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THE movement against environmental pollution and animal cruelty has led many of us to rethink our food choices, eliminating meat and animal based products from our diets in varying degrees.

Veganism is the strictest of these choices, where one does not consume any foods containing animal products at all.

The concern for animal cruelty often informs one’s choice of going vegan, but health awareness is a big factor as well. Large consumption of meat has been attributed as a major reason for the rise of certain cancers, leading health experts to recommend eating meat in moderation.

But with protein being a critical component of our diet, one of the first questions that vegans face would be: how do I make sure I’m getting the protein I need? Is animal protein really better than plant protein?

Protein explained

Protein is made up of various types of amino acids. They get broken down into separate components when they enter our digestive system.

Amino acids are the foundation of our bodies, used to rebuild cells, move nutrients and other substances around our body and promote healthy growth.

There are two types of amino acids: non-essential and essential amino acids.

The term non-essential amino acids is slightly misleading. It does not mean that your body can go without those building blocks.

Rather, these are types of amino acids that our body produces on its own and hence, you do not have to worry about not getting enough of it from food.

Our body consists of 20% protein, but since it does not create all the necessary protein on its own, we have to consume it from an outside source.

There are nine essential amino acids that we must obtain from food sources.

A few critical differences between protein from animals and plants exist, but maybe not in the way you think.

The composition of amino acids in plant and animal protein is a key point of differentiation. Animal proteins are much closer to our own, enabling faster and more efficient processing and usage, and consists of a well-balanced composition of amino acids.

While there is no difference in the quality – protein, whether it is from plants or from animals, is still protein – most plant proteins tend to lack one or two key essential amino acids in their profile.

However, there are a handful of vegan-friendly complete protein foods that you can incorporate into your diet, such as buckwheat, quinoa, chia seeds, pumpkin or squash seeds, spirulina and hemp seeds.

In the absence of these foods, you can still make a daily concerted effort to eat a variety of non-animal products like nuts, seeds, and different types of vegetables to fulfill the complete range of essential amino acids from your diet.

It’s not just protein profiles that you need to consider, as there are nutrients and benefits in both protein from plants and animals that are also essential to proper body function and development.

Found primarily in animal proteins, including dairy food, vegans run the risk of being vitamin B12 deficient. The lack of fatty fish and eggs deprive you of rich sources of vitamin D.

Other essential nutrients found in meat, poultry and fish include heme-iron, zinc and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 that is good for brain health and difficult to find in plants.

Because our cell structure is more similar to animal protein than plant protein, these nutrients from animal sources are better absorbed and used more efficiently.

Small amounts of dairy, poultry and especially fish, have been credited to lowering one’s risk of heart diseases. One longitudinal study that observed 40,000 male participants in the US concluded that the ones who ate one or more servings of fish per week, lowered their risk of heart attacks by 15%.

Eggs, a cheap source of protein, can aid in weight loss by keeping you full for longer periods of time, and the loss of lean muscle mass due to ageing occurs at a slower rate if there is animal protein in an individual’s diet.

Despite that, animal proteins are not without setbacks. Red meat, in particular, which can be high in saturated fat, has long been associated with cardiovascular problems, whilst seafood like prawns, lobster and squid are high in cholesterol.

If you are considering going vegan, you are quite likely trying to live a more ethical lifestyle, and may be concerned with the environmental implications and possible animal cruelty of cattle farming.

Also, there are many benefits to increasing one’s intake of protein from non-meat sources.

A 2003 University of Oxford study indicated that a vegetarian or vegan diet is ideal for weight loss. Out of 38,000 men and women who participated in the study, the age-adjusted mean body mass index (BMI) of fish eaters, vegetarians and vegans were lower compared to meat eaters. In the study, vegans had the lowest BMI.

Your cholesterol levels can also benefit from a diet high in plant products, as it may help to control your cholesterol levels almost as well as medication.

A nutritionist can advise you on how to lessen the intake of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the type of cholesterol that causes clogging in the arteries, by consuming specific types of food. Briefly, this diet includes almonds, soy proteins, oats, barley and leafy green vegetables.

Vegetarian and vegan foods are usually lower in saturated fats and high in fibre, lowering the risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Studies have found that the more meat people consume, the higher their risk of type 2 diabetes.

As you can see, there are critical benefits in both plant proteins and animal protein.

Medical and scientific research conclusively supports maximised nutrition from a balanced diet, with plenty of nutrient-rich, pesticide-free plant protein, as well as a balanced amount of hormone-free fish, poultry, dairy and meat.

However, the choice is rightfully yours if you decide to embark on a more compassionate way of life by going vegan.

Do plenty of reading, research and seek nutritional advice on the types of foods to supplement with, and where to find them.

If you are getting all the essential amino acids, then you are on your way to a happy, healthy and stress-free diet.

Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist. For further information, visit www.primanora.com. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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