Although vegetarian & vegan options for certain micronutrients have been around for decades, a definite surge of plant-based products has taken place in the past 10 years or so.
Processed meat alternatives occupy more space in our grocery stores than ever before. Why is that? Why now? Unfortunately, I don’t have a definitive answer to that, but I have some thoughts to share.
The term ‘plant-based’ is a clever term created by marketing to appeal to people who may not be vegan or vegetarian, but looking to feel healthier about their food choices and others who are just curious about the seemingly hot new trend.
Firstly, this blanket term doesn’t cover fresh vegetables and fruit so much as it does specific processed products that didn’t include any animal or dairy products to produce.
There is definitely a segment of the population that cling strongly to the idea that animal meat is the best source of protein for humans to give the body a proper dose of this vital macronutrient. So, I guess whenever the topic of meat vs vegan is discussed intelligently, the topic of too much protein and fat content will inevitably come up. So here, I’ll discuss and compare the 2 vehicles of protein content, and present some of the details to consider if you are on the fence between grass-fed and…well, just grass.
A perennial top 3 macronutrient
First, some simple knowledge about proteins. These are large molecules consisting of smaller amino acid molecules or compounds. There are 22 amino acids needed by the human body, most of which our bodies can produce, but some we must get from food. Different protein amino acids exist in different foods, however, humans need to get 9 specific amino acids from assorted foods to survive, because the human body can not make them, and are ‘essential’ for optimal homeostasis.
Protein molecules from our food are first broken down in the stomach, then by various enzymes produced by the pancreas, and then farther down the line, they are broken down more by the microvilli within the membrane of the GI tract. From here amino acids are absorbed through the intestinal walls, into the blood stream, and then into the liver.
Amino acid molecules are then utilized for many benefits, such as :
- building structures such as connective tissue, hair, skin & nails
- proper muscle contraction
- building and repairing muscle tissue
- immune system function
- optimal brain function
- transport of insulin, hormones and hemoglobin within the circulatory system
- maintaining proper blood acid/alkaline balance
So, as you might have guessed, protein is very important for our health and vitality. The discussion about consuming complete proteins is a subject to cover another time, but it is quite a debate whether we NEED to consume all 9 amino acids for the most effective utilization of protein. Personally, I believe its most beneficial to consume as many of the essential amino acids from nutrient dense foods as possible. However, which foods in general have the most complete amino acid profile? High quality animal proteins.
Protein Geek Fact:
Tryptophan, which is an essential amino acid, is most known for it’s anti-depressant effects on the body, as well as its presence in poultry, such as turkey. It triggers production of the hormones Seratonin (improving mood) and Melatonin (initiating sleep), so it’s no surprise that typical American thanksgiving dinners can make people sleepy. But, it’s not the tryptophan in turkey that’s making one drowsy, its more likely the other foods included in a typical holiday dinner. When considering other dishes such as potatoes and gravy, bread/stuffing, high carbohydrate vegetables, soda or wine, these all contribute to considerable spikes in insulin and essential blood sugar levels. This spike eventually brings on heavy energy crashes, causing sleepiness.
It’s hard to really pinpoint when our society started focusing so much on meat consumption in a typical diet. It’s fairly well documented and accepted that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. They scoured the land hunting animals, foraging plants and berries, digging up tubers from underground, and even scavenging animals killed by another predator, taking with them organs and other body parts before the predator returned. These strategies required a lot of patience, strength and energy and were necessary for our ancestors to survive.
However, one type of diet can’t possibly describe all our ancestral tribes from around the world. (6) Within North America alone, there were many different families/communities/tribes with their own eating regimens. This was almost always the result of each tribe’s surroundings or territory. Each small section of land occupied by tribes provided a variety of food resources, depending on where they were in relation to the equator. For example Inuit families typically had a diet consisting of significant amounts of animal fat and ocean mammals. Yes, these were the animals that were available on the land, but hunting large fatty animals was also necessary to stay warm through most of the year, by providing fat storage for internal insulation, while also utilizing hides to warm their bodies on the outside.
The Paleo diet has emerged over these last 50 years or so to try and replicate our hunter-gatherer ancestral nutrition and lifestyle in pursuit of better health. Personally, I believe there are numerous positive outcomes of this eating regimen; it focuses on Protein, a very crucial macronutrient, and encourages low carb and high fiber consumption. However, following the Paleo diet, particularly the high protein meat consumption aspect, may be a little misguided, as most of our lifestyles and activities are significantly removed from the typical nomadic hunter-gatherer, and our dietary needs are therefore different.
However, a hunter-gatherer lifestyle would eventually become less favourable once mass agriculture began.
