Alright, everyone. Put down your beer and put up your dukes 'cause it's time to hash out this issue once and for all. With meat-eaters on one side shouting that you need "high-quality" protein to build lean muscle, and militant vegans on the other proclaiming that meat gives you cancer, we need some facts up in here.
So, which is better, animal or plant protein? Which food group will be the ULTIMATE CHAMPION?!?!
Truthfully, there are a lot of factors that weigh into this, and each food group wins at least a round or two. The only way to find out is to tackle this issue from all sides.
Let's dig in and address some of the biggest complaints from both meat eaters and vegans.
If you're not really sure what protein is you should read this section. It'll help you understand some of the topics below. If you're already familiar with the subject, you can skip this.
Proteins are very large, complex molecules that your body uses for various things. Your body doesn't normally burn them as energy, which is why eating nothing but protein before and after a workout doesn't really help you. Your body needs protein to build muscle and generally, your body needs carbs to fuel itself. There are LOTS of different kinds of protein. Your body uses a protein called collagen to make your skin and bones a little bendy, which keeps them from breaking. It uses proteins to build cells, and to make other things like hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters, all essential parts of certain bodily functions.
All living things use proteins and therefore, almost all foods have protein in some quantities. Each protein is made by stringing together amino acids in a certain order. Some of these amino acids are ones your body needs desperately from food.
These are referred to as essential amino acids, because your body cannot make them on its own. Other amino acids found in food may not be needed by your body at all. When you digest a protein, your small intestine breaks it down into amino acids, and your liver determines where in the body they are needed. Once they reach their destination, they are put together into whatever protein that part of your body needs. Much of your DNA is just instructions telling your cells how to build these proteins. Okay, crash course over.
Meat Eaters: Plant proteins are low-quality proteins
This is TRUE... sort of. Animal sources of protein, such as meat, fish, eggs and even dairy, are considered "complete" or "high-quality" proteins because they have all nine essential amino acids (EAAs) in the proportions your body needs. Complete animal proteins are certainly a convenient and easy way to make sure you're meeting your protein needs. Nevertheless, calling plant proteins "low-quality" isn't exactly descriptive because there's no particular reason your body needs all nine amino acids at once. You could eat a bagel in the morning and baked beans with dinner and have gotten all nine.
Also, just to be clear, an amino acid you'd find in a plant source, leucine for example, is exactly the same as the leucine you'd find in a pork chop, no inherent difference in quality. If you eat a varied diet that includes a variety of grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds it won't be too difficult to get the variety and proportions of amino acids you need from plant sources. Some plant proteins, like quinoa and buckwheat, have all nine amino acids in abundance meaning they fall in the "complete" category along with animal products. So, don't be fooled by the "low-quality" label. Whether you get all your EAAs from one source or two or three makes no difference to your body. (1)
Some amino acids that are important for building muscle are much easier to find in animal products. The average person, even with a vigorously active lifestyle, will do fine with what he or she can find in plants, but body builders or the elderly will need to pay special attention, and might want to just eat a chicken leg every now and then. (2)
Vegans: Animal proteins come with cholesterol and saturated fat
This is TRUE... a lot of the time. Many animal products contain a lot of saturated fat. High intake of saturated fat is associated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and inflammation; all risk factors for heart disease and other conditions. While your body can tolerate a certain amount of saturated fat in your diet, and there's much research that still needs to be done, it's generally recommended that you limit your intake to 7-10% of your daily calories.(3) And keep in mind, that's an upper limit, not a recommended daily intake.
Now, not all animal sources of protein have excessive saturated fat, and some other sources, like fried foods or pastries, are even worse for you. Animal foods to limit would include fatty cuts of beef and pork (including bacon... sorry), dark-meat chicken and duck, and full-fat dairy products. Think of these things as a treat rather than a staple of your diet, and you'll be on your way. Other animal products, like lean, grass-fed beef, chicken breast or low-fat dairy are a lot easier on your heart. Still others, like fatty fish, mussels, clams etc. are downright good for you and can provide many health benefits! So you can go a long way toward a healthier heart without giving up meat entirely.
Even if you're not convinced that saturated fat is bad for you, it certainly doesn't benefit you. It's just a source of empty calories. This means that if you eat a lot of fatty meat, you'll be getting plenty of calories without getting as much of the vitamins and minerals your body needs. More on that later, but in short, if you get your protein from plant sources, you'll consume way less saturated fat, and have a lot better chance of having healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels. (4)
Meat Eaters: Your body can't absorb plant protein as well as animal protein
This is TRUE... most of the time. Regardless of how much protein is actually present in a food, you may benefit more or less from it depending on how much of that protein your body can absorb. Overall, plant sources do have a lower digestibility than animal sources, meaning you need to eat more of it to get the same benefit. This isn't true across the board. For instance, TVP (a soy product) has a higher digestibility than beef, and other soy products like edamame and tofu are comparable to beef.
