when choosing a protein for most optimal muscle protein synthesis. 

It All Begins with Leucine 

To begin the muscle protein synthesis process, you need a minimum of 2.6g of the branched-chain amino acid Leucine in your system.

Leucine is one of the essential amino acids, which means that the body cannot produce it on its own and it must be obtained through the diet.

Leucine plays a crucial role in protein synthesis and muscle growth. It's often recognized for its role in stimulating the mTOR pathway, a cellular signaling pathway that regulates muscle protein synthesis. 

Beyond its role in muscle growth, leucine also has potential effects on regulating blood sugar levels and promoting wound healing. Additionally, it's involved in various metabolic processes in the body, contributing to overall health and well-being.

Top Leucine Containing Foods

This is where we begin to break down the nuances of individual protein sources, and attempt to observe their proverbial “bang for their buck” when it comes to providing the most optimal muscle protein synthesis. 

This means that not all protein sources are created equal when it comes to muscle protein synthesis, and at the heart of it, is determining which protein sources contain the highest concentration of leucine, as all muscle protein synthesis must begin with an adequate amount of leucine. 

Here is a list of the top leucine-containing foods:

  1. Whey protein: 12%
  2. Casein protein: 9.1%
  3. Egg protein: 8.6%
  4. Fish: 8.3%
  5. Soybeans: 8.0%
  6. Beef: 8.0%
  7. Pork: 8.0%
  8. Poultry: 7.6%

Note that this list is almost entirely devoid of plant protein sources outside of soybeans, and due to the high levels of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, along with the fact that about 95% of our soy is genetically modified (GMO), there are other potentially negative considerations for soy when choosing it as a potential food and protein source. 

I want to stress here that these are simply the facts, and I am not trying to take any active stance on how one should eat. As I’ve said in this blog before, I fully support everyone’s decision to choose their own approach to eating and diet, and I am merely here to peel back the layers and provide objective information to better arm you. 

Animal vs. Plant Proteins: A Comparison

If choosing a plant-based diet, or plant-sourced proteins as your primary protein sources, the reality is that they simply don’t promote muscle protein synthesis the way animal-sourced proteins do. 

So here’s what to consider:

The bright side is that research has shown that if someone is consuming a plant-based diet, and does get adequate amounts of protein AND leucine, they will achieve the same level of muscle protein synthesis, and thus maintenance and recovery, that one consuming mostly animal-based proteins will. 

Now the rub in this is the amount of calories one needs to consume to achieve adequate amounts of protein and leucine. 

Here are some examples of total calories consumed from a protein source to achieve the necessary amount of leucine to spur muscle protein synthesis:

Whey protein: 120 calories

Peas: 400 calories

Black Beans: 520 calories

If you refer to the above list of top leucine containing foods; all animal-based protein sources will be much closer in calories to whey protein, and most plant sources will be closer in calories to the black beans and peas. Meaning, plain and simple, animal-based sources of protein are far more dense in protein, and thus, require much less caloric consumption to achieve optimal amounts of protein. 
If you are plant-based, and achieving optimal amounts of protein consumption for muscle protein synthesis is a goal, it is achievable, but you’re going to have to consume quite a bit more calories to do so. 

If most, or all of your protein consumed is plant-based, I strongly recommend supplementing with a plant-based essential amino acid supplement. 

Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) are the 9 amino acids that the body cannot produce endogenously (internally), so they must be consumed through diet and supplementation. EAAs, when consumed in their free form, as in an EAA supplement, actually have 99% bioavailability in the body, and dramatically increase muscle protein synthesis and enhance your body’s ability to produce healthy neurotransmitters. 

I consume the Thorne Amino Complex around 3x per day, as I’m a very big believer in the long-term health and performance benefits of optimal muscle protein synthesis, and consider them a staple supplement personally. At minimum, I’d consider them an almost necessity for anyone on a plant-based diet. 

And, they are a calorie-free supplement. 

Eating “Bioidentical”

A very simple thought process I use to explain all of the above and why animal-based protein sources are so optimal for muscle protein synthesis is that they are more “bioidentical”.

The human body is essentially a big bag of water, bacteria, protein, and fat. 

It would make sense that our body would respond to and thus synthesize protein sources that are more similar to the muscle and fat tissue that makes up the human body and cells such as red meat and whey. 

