As a coach, my purpose is to always know which food is better for our bodies and why. If something is more beneficial towards bodybuilding, recovery, and performance, my mission is to research it and integrate that information with current professional knowledge. Working out hard will get you nowhere fast if you’re not paying attention to your behavior as a whole, and particularly to what you eat. The reason for this is quite simple: the results you see in your physical role models are invariably 40% training, 40% nutrition, and 20% healthy, consistent routines, such as sleeping well, and staying away from too much alcohol or sugary calorie bombs.
Each and every one of these aspects is vital to achieve a healthy, slender physique, and even more so if you seek physical performance. While we are often met with the glamour of training routines showing every muscle sinew possible, we rarely see the less alluring background that makes it possible to begin with, namely what it is that a person eats and does every day.
Lately, there’s been a lot of media around research done on the differences between animal protein versus plant-based (vegan) protein, no doubt because of the latter’s long-term beneficial effect on our health . This trend piqued my attention and I would like to synthetize for you my findings so far. For just a moment, we’ll turn away from the spotlights of athletes and stars toward the not-so-seductive background of studies, statistics, and medical findings. But bear with me – because it will be worth it.
Amino Acids Basics
Let’s start with the basics. Whenever we eat something that contains protein, our gut breaks it down into more basic components that can be used for a variety of physiological purposes. From the perspective of our bodies, all protein must be broken down in smaller, more manageable and versatile molecules called amino acids (AAs). Many of you have undoubtedly heard much about them, but suffice it to say that they are nothing less than the building blocks of life.
When I say protein is life, there’s no effect or exaggeration intended. AAs help us decompose food through specific enzymes, repair body tissue, and grow by manufacturing the walls of our cells. In addition, they facilitate a host of other processes crucial to… well, life as we know it. If it were not for protein, our DNAs could not carry and transmit genetic information. At a basic level, our bodies combine 20 different AAs to build proteins for these diverse processes.
There are 9 essential AAs and 11 non-essential ones. The difference between the two is that the latter 11 can be made either from scratch or by converting other aminos, while the first 9 can’t; hence the reason why we need to obtain essential AAs from food. They are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. The branched-chain amino acids (valine, leucine, and isoleucine) are the most popular among the bodybuilding community because most of them end up forming lean tissue .
Complete protein foods are those that offer adequate amounts of the essential 9 AAs. Because eggs, red meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products come from other animals, they’re known to have a complete protein profile. This is part of the reason why these products are universally consumed by people across the world. However, nutritional research of the past few decades has consistently shown that, while it is easy to get all of our complete protein from animal sources, it’s also unhealthy. Unlike animal products, plants are slightly different from the perspective of their amino acid profile.
Plant vs. Animal Protein
Before we dive into the discussion proper, here are several important facts to consider. Because the genetic code is universal, plants use the same twenty amino acids we use to build their own proteins. Secondly, every known animal gets their protein from plant-like sources or plants proper, whether they do it directly by eating the latter or indirectly by eating beings that survive on plants . Thirdly, the fact that you can’t get certain AAs from plants is a myth. Some plants have smaller quantities of essential AAs, which means that in order to compensate, you need greater variety (and I can’t stress this enough) when eating plants than you do when eating meats .
For instance, if the only thing you ate were nuts, you’d have only 84% of the lysine you need on a daily basis. The task is, of course, an impossible example, but you can easily compensate for this lack by also eating some seeds with your nuts, not to mention beans and veggies, which tend to have a lot lysine than we actually need.
For some time now, animal protein has been correlated with higher incidence of cancers, chronic heart disease, inflammation, hormonal changes, and much more [1, 5, 6, 7]. Saturated fats, cholesterol, residual hormones, antibiotics, and the impact on our physiological pH represent the main reasons behind health concerns associated with meat. At the same time, diets that mainly consisted of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains were associated with lower risk of chronic diseases and increased longevity. Overall, less animal protein seems to be better for our health.
For bodybuilding purposes, animal protein elicits a greater anabolic response than plant-based varieties . If you think about it, it’s only natural that it should be so, since animal-based protein is chemically more similar to the one we use. This does not mean you can’t grow lean muscle tissue on plant-based protein, but rather that you’re not going to do it as fast. However, there are suggestions that this drawback can be readily compensated for through greater variety and quantity of plant-based protein. The entire issue seems to be a case of slow and steady versus fast and reckless – with the vital disclaimer that “reckless” can lead to dangerous, long-term health risks.
The advice I like to give my clients is that you need to be as strong on the inside as you are (want/hope to be) on the outside, because otherwise you’re just a glass cannon. To help you out in this respect, I’ve put together three solid vegan protein combos that will seriously match any animal-protein meal. Here they are:
Savory rice and pulses
Whole, brown rice has more than 100% of each essential AAs we need for 600g (21 oz.) of product, except for lysine, of which it has roughly 88%. But we’d never eat just rice, so, to complete this slight limitation, you’d likely eat half of that amount of rice and replace the other with a pulse, such as chickpeas or any type of bean you like. Chickpeas have a slight limitation of methionine (at 87%), which is overabundant in rice. As such, chickpeas and rice are a great combo for a complete plant protein.
For example, 300g of rice with 260g of chickpeas provide you with much more than the essential series of 9 AAs – no extra food required, lysine sitting at 122% of your daily requirements, and methionine at 122% . Everything else you’ll eat besides these two will be broken down and stored by your body for later use.
One killer recipe with these two ingredients is a Middle Eastern chickpea, spinach, and brown rice medley . All you need for this delicious and easy dish are some onions, garlic, olive oil, spinach and spices, and less than 35 minutes of your time.