The protein digestibility corrected amino acid score(PDCAAS) of a food tells you how much of the protein in that food your body can actually absorb. You can look up the PDCAAS of whatever food you're interested in to find out how much protein you're going to get from it. It's either expressed as a decimal or a percentage, and if you multiply the protein content of the food by the decimal, you'll come up with how much protein you actually get from a serving of that food. TVP has a score of 1.00, which means you absorb ALL the protein from it. Oats have a PDCAAS of 0.88, so one serving of oats with 7 grams of protein times 0.88 equals roughly 6.2 grams absorbed. So if you need 50 grams of protein in a day, you should count the oats as 6 not 7.
You don't necessarily need to worry about this too much, though. Studies have shown that if you're getting a little more than your recommended daily intake of protein, you'll be healthy regardless of what kind of food it comes from.
Vegans: Animal proteins don't have as much fiber or as many micronutrients
This is PARTIALLY TRUE. Definitely true of fiber, hands-down. Steak, chicken, fish and cheese have 0 grams of fiber while one serving of pinto beans has 9 grams, almost 20% your daily requirement. Fiber is really important for your digestive health in that it can slow down your digestion, allowing you to absorb more nutrients, and improving regularity of your bowel movements. Fiber also feeds the helpful (one way to get plenty of fiber) bacteria that live in your large intestine.
These bacteria play a large role in not only our digestion but our overall immune function as well. So, keeping those little guys perky with plenty of fiber is going to keep you healthier in many ways.
Now, of course, you can still get plenty of fiber from fruits and vegetables while eating meat. Meat doesn't stop you from getting fiber, but mixing it up and occasionally having a meal with plant proteins instead means your food is pulling double duty fixing up your muscles and your gut at the same time. Having a plant-based meal once or twice a day means you're more likely to be getting adequate amounts of fiber.
When it comes to vitamins and minerals, I was actually pretty surprised by what I found while researching. Animal foods and plant foods favor different sets of micronutrients. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. For instance, animal foods have very high levels of B vitamins, iron and zinc, whereas plant foods are more likely to have lots of Vitamins A, C, K, manganese and selenium. The lesson here being that variety truly is the spice of life! Each kind of food has something special to offer and the more different foods you try, the more you'll benefit. If you decide to never eat meat, you'll probably need to take supplements to ensure adequate nutrition, or at the very least do a lot of research and have to eat specific foods frequently. The same can be said for legumes, however, and if you never eat beans or lentils you're not doing yourself any favors! So, if you eat meat with every meal, you may be limiting the diversity of your diet and getting a disproportionate amount of calories from one food group.
I want to take a moment to highlight a few contentious nutrients often brought up by "meatatarians."
Vitamin D: It may be easier to absorb from animal sources than from plant sources, but you don't need animal products to get it. Just 10 minutes of sun exposure a day allows your body to make what it needs naturally. Go for a 30 minute walk every day! The activity is good for you anyway! Unless it's prescribed by your doctor, I don't recommend taking supplements because Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin. This means that it's very difficult for your body to get rid of extra, and it can build up to toxic levels in your liver. If your body converts it from sunlight, it'll only take what it needs.
Vitamin A: In animal sources, this vitamin is found in the same form your body uses. It's a fat-soluble vitamin, so if you eat a lot of animal products that are rich in vitamin A you can actually reach toxic levels of it. If you get it from plant sources (and it's abundant in many fruits and veggies) your body has to convert it. Because your body only converts what it needs, it's impossible to reach toxic levels. In plants, it comes in the form of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant, which has other health benefits. (5)
Omega-3s: Your body actually needs a few different kinds, not all of which can be found in plants. Ground flaxseeds and walnuts are great sources of ALA fatty acids. Animal sources like fatty fish or krill oil have high levels of DHA and EPA. Your body can convert some ALA to these other types, but it's inefficient. You might not want to go absolutely crazy on the flaxseed, anyway, without doing some research on how it might affect you. In small amounts, it has a lot of health benefits, but too much may have side effects. Eating fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel) a couple times a week will get you the fats you need, and can really improve your health!
Iron: Turns out the meat eaters are right about this one. It's a lot more easily absorbed from animal foods and it does have a significant impact on your blood iron levels. This is especially important for women in general, who have higher rates of anemia than men, and VERY important for pregnant women who need a lot of iron to grow a whole person. Listen, spinach is good for you, but as for being a good source of iron... not so much. It has like 10% of your daily recommended intake, and you only absorb about a quarter of that. 100 grams of lean ground beef has 17% your RDI, and you absorb ALL of it. If you're a vegan, you may want to consider taking supplements.
Vitamin B-12: B-12 is found in animal foods and not plant foods. However, I wouldn't exactly say it's naturally occurring there either. B-12 is actually produced by bacteria found in the soil. Humans and animals alike used to get their daily dose from traces of dirt that came in on their vegetables. Today, our modern agricultural practices, including synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, have largely killed off these bacteria, so our B-12 is no longer available through traditional means. Livestock only get enough because they are given supplements. If you don't want to eat meat, you may as well cut out the environmentally-expensive middleman and just take the supplements yourself. This is a water-soluble vitamin, so you don't need to worry about the weirdly high doses in supplements. Any extra will come out in your pee.