Think about it like this, is the protein in our body more similar to that of a cow or of black beans?

I don’t think you need a breakdown of the amino acid profiles of all of the respective protein sources to answer that question. 

This would also explain why whey is the single most bioavailable protein source there is.

Whey is produced naturally in mother’s milk, meaning, it is a protein that the human body intelligently produces endogenously to feed a child. As intelligent as the human body is by design, it sure as heck wouldn’t make a protein that wasn’t exactly what the body needed. 

This is also why we’ve realized that butter is truly an ideal fat source for the body. It comes from a bioidentical animal source. 

Again, I’m not trying to talk anyone out of being plant-based, and do truly fully support everyone’s decision to choose what they eat and put into their body, but I do think, from the perspective I’m taking, which is how does the body respond to specific food sources, for your core macronutrients: fat and protein, the body will objectively synthesize and respond to animal sources better. 

I think fruits and plants are great sources of carbohydrates (when not processed), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and other photo-chemicals that can have anti-aging and disease-preventive benefits, and for me personally, I consume them for said benefits. 

Other Considerations

Research has shown that those who primarily consume plant-based proteins versus animal-based proteins have a greater rate of bone loss, joint degradation, and a decrease in collagen production. 

As we age, the risk of bone fracture increases as we lose bone density, our joints break down, and hair, skin, and nails health has a tendency to diminish with decreased collagen production. 

The potential for the speeding up of these processes from a lack of consumption of animal-based proteins is something one should consider when choosing their approach to diet and eating. 

If you are plant-based, but not entirely strict with it, along with an EAAs supplement, I’d recommend a collagen supplement as well, although, I consider collagen a strong recommendation to everyone as they age, just even more so if mostly plant-based. 

Issues digesting whey protein?

As I referenced earlier, whey protein has the highest concentration of leucine of all protein sources on the planet, making it the most ideal source of protein for optimal muscle protein synthesis. 

It is naturally found in dairy foods, however, what really makes whey protein great is that you can also supplement with it in a low calorie serving, usually only containing 1-2g of total carbs per serving, making it a lot easier to quickly get more protein in your diet. 

Some of you may steer away from whey protein because it may cause some gut/intestinal distress or irritability. 

Typically, this isn’t the dairy in the protein as many may think, rather, it is an issue in digesting protein in and of itself. 

Whey protein is the most bioavailable source of protein on the planet for muscle protein synthesis, and your body synthesizes it quickly, making it really ideal for muscle recovery, however, it is the fact that this protein digests and synthesizes very quickly, that in some, can cause gut/intestinal distress if your body isn’t producing the adequate amount of enzymes to help break it down.

If this is you, and you’d like to give whey another try due to its potent ability to spark muscle protein synthesis, try taking some digestive enzymes before you consume whey protein. Oftentimes, this extra enzyme support will fill in any gaps your body may have in digesting protein, and thus, aid your body in synthesizing it a bit easier, which should help reduce any gut/intestinal distress. 

You can also look for a pure whey isolate that is free of lactose, as it will, at that point, essentially have all dairy byproducts removed if you are concerned about the dairy. 

Referenced papers:

The Anabolic Response to Plant-Based Protein Ingestion

Partial Replacement of Animal Proteins with Plant Proteins for 12 Weeks Accelerates Bone Turnover Among Healthy Adults: A Randomized Clinical Trial

High-Protein Plant-Based Diet Versus a Protein-Matched Omnivorous Diet to Support Resistance Training Adaptations: A Comparison Between Habitual Vegans and Omnivores.

The importance of protein sources to support muscle anabolism in cancer: An expert group opinion

“The more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.”

-Marcus Aurelius

Life has a way of coming at you in ways you can’t expect or imagine. 

People and occurrences will bump into you, get in the way of your desired path. 

All too often, much of this is out of your control. 

What is, however, in your control, is how you respond. 

You cannot control what you cannot control, but you can control how you respond to life and how it comes at you, regardless of how it comes at you. 

Concerning yourself with things that are out of your control, which if we’re being honest and objective with ourselves, is most of life, is not productive. 

Always remember that you are powerful, that no matter what comes your way, you can choose how you respond to it, choose to be positive.

And for all else that you can’t control, do not concern yourself with that.