Mouth-watering PB sandwich
Because nuts are generally low in lysine (84%), you can supplement with some healthy, whole-wheat bread, which has just enough (105%). Together, they form a healthy, childhood classic that is also a complete protein – peanut butter and bread.
Top it off with whatever whole fruit pleases you, from banana to blueberries, strawberries or apple slices. In addition, you can add some variety to your PB mixes by sprinkling some chia seeds, your favourite jam, and/or dark chocolate chips. Everything you have to do is combine peanut butter and whole bread with each of the two or three ingredients and you’re good to go!
Scrumptious hummus and whole-grain pitas
Hummus is mostly made of chickpeas, which, as we previously saw, has a slight methionine limitation. The Lebanese variety usually adds garlic, tahini, lemon juice, and several spices. Still, much like we saw with rice, you wouldn’t eat hummus on its own, be it Lebanese or not. To adjust for the methionine constraint, hummus makes a great couple with whole-grain pitas.
You can eat the two as is or combine them with some tomatoes, red onions, black olives, and your favourite bean or meat/cheese replacement for a complete, plant-based protein wrap . It’s that simple. Fast, healthy, and delicious.
Food pH and sources of complete plant protein
All of these vegan protein combos either have a neutral or slightly neutral pH profile (unlike beef, lamb, eggs, or cheese), which means your body  won’t have to use calcium as a buffer to counter the acidosis effect of food items that contain animal products. Our natural pH is slightly alkaline, somewhere between 7.4 and 7.5, and any imbalance will trigger a physiological reaction that aims to revert the body back to its homeostasis.
Incorporating more fruits, legumes, and vegetables in your eating pattern will limit the frequency and severity of acidic body states. More importantly, alkaline diets were shown to benefit bone health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as stroke and hypertension, naturally raise growth hormone levels, and much more .
But let’s say you don’t really have time to set-up a killer combo. It’s one of those days when everything seems to go wrong and you need to be in 10 different places at the same time. You might have had a delicious PB&J combo for breakfast, but now you’re pushing through lunch without much energy. Luckily, there are complete vegan proteins you can rely on to deliver the essential 9 AAs in one go, without any limitations whatsoever.
All you have to do is find a plant-based foods-friendly menu at a nearby restaurant and look for soy (or its equivalents: tofu, edamame beans, or tempeh), quinoa, buckwheat, or Ezekiel bread. Hempseed, chia, and pumpkin seeds are also complete sources you might enjoy as toppings! Nowadays, these vegan protein sources are so abundant, you’ll be pressed not to find one of them to fill your daily AA needs.
It’s not like Mother Nature (evolution, or whatever you want to call it) to set us up to fail. It’s likely that, tens of thousands of years ago, our species developed as opportunist omnivores in order to supplement for their essential aminos, energy, and micronutrient needs. Before the age of agriculture, the farmer’s market, let alone the super/hyper/online ones, edible plant availability was scarce. And this is not even considering climates exposed to extreme heat or cold, which create environments that are generally averse to most species of plants.
Today, however, we are no longer confronted with these issues. And this gives us additional options.
Why vegan protein is the way to go
As we have seen, the trade-off with meat is our long-term health. Aside from turning our physiology acidic or highly acidic, meat products that come from industrial farming contain harmful substances, such as additional hormones, antibiotics, not to mention carcinogens in the form of preservatives. From the perspective of healthy nutrition and performance-boosting nutrition, the debate is long-settled: the benefits of vegan protein far outweigh its drawbacks. When you compare this equation with the numerous health dangers of meat, a clearer, bigger picture emerges.
There’s no telling what the nutrition of the future holds for the bodybuilding industry or for the wide public, for that matter. My research continues, and so should yours. What is clear, for now, is that you can have (non-)killer meals that combine as little as two plant-based protein sources to account for your daily AA needs without exposing yourself to unnecessary health risks. If nothing else, we need to shift our eating paradigm from a quantity-based one to a quality-based framework wherein we fully understand the content and implications of each food item we eat – from plate to blood and health.
List of references:
 “Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality,” JAMA Internal Medicine – https://preview.thenewsmarket.com/Previews/JOUR/DocumentAssets/444168.pdf
 Plant Protein vs. Animal Protein: Which Is Best for Your Health? University Health News – https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/nutrition/plant-protein-vs-animal-protein-which-is-best-for-your-health/
 Busting the Myth of Incomplete Plant-Based Proteins, Medium.com –
 T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell, The China Study. BenBella Books
 Substituting plant for animal protein may extend life for people with health risks, Harvard Health Publishing – https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthy-eating/substituting-plant-for-animal-protein-may-extend-life-for-people-with-health-risks
 IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat, World Health Organization Press Release – https://www.iarc.fr/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/pr240_E.pdf
 “Association between total, processed, red and white meat consumption and all-cause, CVD and IHD mortality: a meta-analysis of cohort studies,” The British Journal of Nutrition – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24932617
 “The Skeletal Muscle Anabolic Response to Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Consumption,” The Journal of Nutrition – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26224750 
 Protein and Amino Acid Requirements in Human Nutrition, WHO Technical Report Series – https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/43411/WHO_TRS_935_eng.pdf;jsessionid=D25DAC89EABAD18791DF1CECCD711D12?sequence=1
 “Chickpea, Spinach and Brown Rice Pot,” WholeFoodBellies – https://www.wholefoodbellies.com/chickpea-spinach-and-brown-rice-pot/
 “Hummus in Pita,” MyRecipes – https://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/hummus-in-pita
 “The ultimate acid-alkaline food and drink chart,” Alkalife.com – http://alkalife.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Acid-Alkaline-Food-Chart-ph-Balance-Alkalife.pdf
 “The Alkaline Diet: Is There Evidence That an Alkaline pH Diet Benefits Health?” Journal of Environmental and Public Health – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3195546/