Meat Eaters: Plant proteins have anti-nutrients that make it harder to get what you need
This is PARTIALLY TRUE, but is actually a pretty stupid argument. YES, grains and legumes naturally contain a type of chemical known as lectins. They are produced by plants as a defense mechanism to keep animals away from their young green seeds. It's a pretty effective deterrent, because they are quite toxic and can wreak havoc on your intestinal walls. The only way to avoid lectins is to soak, sprout or cook your grains and legumes. That's right! Cooking your beans denatures the lectins. No more crunching on dry beans for you! Basically, doing the things you would normally do to be able to digest these foods also gets rid of the lectins, so this isn't something you need to worry about. (6)
Vegans: Animal products like processed meat and red meat cause cancer
This is TRUE. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified processed meat as a carcinogen and red meat as a possible carcinogen. Plain and simple. What does this mean? Well, in practical terms it means that your risk for developing cancer increases for every serving per week or per day you add. Processed meat, for the record, could be anything that's been smoked, cured, salted or ground up with fillers and added ingredients, anything from ham to hot dogs. If you have processed meat once a week, you'll technically be increasing your risk, but perhaps not enough to worry about. You might increase your lifetime risk of developing colon cancer from 5% to 6%. If you're eating it very frequently though, the risk continues to rise. There have been similar findings regarding red meat as well, with eating it one or two times a week having significantly lower risk than eating it every day. (7)
Does this mean you should NEVER eat these foods? Well, not necessarily. If you avoid them entirely your body certainly won't miss them anymore than it would miss the occasional bowl of Oreo's.
They're not good for you is all. If they're a staple of your diet, that might be a problem, but if you really want to get a hot dog when you go to a baseball game, live your life. I want to be healthy and live till I'm 90, but that doesn't mean I'm swearing off ice cream forever, ya feel?
So which protein will reign as champion?
Neither! Based on the available evidence, limiting red meat and avoiding processed meat is beneficial, whereas there aren't usually such restrictions on plant proteins. However, including lean meats and seafood in your diet can be highly beneficial, and leaving them out entirely can create nutritional gaps that require a fair amount of effort to fill in other ways. At the same time, eating more plant proteins, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, is rarely a bad thing, and I encourage all of you to include plant-based meals in your diet.
It's important to remember that there are plenty of perfectly healthy, even physically high-powered vegans out there, and there are plenty of avid meat eaters who keep themselves very healthy as well. Your body won't react to food exactly the same as someone else's, so if what you're eating makes you feel good and keeps you healthy, more power to you!
Here's a recipe with lots of protein to help you flex your vegan cooking muscles!
On paper, rice and beans sounds boring, but let me tell you something: This dish is BOMB! The risotto technique is key to making this a succulent and satisfying meal. Sure to be a showstopper every time! On top of that, this recipe contains 15 grams of protein per serving, is an excellent source of iron and dietary fiber and is a good source of potassium. The whole recipe takes about an hour and serves 8
· 1 Tbsp Olive Oil · 3 Ribs Celery (diced) · 1 Medium Onion (diced) · 1/2 tsp Salt · 5 Cloves of Garlic (Minced or Pressed) · 1/4 tsp Black Pepper · 1 tsp Dried Parsley · 1 tsp Dried Rosemary · 1 Tbsp Flour (Can skip for gluten-free) · 1/2 Cup Brown Rice · 1/2 Cup Red or Black Rice · 1/2 Cup White Wine (I used a chardonnay) · 1 tsp Lemon Zest · 4+ Cups Broth · 1/2 Cup Quinoa · 1 Can Black Beans · 1 Can Kidney Beans · Juice from 1 Lemon
Keep your broth in a saucepan on the stove over low heat. We don’t want it cooling off the risotto and halting the cooking process every time we add some.
Start by sautéing the onion and celery in olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. Sprinkle in your salt and let that cook until translucent. Add the garlic, pepper, parsley, rosemary, brown rice, red rice and flour, and cook for another 90 seconds, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pan. (You can leave out the flour for a gluten-free version, but it helps with the texture of the end product.)
Now deglaze the pan with the white wine. Scrape any remaining caramelization off the bottom of the pan and stir. Once combined, add 1 cup of the heated broth, reduce heat to medium-low and cover the pot.
Now we wait about 10-15 minutes until most of the liquid is gone. You can make use of this time zesting and juicing your lemon, opening and rinsing your beans, or fixing up a side dish.
Once most of the liquid is gone, add another cup of broth. Add as needed. When you’re 30 minutes in add the quinoa. Continue adding broth as needed until the grains are all cooked.
Now simply add the beans and the lemon juice and stir. It’s ready to serve!
· Chopped Fresh Parsley
· Halved Grape Tomatoes
· Fresh-Cracked Black Pepper
· Grated Romano Cheese
· Sour Cream
Plant versus animal protein intake https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/105/3/714/4569695
Health benefits plant protein vs animal protein https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/animal-vs-plant-protein#section5
Vitamin A animal vs. plant sources https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/vitamin-a/
Red meat cancer risk https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ijc.29218