Many clients are coming to me having seen the 2019 documentary, Game Changers and asking about starting a vegan diet. The film claims that a vegan diet is the best for overall health and that we don’t need animal proteins in our diet. So, let’s spend some time talking about plant based proteins vs. animal proteins and unpack some of the health claims made against meat.
The discussion of quality really takes center stage when talking about whether or not eating meat is bad for our health. Many cite studies that have shown that red meat intake (beef and pork) are associated with higher rates of cancer and cardiovascular disease as the primary reason for avoiding red meat. However, One large meta-analysis has shown that eating unprocessed red meat is not related to increased risk of these diseases. Choosing pastured, grass finished, organic and uncured red meats over highly processed and inflammatory lunch meats, sausages, pepperoni and bacon helps to avoid the potential downside of eating red meat. Additionally, eating lean poultry like chicken and turkey carries no risk of increased disease the way processed red meats do.
Animals fed refined grain, corn and soy based diets have higher amounts of stress hormones and inflammatory Omega 6s and lower levels of anti-inflammatory Omega 3s than their pastured counterparts. We feel that it’s our responsibility to advocate for the humane treatment of animals and we recommend avoidance of factory farmed meats whenever possible. Look for animal products that are labeled Certified Humane, American Humane Association, Animal Welfare Approved, Animal Welfare Certified, American Grass fed Association or check out Eat Wild, which lets you find local farmers and butchers in your area. Another great resource is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which created a website that lets consumers navigate the many different labels and the standards behind them.
To be sure, many people eat more meat than is really necessary. We don’t need to be eating a 12 oz. steak. We would do just fine with a 3-4 oz. grass-finished, organic one. Dr. Mark Hyman, a pioneer in the field of functional medicine and the chairman of the Institute of Functional Medicine, advocates a “Pegan” diet, which is a combination between Paleo and Vegan. We love his recommendation to make 3/4 of your plate vegetables and 1/4 of your plate an animal protein.
The theory that we should avoid red meat in order to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease has been disproven in many high quality studies. One 2016 study published in BMJ looked at groups of people who ate saturated fats from milk, butter and beef compared to those who replaced saturated fats with vegetable oils. The conclusion was that while the group who ate the vegetable oils and eschewed saturated fats had lower cholesterol levels, they had higher mortality rates than their counterparts. The authors concluded that lowering saturated fat in the diet does lower cholesterol, but that this does not translate to lowered incidence of heart disease. Another 2016 study published in Food & Nutrition Research analyzed data gathered over 16 years from 42 countries and found no link between red meat intake and heart disease. The biggest drivers of heart disease were found to be high glycemic foods like potatoes, breads and cereals.
The rationale beyond the current recommendations about avoiding red meat is that it’s high in saturated fat and therefore contributes to heart disease by raising cholesterol. Saturated fat does raise cholesterol (both the harmless light and fluffy LDL particles and HDL), but many studies have refuted the claim that cholesterol is the best indicator of heart disease risk.
Saturated fat is at best positive for our health, and at worst neutral. There is much we still don’t know! We do not advocate eating a diet high in saturated fat, but we believe that it has a place in a healthy diet in line with the best available evidence.
Animal Protein vs. Plant Protein
Additionally, it’s important to consider the quality and the quantity of protein in animal sources versus plant based sources. The argument made by Game Changers is that we are able to obtain all the protein we need without eating animal products. Specifically, one of the arguments I hear is that broccoli has more protein per 100 calories than beef does. This claim may be true, but it does not take into account how much beef and how much broccoli one might reasonably eat during the day. 100 calories of beef is about 1.5-2 oz. or about half a serving size of an animal protein, whereas 100 calories of broccoli is between 2 and 3 cups, about 4 to 6 servings of a vegetable. So, we start to see how this is information has been misconstrued some what. The truth is that we obtain more protein in a smaller amount of an animal protein than we do from vegetarian sources.
Another example is that to obtain the amount of protein from 4 oz. of sirloin steak (around 300 calories), we would need to eat 8 tablespoons of peanut butter (around 800 calories), potentially adding an additional 500 calories to your daily intake.
Animal proteins are complete proteins, meaning they have all the essential amino acids, whereas most plant based proteins (with the exception of soy, peas and quinoa) are considered incomplete proteins, meaning they are missing some of the essential amino acids. As long as you are eating a variety of plant based proteins, we don’t think this is much of an issue, but it’s important to keep in mind! If you want to learn more about protein in general, check out our article on the topic here.
The main takeaway is that if we move to a vegan diet and consume only plant based sources of protein we could be potentially eating MORE calories than we might need in order to obtain the amount of protein that is optimal for health. However, plants contain fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals that balance hormones, keep blood sugar stable, support healthy cells as well as healthy bowel function. Incorporating a lot of plant foods in your diet is great, and for many, incorporating good quality animal proteins can be a part of a healthy diet, too.
Nutrients of Note
There are certain nutrients that we get in high amounts from eating animal proteins that are worth mentioning here. Those who choose to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet should ensure they are getting enough of these, either through fortified foods or through supplementation.
Vitamin B12: B12 is a water-soluble vitamin important for nervous system health and energy production. It’s found mostly in dairy, fish, poultry, and meat.
Calcium: This mineral is crucial for keeping your bones strong and for muscle contraction. It’s found in the highest amounts in dairy foods and bone in fish like sardines. It’s also found in smaller amounts in plant foods like spinach, tofu and broccoli.
Iron: We need iron to transport oxygen through the body. Heme iron is the form found in animals, while non-heme iron comes from vegetarian sources. Heme iron is more readily absorbed than non-heme iron. Minerals like calcium, zinc and copper impede its absorption, while Vitamin C helps the body to more absorb more.
Zinc: We need zinc for immune, thyroid and reproductive health. This mineral is found in some plant foods like nuts and seeds, but it is in the highest concentrations in egg yolks, seafood and beef. Again, animal sources of zinc are more easily used by the body than plant based sources.
Omega 3s (EPA/DHA): We need to obtain the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA from our food since our bodies don’t make them. Omega 3s are found in fatty fish like salmon and are very important for immune, brain and heart health.
At Red Apple Nutrition, we believe there is no one size fits all way of eating, and we often advocate eating a mixture of both plant and animal proteins to include the most variety of nutrients possible. We do our best to help each one of our clients discern their unique dietary needs while taking their beliefs and preferences into consideration. There are many different reasons why someone chooses to eat the way they do. Our job is to help them make the best decisions within their own unique framework. As Dr. Mark Hyman states, “There are valid personal, spiritual, religious, ethical, and environmental reasons for not eating meat. There are not, however, good scientific or health reasons to avoid good-quality, organic, grass-fed, sustainable raised meat in the context of an overall healthy diet, which I call a Pegan diet.”
In today’s world, veganism and vegetarianism are becoming more popular with a rise in awareness of animal rights and meat’s impact on the environment. Discussions of the environmental impact of livestock and meat production are outside the scope of this article. However, if you’d like to learn more about this topic please check out the work of Diana Rodgers, RD who has written extensively about farming, methane production, veganism and meat eating and offers a well researched perspective on this hot topic.