It is believed that in certain parts of the world, farming and agriculture began around 10,000 years ago in what is called the Indus Valley, or Indus civilization, which is Modern Northern Afghanistan through Pakistan, into North & Western India. (3) It is believed that the nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes that existed in these areas first developed the lifestyle of finding a place to settle for a year or two at a time, putting up some kind of dividers to cordon off their claimed area, and keeping livestock that they utilized for milk, meat, fur and bones or antlers for tools. The agricultural practice spread and helped feed larger communities by around 5500 BC. However, it is believed that agriculture didn’t begin in North America until around 2000 BC. (5)
It was in the 1700’s, around the start of the Industrial Revolution, that agriculture grew as an industry introducing mass production of foods and goods. This was likely an inevitable progression as the population was increasing exponentially and the need for mass food supply was in demand.
Vegan Way Of Life
Some interesting current-day Vegan stats:
- Up to 6% of U.S. consumers say they are vegan
- although the term “Vegan” was coined in the 1940’s, the idea of not eating flesh has been practiced for generations, going back to ancient Indian societies around 500-1000 BCE
- according to one Neilson report, 39% of the U.S. population claim to not be vegan, but actively incorporate plant-based products in their diet
- in 2017, “plant-based diet” was the top google searched topic in Canada
- plant-based milk sales have sky-rocketed in the last few years, while dairy milk consumption has decreased by 22% between 2000-2017 in the U.S.
- between 2014-2016 in Australia, vegan food sales increased by 92%
That Bull is full of it
So let’s talk about the conventional meat that non-vegetarians and non-vegans are consuming, typically from grocery store chains. The key words at the end of my introduction was HIGH QUALITY meats. And many of us through the years have tended to settle for the typical animal products that are found in the larger grocery stores.
Whether it be beef, pork or poultry, the conventional meats are from large production farms, many with low standards. For one, there are massive problems with the mistreatment of animals, inhumane slaughter and crooked practices. But also, these poorly treated animals are not a pristine source of protein (nor fat) that we would like to believe.
Yes, beef, chicken and even pork are in general excellent sources of protein that our bodies can utilize. In fact, as you will see in the charts attached below, the five foods highest in protein amounts per serving are all animal products.
However, animal products are also sources of numerous elements, organisms and toxins.
Firstly, different sources of fat have different TYPES of fat. The basic explanation is that meat products such as beef and pork have longer chain fatty acid molecules, which are harder for the body to recognize and digest properly, often causing an increase in LDL (less desirable) cholesterol. Most red meats also tend to provide AGE’s, Advanced Glycation End Products, which are compounds that are created in the body when proteins and/or fat from these meats combine with the sugar present in our bloodstream. (1) Now, AGE’s are not a concern when eating meat occasionally, but ones that consume it every day, and would be considered to have a carnivore or even misguided Keto diet can be at risk of accumulating AGE’s, which eventually cause inflammation, weight gain and diabetes.
Then there’s TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide) a metabolite produced by the body to help digest red meats. It is believed that the production of this metabolite is partially responsible for increasing one’s risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack or stroke. (2)
And, of course these animals encounter environmental toxins and in some cases, given steroids, synthetic hormones and pesticides that toxify our bodies.
That's buckin Wild
Then there’s the argument about the nutritional differences between conventional meat products and individually hunted wild game.
Hunting wild game is another aspect of human nature which, much like I stated above, is very intentional and calculated, and in many cultures, a spiritual and ritualistic event. This intention has often been ignored or disregarded amongst, what I would LIKE to believe, is a small percentage of the hunting community in North America, but it is still troubling.
However, there are still many people in our society that understand and practice the rituals and rules put into place by assorted wildlife and natural resource groups. I truly do believe these groups take animal population count and health into consideration when making rules and restrictions.
As for nutritional value, there is a difference between store bought beef or pork and wild-caught game such as deer, moose or even fowl.
How so? Well, firstly, the food that is fed to farm raised animals is much lower quality than the diet of a wild animal. Wild game focus on good, dense nutrients, which benefits themselves, and essentially provides better nutrients for the hunters.
Another factor is that wild animals are more active than domesticated farm counterparts. This not only creates leaner muscle mass but also much lower fat content within them.
Keep in mind though that modern day hunting doesn’t necessarily compare to our ancestors’ hunter/gatherer lifestyles. They were way more active throughout the day, even when they weren’t hunting, so their bodies burned many more calories as a result.
You're such a smarty plants
I know what some of you are saying. “Yeah but, veggies and fruit are sprayed with pesticides too!” Yes, that is the case, and for many of us, it’s hard to afford organically grown produce. But at least in many cases, meticulous washing and certain prep procedures can help an individual avoid much of these chemicals and pesticides. With largely farmed and butchered beef and pork, it is much harder, if not impossible to remove any toxins or pesticides that are present in those meat products already.
Okay, so why pick plant based foods, particularly for sources of protein? When discussing plant-based products such as Veggie ground ‘meat’, veggie burgers or plant-based sausages, these are a real good alternative to processed meat products. Particularly veggie ground ‘beef’ has about 18 g of protein per 100 g, while 100 g of typical lean ground beef has approx. 14 g of protein. These products though are still processed, but from an environmental standpoint, required less manufacturing and has much less impact on greenhouse gases than typical, conventionally farmed meat.
When considering fresh, nutrient dense vegetables and legumes, they’re simply a cleaner source of protein, and often wont include extra molecules, toxins and nutrients that can otherwise be harmful or unhealthy.
A good recently harvested, organic or thoroughly cleaned vegetable or legume provide many more benefits than almost all meat products, packed with phytonutrients, vitamins & minerals, antioxidants and fiber.
Soy beans and soy products are the best example of plant protein. There have been many studies stating both negative and positive aspects of soy products. For some, tofu and such can cause hormonal imbalances, whether you’re male, female or non-binary. However, it is believed that these imbalances can be corrected, as long as one isn’t indulging in soy every night. Also, it has been found that consuming soy foods not only reduces LDL (less favourable) cholesterol levels, but also increases HDL (good) cholesterol levels (3)
Other great plant sources of protein, as seen in the graph above, are lentils, kidney beans, black beans and even lima beans. All statements above would apply to these foods as well.
How Now, Brown Cow?
So where does that leave us? I truly believe that BOTH animal-sourced and plant-sourced protein can be beneficial to one’s overall health. However, it is hard to deny the extra baggage that comes along with factory farmed animals, ESPECIALLY lower grade cuts and ground meats. Organic and free-range farms are a much closer comparison to wild animals, and can be a slightly healthier option than highly produced factory farm raised animals. A great way to put it in perspective is to ask this question: “Where is this animal getting their protein supply?” It is reasonable to assume that the protein content of animals we eat comes from the plants that those animals eat. So are animals meats just the ‘middle-man’ or ‘middle-animal’ when it comes to protein supply? It would seem that way.
Nutritionists like myself often repeat the slogan ‘you are what you eat’. Well, that also applies to what your food eats too.
Research undeniably shows us red meats and pork, especially heavily processed forms of these animals, significantly imbalance cholesterol levels and hormones imbalance and cause weight gain and systemic inflammation. Almost all plant-based protein sources are much cleaner, and are much less likely to increase cholesterol levels or cause cardiovascular problems and as I’ve said, provide more nutritional value than meats. (eg. fiber, antioxidants etc)
So, whether you’re a seemingly healthy person or experience a serious health condition such as cardiovascular disease, I would suggest following the parameters of a balanced plate, meaning having a good proportion of macronutrients (approx. 30% Fat/30% Protein/40% Carbohydrates) at each meal. If you decide to keep meat in your diet, be sure to look for high quality meats, or better yet consume wild game if you can access it. Befriend your butcher, and get to know farmers that serve your community and speak to them about their meats, if they sell them. This could either open up your access to better quality meat, and it would also make you more familiar with farming practices of the meat you consume. Butchers also often provide more selection than grocery stores, some including wild game, and if you have a good relationship they may ensure you get the best available cut. If you’re worried the protein and fat in your meat is lacking in the smaller portion, add some other protein rich foods to compensate, such as beans, quinoa or even spinach. You’d be surprised what a realistic portion size truly is, as conventional diets do not restrict portions.
Bottom line, no need to be overly concerned about the amount of protein you’re consuming if you switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet. There are plenty of protein rich options out there, but look for clean sources that avoid high amounts of pesticides, toxins, and trans fats found in low quality protein sources.
3.Wikipedia contributors. (2021, September 8). Indus Valley Civilisation. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:51, September 9, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Indus_Valley_Civilisation&oldid=1043133290
4. Tokede, O., Onabanjo, T., Yansane, A., Gaziano, J., & Djoussé, L. (2015). Soya products and serum lipids: A meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Nutrition, 114(6), 831-843. doi:10.1017/S0007114515002603
6. Loren Cordain, Janette Brand Miller, S Boyd Eaton, Neil Mann, Susanne HA Holt, John D Speth, Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 71, Issue 3, March 2000, Pages 682–692, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/71.3.682